MOUNTLAKE TERRACE — It was starting to feel like the holidays in Lindsey Greenlee’s house.
Snow blanketed her backyard. The Christmas tree was up. And the oven was heating for balls of sweet and spicy ginger molasses cookie dough and peppermint brownies to bake.
Her little sister, Tara Kankesh, smoothly navigated the narrow kitchen in Greenlee’s Mountlake Terrace home, crushing candy canes into little bits and melting butter on the stove. When it was time to make decisions, Greenlee consulted her littler sister, a tall and bright-eyed 14-year-old, who’s in her high school’s baking club.
Greenlee opened the oven door to check the first tray of cookies. “What do you think?” she asked Kankesh. They decided on baking them a little longer.
Greenlee and Kankesh aren’t siblings by birth, but those details don’t matter. They are in each other’s lives thanks to the Big Brothers Big Sisters of Puget Sound, which matched the pair three years ago. Now, 33-year-old Greenlee says, she can’t imagine life without her.
Kankesh is an only child living with her mom, Vijaya Kankesh, in West Seattle. The 14-year-old’s always wanted a sibling. Now, she has Greenlee.
Big Brothers Big Sisters of Puget Sound helps connect young people across King, Pierce and Kitsap counties with positive adult mentors. The program is free to participants and its concept is simple: A young person is better off with a trusted mentor in their life.
Vijaya said she is grateful her daughter has Greenlee. “I wanted … a role model for her and to teach her things I couldn’t,” she wrote to The Times. “It was also very cultural for me because I wanted someone who understands this culture to give her extra support.”
Big Brothers Big Sisters of Puget Sound is one of 13 nonprofit organizations that benefit from reader donations to The Seattle Times Fund for Those in Need.
Low stakes, high reward
Big Brothers Big Sisters was created more than 100 years ago as a way to prevent youths from getting involved with the criminal legal system. Evidence shows that one in three U.S. children lack a positive adult mentor outside of their parents or immediate family, according to Alonda Williams, president and CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Puget Sound.
Today, the organization supports young people across diverse backgrounds. Locally, Williams said, it serves many students who face systemic barriers to succeeding, whether because of race or economic status. It also helps many young people who might be struggling with loneliness or depression.
An ongoing study by the University of Illinois Chicago has so far found that young people with Big Brothers Big Sisters mentors were 54% less likely to have been arrested and 41% less likely to engage in substance use compared to those in a mentor-free control group.
Locally, the organization has seen improvements in depressive symptoms among “littles” and better attitudes toward school, as well as reductions in risky behaviors.
In the three counties the organization serves, 81% of the kids who participate show an improved outlook on life and improved mental health, according to an internal survey.
“We try to focus on the kids who need us the most,” Williams said.
There are 550 youths waiting for a match because more mentors are always needed, Williams said. Sometimes kids have to wait months until they can be matched with proper mentors. Last year, the local organization supported 1,300 pairs, but Williams said she’d like to see that number doubled or tripled.
The organization is always looking for men, and specifically men of color, to be mentors. For transgender youths who enroll in the program, Big Brothers Big Sisters will work to match them with a trans adult. Sometimes, that can take a while.
“We really want to make sure that not only we could find matches that reflect the experiences of the little, but also it is really important to us to find bigs that can journey with a young person,” Williams said.
Williams said she often hears from people who are interested in mentoring but don’t feel qualified.
Every prospective mentor goes through a background check, but beyond that the requirements are quite simple, she explained.
The most important thing, Williams said, is consistency. Mentors don’t have to reach certain levels of career success or life goals to be fit to work with a young person — all they need to do is show up and listen, be present and consistent.
All mentors with Big Brothers Big Sisters receive professional support thanks to the organization’s match specialists and trained staff. If mentors encounter a situation they feel ill-equipped to handle, staff are a phone call away.
Williams has her own little who she’s known since the girl was 3. These days, they do the same things every time they meet — go eat Chipotle and then cap it off with boba tea to drink.
It’s a low-stakes kind of activity, but between their stops, Williams said, her little will talk about life and share what’s on her mind.
“That routine for us creates consistency,” Williams said. “I’m going to be here for her no matter what.”
Some of Kankesh’s friends tell her she’s lucky to be an only child. That there’s no competition. That she gets her mom’s full attention.
But Kankesh knows how lonely it can be at times. She recommends the program for someone who doesn’t have a lot of family.
“Since I was little, I’ve always wanted lots of siblings, someone to hang out with and do fun things with,” she said. Now, Greenlee plays that role.
Together, they have taken in a variety of activities that Seattle and the Northwest have to offer, such as hiking and snowshoeing. They’ve ridden a tandem bike around Alki Beach, visited a haunted house and gone apple picking. Sometimes, they keep it more low-key — taking Greenlee’s dogs on a walk or going to the library to read.
“I think life is short,” Greenlee said. “Now, I try to find things that actually bring me joy and fulfillment, and that’s relationship building.”
At Greenlee’s house on a snowy December afternoon, they talked about school work and Kankesh’s recent wrestling tournament, American Girl dolls and college.
“I feel like you’re really good at trying new things,” Greenlee told Kankesh.
She mixed her brownie ingredients into Greenlee’s cream-colored Kitchen-Aid mixer, a hand-me-down from Greenlee’s mom.
Greenlee, too, knows what it’s like to be raised by a single mom. She was 4 when her dad died from a heart attack on a business trip. What made a difference growing up without him, Greenlee said, was having positive adults around, especially during stages of transition and growth.
“Not everyone has the cookie-cutter family,” she said.
She said she thinks her match with Kankesh is so successful because she was open and detailed with the Big Brothers Big Sisters staff about her own childhood and her personal interests.
Although Kankesh was only 11 when they met, she’s always been clear about what she wants to do: attend medical school. Her top choice? Stanford University.
“It hasn’t changed,” Greenlee said of Kankesh’s desire. Greenlee’s glad she gets to be around for it.
If you’re interested in learning more about how to become a mentor with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Puget Sound, go to www.inspirebig.org.