Santa Fe New Mexican
From ‘Little’ to ‘Big’
Local chapter of Big Brothers Big Sisters seeks former participants for 40th anniversary event
At 13, Lenore Tapia-Baker was grieving the loss of her mother, struggling with the shift from childhood to adolescence and getting bullied in school by classmates because she was a tomboy, she said. Then she met Cheryl Alters Jamison.
The pair were matched through the local chapter of the nationwide nonprofit Big Brothers Big Sisters’ volunteer mentorship program in 1981, when it was just 2 years old. The teen and the young woman — 15 years her senior — quickly developed what would become a lifelong and lifechanging relationship.
“We just hit it off,” Tapia-Baker said. “We were finishing each other’s sentences from the beginning.”
They don’t just consider themselves friends, said Jamison, 66, an award-winning cookbook author, and Tapia-Baker, 51 — they’re family.
Tapia-Baker said her relationship with Jamison “gave me a boost … and filled a void” left by the death of her mother a few years earlier. She needed a positive female role model
As a female role model, she showed me that you can go out and do what you want to achieve.” Lenore Tapia-Baker, a former ‘Little’ who became a mentor
at that critical time in her life, she said.
When Tapia-Baker turned 18, the two were among the first “Big Sister-Little Sister” matches in Santa Fe to graduate from the program — and Tapia-Baker was the first local “Little” who went on to become a mentor in what is now Big Brothers Big Sisters Mountain Region, a 40-year-old, 10-county operation that matches more than 1,000 kids each year between
6 and 18 with adult volunteers.
It’s not just about serving “needy” or “at risk” kids, said CEO David Sherman — “I hate those terms,” he said — but instead involves “being an advocate for a child.”
The overarching goal, Sherman said, is “helping young people reach their fullest potential.”
Sherman, who took the top position at Big Brothers Big Sisters Mountain Region last year, said he is still in touch with a Little Brother he mentored 20 years ago.
As Sherman and other officials with the nonprofit prepare for fall celebrations spotlighting the organization’s 40th anniversary, they are searching for people like Tapia-Baker and Jamison to tell their stories, testifying to the long-term effects the program has had on its participants.
“The mentor relationship is extremely valuable,” Jamison said. “You can count on somebody. They’re gonna be there for you.”
She and Tapia-Baker met each week for nearly five years, making popcorn and watching movies, riding bikes through the park, rollerblading around downtown and preparing meals together. Among their favorite memories: carving pumpkins for Halloween, skiing in Telluride, Colo., and attending a Beach Boys concert at the New Mexico State Fair in the early 1980s.
Jamison had a job at the time in arts management, which required regular travel. Tapia-Baker sometimes tagged along to places like California and New Orleans. Through these excursions, TapiaBaker said, she developed a love for adventure.
But one of the top priorities for Jamison was far more commonplace: helping Tapia-Baker complete her homework, from proofreading her Little Sister’s written assignments to helping her research information for book reports. She often used their shared love of baking to strengthen Tapia-Baker’s mathematics
TELL YOUR STORY
Big Brothers Big Sisters Mountain Region is searching for more stories about people who have participated in the program. If you’re a current or former “Big” or “Little” with a story to tell, send an email to email@example.com or call 505-983-8360.
For more information on how to volunteer, visit www.bbbsmountainregion.org/volunteer.
skills by turning recipe measurements into equations, she said.
As Tapia-Baker grew older, Jamison helped her write résumés, apply for jobs and enroll in classes at Santa Fe Community College.
Most of their time together was spent talking. Their conversations revolved around friends, boys and “just personal stuff,” Tapia-Baker said.
“As a female role model, she showed me that you can go out and do what you want to achieve,” said Tapia-Baker, who went on to work in management positions, including 12 years as a manager at an Albertsons store.
Having learned firsthand that mentorship can leave a lasting impression, Tapia-Baker said, she became a Big Sister soon after graduating from the program: “I wanted to give that to someone.”
In her 20s, she had two Little Sisters; the experience, she said, “makes you grow. … It makes you feel really good about being there for somebody.”
“A lot of the kids that go into the program have never had anyone dependable,” Jamison added.
To continue offering the mentorship service, Sherman said, Big Brothers Big Sisters Mountain Region, which has served about 14,000 kids since its founding, is in desperate need of volunteers. The organization is only serving about a third of the 3,000 eligible kids in the area.
And with two-thirds of the referrals for kids in need of a mentor are for boys, he said, the volunteer program is particularly facing a shortfall of men.
“That creates a tremendous shortage of Big Brothers,” he said. “… A lot of times, that male role model is missing.”
Being a Big Brother or Big Sister does not require expensive trips, Jamison said. It just requires time and a commitment to make a difference in a child’s life.
When Tapia-Baker turned 18 and could no longer be a part of the program, she told Jamison: “I’m still gonna be your sister.”
Over the decades, the two have celebrated each other’s marriages and the births of stepchildren and stepgrandchildren; they have supported each other when loved ones have died.
“We’ve had a lot of life changes,” said Jamison, whose husband, Bill Jamison, died of cancer about four years ago. “… You stay bonded through good and bad times.”
While the pair only see each other a couple of times a year now, they talk on the phone monthly and remain connected on social media. Every June, they have a joint birthday dinner at Atrisco Cafe and Bar, and they often get their families together for a holiday celebration.
Looking through a photo album packed with images from holidays and trips the two have shared, they sipped iced tea and ate homemade deviled eggs, topped with chives from Jamison’s garden.
There was a photo of the pair together at Disneyland, and another at the San Diego Zoo.
One picture showed a baby goat at Tapia-Baker’s childhood home.
“She’s my sister forever,” TapiaBaker said, leaning into Jamison’s shoulder.
“That,” Jamison added, “is one of the most gratifying piece of this.”