As a DMU osteopathic medical student, Sarah Hemming-Meyer juggled the rigors of classes and studying with giving tours to prospective students, serving as a teaching assistant in anatomy and basic life support instruction and working part-time as an emergency medical nurse. She pursued her interest in global health, participating in three outreach trips in Haiti.
All are reasons why three years ago she also committed, through Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Iowa, to spending time with a recalcitrant third-grade “spitfire” who was a familiar face in the school principal’s office.
“I was so busy, but I thought it would be nice to have something to do that was not related to medical school,” she says. “Little did I know that I was the one who was going to be rewarded in so many ways.”
Big Brothers Big Sisters, an organization that got its start nearly 110 years ago, makes monitored matches between adult volunteers – “Bigs” – and children – “Littles” – ages six through 18 in communities in all 50 states and 12 countries. These one-to-one relationships are designed to positively change the lives of children facing adversity.
That goal resonated with Hemming-Meyer. For her and her husband, Joe, “families are a big thing to us,” she says. She also knew that strong family ties are a gift not every child experiences.
“When I look at my family and the web of support I’ve had, I see how they’ve helped me be successful. Most of these kids [in Big Brothers Big Sisters] don’t have that,” she says. “It truly makes you understand why American youth have so many problems and issues. It makes you want to help change their path.”
Big Brothers Big Sisters expects volunteers to spend 30-60 minutes per week with their Littles for at least one year. Hemming-Meyer was matched with Markasia, a third-grader at Des Moines’ Park Avenue Elementary School whom she visited there once a week.
“At first she had a barrier up. I asked God for patience, something I do not possess,” Hemming-Meyer says. “I have a Type A personality, though, too, so if I start something, I’m going to do it.”
Her persistence, sense of fun and steady supply of gum and stickers paid off. “It got to the point where I’d show up at school and peek around the wall, and Markasia would jump up with a big smile on her face – ‘Yay, now I get to hang out with Sarah!’” Hemming-Meyer says. “It means showing up every week. Once you show you’re in it for the long haul, they see you’re trustworthy and they confide in you.”
After a year, the two sisters’ relationship transitioned to include activities in the community, from picnics and Iowa Cubs baseball games to movies, fishing and canoeing. “At Christmas, we made roll-out sugar cookies. She’d never done that before,” Hemming-Meyer says. “I got away from school doing simple things that make me happy and make someone else happy. Plus I got to do fun things like roller skate.”
Research has shown that Little Brothers and Sisters, after 18 months with their Bigs, were less likely to skip school, hit others or begin using illegal drugs and alcohol. Like Markasia, their academic confidence and performance typically improve, too.
“She used to hate math when I met her, but now she looks forward to showing me what she’s learned,” Hemming-Meyer says. “She started Tae Kwon Do, which is great for her in setting goals and getting the rewards. She is a spitfire, determined and full of life and energy. She just has to channel it in the right way. She’s going to do great things.”
The sisters’ relationship entered a new phase in May, when Hemming-Meyer graduated (Markasia attended her DMU Commencement) and moved to Indianapolis for an emergency medicine residency. “We talked about my departure for about six months,” she says. “We talked quite a bit about middle school, when girls can be mean, and about how to cope and set goals.”
That doesn’t mean their sisterhood has waned. The two talk weekly via phone and text messaging. Hemming-Meyer promised to fly the now-sixth-grader to Indianapolis if she keeps up her grades this year. And Markasia’s impact on her Big Sister endures.
“Health care providers become better when they get to know other cultures and groups. Having a relationship with someone not like you makes you a better provider,” Hemming-Meyer says. “To be part of a child’s support network is so rewarding. I cannot speak more highly about it.”