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Today we meet a pair of sisters. Nine years ago, Gracia O’Connell and Jesenia Peterson were matched in the Big Brothers Big Sisters of Alaska program. Jesenia still remembers her response when asked what kind of Big Sister she wanted.
“Someone who likes sushi, and macaroni and cheese, and snowboarding, and is pretty like a princess,” Jesenia says.
“And I remember having the thought ‘oh this is going to be fun, what nine-year-old wants to go and get sushi?’” Gracia replies.
Nine years later the pair is closer than ever. Jesenia says Gracia has played a major role for her, and filled a much-needed hole. Her dad wasn’t part of her life, and her mom had to work full-time.
“She’s like a second mom. I call her ‘Mima,’ that’s how she’s listed in my phone. She’s just a great model for me.” But, Gracia is clearly more than a second mom to Jesenia. The two seem like best friends. “Obviously I dress like her; I do my makeup like her. I try to be a little minion,” Jesenia says.
And they’re in contact all the time.
“Jesenia’s a great texter. I think she broke 7,000 texts one month. Fortunately we have unlimited texting, so that’s not a problem,” Gracia says.
Jesenia celebrated her 18th birthday last week, and Gracia threw her a spa party. She says it’s been a joy to watch her mature into a woman. Gracia’s also done some growing herself.
“One of the main rewards has been to watch her evolve, and watch her grow up with all the different struggles and be able to be that person who is there for her and be able to create that safe environment. It’s certainly caused me to grow as a person,” Gracia says.
Gracia says when she first started the Big Brothers Big Sisters program, the two would plan elaborate activities. But now, meeting up for a coffee and doing some window shopping like they have today is more the norm. They make their way to the mall, and decide to do an olive oil tasting.
“We could make something that features an oil,” Jesenia suggests.
“We could do a taste party at your house,” Gracia replies. “Yeah!”
The ladies are drawn in by a bottle of tomato oil.
“It’s got texture in it, I like it,” Gracia says.
“Ok…..I don’t know, I don’t like tomatoes. I’m picky about them,” Jesenia replies.
“Well I like it, so I’m going to make salsa with it, and you can’t have any,” Gracia says.
Once Jesenia graduates high school this Spring, she and Gracia will no longer be enlisted in the program. But Gracia says that shouldn’t change anything.
“I think for the most part we forget we’re part of the program. Which is a good thing. That’s kind of the goal,” Gracia says.
“The goal for all of our matches is to provide a child with a caring adult mentor that will change their life. Whether that relationship last for a year, or a life time,” says Lilah Walker, the Anchorage Development Director for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Alaska.
Walker says almost any length of time as a big brother or sister can have a positive effect on a child. However, she says Gracia and Jesenia’s nine years together is truly a success story.
“She will no longer be officially matched with Gracia once she graduates. Aside from that, she will be out of the program but we know their relationship is going to continue. Gracia and her have something really special, and I think that’s going to continue through both of their lives,” Walker says.
And the women couldn’t concur more.
“As for as Jesenia and I are concerned she’s not going anywhere. I mean, she’s part of my life now indefinitely,” Gracia says.
“As long as she has juice and some type of cereal I’m going to be at her house raiding her fridge. Maybe going through her closet, asking to borrow something,” Jesenia says.