When Dana Smith first started showing up as a Big Sister at Marvina Davis’ elementary school, the two would work on homework, play cards, paint, visit the playground and sometimes share a carryout meal from McDonald’s.
The conversations between the adult and the 8-year-old were pretty basic then, especially since Marvina — who lived with her father, three sisters and a brother — found it difficult to talk to women.
It took years, Marvina recalled, before she trusted her mentor enough that “I broke out of my shell” and began sharing more intimate thoughts and experiences.
“I had to let her in. Since that, it’s been way better,” said Marvina, now a Garfield High School senior who is on the girls basketball team and is writing college applications.
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More than a decade after Big Brothers Big Sisters of Puget Sound brought them together, Marvina and Smith are closer than ever.
With the help of her Big Sister and her father, Marvina said, she’s managed to avoid getting pregnant or “doing something I shouldn’t be doing. I have people who help me keep my head on straight.”
“She doesn’t really have a mother here,” said Marvina’s father, Willie Davis, “so I got her a Big Sister so she could find somebody who’s independent and works.
“I want my daughter to finish school, go to college, be a great citizen. It looks like I picked the right person in Dana because things have been good.”
One of Marvina’s younger sisters has a Big Sister, and the others are waiting for “Bigs” of their own.
“I can raise them,” Davis said, “but I can’t teach them how to be a woman. That’s the Big Sister’s role.”
Big Brothers Big Sisters has matched children and mentors 18 and older since 1957, with about 1,100 matches this year in King, Pierce and Kitsap counties.
About three-quarters of “Littles” are from low-income families, and they report in annual surveys that their mentors help them gain confidence, improve school attendance, resist drugs and decide to go to college.
Volunteers are asked to make a one-year commitment to their “Little,” but they actually spend an average of two to three years together, said President and CEO Amy Mack.
Some relationships last a lifetime. Ryan Macnamara was best man at his Big Brother Oscar Oliveira’s wedding, and became like an older brother to Oliveira’s children. Oliveira later was best man at Macnamara’s wedding.
Macnamara and his wife have reached out to another generation, working together as a couple to mentor a Little Brother.
“It’s one of my favorite parts,” Mack said, “when we know of a match that starts with a young man or a young woman as a volunteer, through the process they get married and have children of their own, and they don’t say, ‘I’ve got kids of my own, I’ve gotta go.’ ”
Instead, those “Bigs” say, “These children are my children and I have this Little Brother or Little Sister that is part of my family, too.”
In February, Smith and Marvina will celebrate the 12th anniversary of the start of their relationship.
They still get together for meals, movies, walks and talks.
On the last two anniversaries of their sisterhood, they traveled to Vashon Island and hung out on the beach.
“We just talked and threw rocks for hours,” Marvina said.
Marvina has learned yoga from Smith, who was inspired by their friendship to create the Big Sister Yoga Project as a way of mentoring other teenage girls.
“It’s relaxing. It takes you to another place,” Marvina says of yoga.
Smith started the yoga project — which is not affiliated with Big Brothers Big Sisters — after losing a hotel catering job during the recession and deciding to combine her passions of yoga and working with teens.
In the past year the “sisters’ ” relationship moved into new territory as Smith has invited Marvina to join get-togethers with her friends.
“It’s really important, I think, for her to see healthy female friendships,” Smith said. “They’ve all taken on Marvina. She’s one of the girlfriends. She’s part of my family.”
Smith became part of Marvina’s family when, early on, she would take her, her father and three younger sisters and brother to dinner, to a park or to the library.
Marvina calls Smith “a second mom” — her father being “my first mom.”
It’s been a long journey from the day Smith crammed herself into a child-sized chair at Madrona Elementary and became Marvina’s friend.
“She was so shy, but she had this spark in her eyes. We loved each other immediately,” Smith recalled.
Before Smith came into her life, Marvina said, she didn’t have any big hopes or dreams.
But with encouragement from Smith and her father, and practical help from the College Success Foundation, Marvina is filling out college applications. She dreams of a future in which she manages or owns a beauty salon, has her own home and is the mother of three children.
Marvina sometimes still finds herself reluctant to share something with her Big Sister. “She will say, ‘You don’t have to talk about it right now.’ I’ll end up telling her anyway.”
On Smith’s birthday last year, as her girlfriends shared what made her special to each of them, Marvina said, “Without Dana I would just be an angry girl.”
“We were both crying,” Smith said, as Marvina smiled at the memory. “It makes me cry every time I repeat that.”
“Every time we get together I learn something new or she learns something new,” Marvina said. “Every moment that we spend together is precious and I’m glad that I have her.”
Keith Ervin: 206-464-2105 or firstname.lastname@example.org