Raised in a single-parent home, Desareè Johnson felt lonely.
Seeking a solution, her mother, Marquita Johnson, enrolled her in Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Triangle.
From that day forward, the younger Johnson’s life changed.
This past summer, Johnson and her “Big Sister,” Claire Frasier, celebrated their decade-long relationship with Johnson’s graduation from Chapel Hill High School and her 18th birthday.
Johnson, now a college freshman, credits much of her success to Frasier’s helping her get past her childhood loneliness and grow into a confident young woman.
According to a Big Brothers Big Sisters national study, after at least 18 months with mentors, mentees, known as “Littles,” were 46 percent less likely to begin using drugs, 52 percent less likely to skip school and 33 percent less likely to hit another person, compared to children that did not participate.
But for Johnson, it took time to develop this lasting relationship. Frasier was the third attempt at finding the right Big Sister match for the then 8-year old.
“My first match was a UNC college kid who didn’t have time to do much with me and stopped coming around,” Johnson said.
Her second match was an older woman with a daughter about Johnson’s age but over time, she too “fell off.”
Big Brothers Big Sisters works with about 1,000 children in a year, with the average mentor match taking two years. After orientation, background checks, interviews, and a sense of the mentor and the child’s family’s preferences, parents are contacted to decide if a “Big” is suitable.
“We want to be assured that everyone involved is comfortable,” said Andie Thomas-Young, vice president of programs. But circumstances change, she said, and some mentors cannot continue for personal reasons such as losing a job.
‘We just clicked’
The Johnsons do not remember details of their initial meeting with Frasier but both said they were nervous because they were unsure that this match would last.
But that third time was the charm.
“We just clicked,” Johnson said. “I was excited the first day that I would have someone else, other than my mom, to talk to and do things with.”
For Frasier, 33, a Raleigh native returning to the Triangle after graduating from college in Lynchburg, Va., the opportunity allowed her to continue volunteering. At Enloe High School she had been a member of the Key Club service group and tutored at Ligon Middle School.
She was looking for a longer-term commitment when she discovered Big Brothers Big Sisters ’s one-on-one relationships.
“I wanted to know a person individually,” she said.
Since their first outing to Maple View Farm, where they sat on a porch eating ice cream and talking, Frasier and Johnson grew closer.
After six months, Frasier noticed a turning point.
“I rented a canoe at a lake and we had a picnic and hiked,” she said. “That was the longest amount of time we had spent together and we clicked. Maybe getting out helped us relax.”
Always there to listen
“Getting out,” said Frasier, never cost more than $20. She kept her eyes out for free activities to do in Durham. They would try new restaurants with coupons they clipped out or go to local farmers markets.
Over the years, the “sisters” cooked dinners, attended family gatherings, watched movies, visited festivals and took trips to museums and spas. Johnson often went to work with Frasier at a local auction gallery.
Johnson said Frasier is always there to listen and talk.
“She’s non-judgmental so I can be myself,” Johnson said.
Experiences with Johnson also opened Frasier, who said she grew up “privileged,” to “different life experiences.”
Frasier recalls a time the two went job hunting and stopped in a place to inquire. The experience left Frasier “uncomfortable” at how the business owner treated and spoke to Johnson.
“He wouldn’t take her seriously,” said Frasier. “I’m not sure if it was racism or what, but I didn’t like it.”
Marquita Johnson views Frasier as family that exposed her daughter to things that she could not.
“Desareè has become more mature,” she said. “Claire’s exposed her to alternative spring breaks in London and Barcelona and flea markets.”
Now that Johnson is older, the women have to make plans ahead of time to get together.
“But it’s worth every moment,” Frasier said.
Johnson graduated from Chapel Hill High School with a 3.3 GPA and worked at The Cedars of Chapel Hill Retirement Community. She is attending Clark-Atlanta University and majoring in psychology.
In her time at Big Brothers Big Sisters, Thomas-Young has seen many “Littles” grow into adults while maintaining the relationship with their “Big.”
“It’s about commitment,” she said. “When you peel back the layers, it’s about the relationship that developed.”