How a “Big Sister” Turned Into a Lifelong Friend

by Julie Bitely

| 4 min read

For kids, summer break is usually a time to dream about the possibilities of a new school year ahead. As Naomi Rhein approached the 6th grade in 2008, she was facing the stark reality of her family being torn apart. Her biological mother was unable to properly care for Rhein and her younger brother. Their mom loved them, but she didn’t always know how to show it, Rhein explained. There wasn’t always enough food to eat and hygiene needs often went unmet as well. The young siblings were placed in foster care. “At first I didn’t like it because I wasn’t with my biological mom, but I knew I had a home to go to and I had food and I was able to get hygiene,” Rhein said.
Naomi Rhein with her "big sister" Connie Van Dam. Her foster home was a ray of light in a dark time and another bright spot emerged in the form of a big sister, assigned to her through Big Brothers Big Sisters (BBBS) of Greater Grand Rapids, a chapter of the organization run out of D.A. Blodgett - St. John’s. Connie Van Dam started planning regular meet-ups with Rhein and quickly became a go-to confidant for the young girl that summer and beyond. “I needed someone I could trust to help me through all of it,” Rhein said. “I knew if I were to call her, she would come pick me up and take me somewhere to talk about it.” Martha Boks is the Program Manager for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Grand Rapids. She said establishing a positive adult role model in the life of a child or teen is the main goal in placing big brothers and big sisters with their charges. Adults don’t need to try to play the part of a tutor or therapist, they just need to be there. “Our focus is that friendship, that relationship,” Boks said. Bowling for Kids’ Sake events are happening across Michigan in support of BBBS chapters statewide. Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, Blue Care Network, and United Auto Workers Joint Programs have supported or will be supporting upcoming efforts in Grand Rapids, Traverse City, Marquette, Detroit, Flint, and Lansing. Boks said the fundraising bowling events are critically important to keep BBBS’ mission alive. In Grand Rapids alone, 175 kids are on the waiting list and Boks said there is always a need for big brothers to mentor males ages 12 to 16. Rhein is now 18 and she’s aged out of the program, but she and Van Dam still talk and get together regularly. She and her brother were eventually adopted by the foster family that took them in and Rhein still stays in touch with her biological mother through social media. Van Dam looks forward to seeing Rhein get married someday and both agree that theirs will be a lifetime friendship. Now a freshman at Cornerstone University majoring in elementary education, Rhein hopes to someday be a big sister herself. “At some point I think it’d be nice to do that because I loved how Connie helped me through that and I’d like to help someone else,” she said. For Van Dam, being a big sister was another way to show her kids the importance of accepting and helping others. The family has taken in foster children and exchange students over the years as well. She’s quick to point out that the family isn’t wealthy, but that they work hard and try to live out their Christian faith in action. “It doesn’t take money to show someone you care about them,” she said. “If you’ve been blessed, you’d better get out there and bless someone else.” Want to raise money for your local Big Brothers Big Sisters chapter? Participate in a Bowl for Kids' Sake event near you. If you enjoyed this post, you might also like:
Photo credit: USFWSmidwest

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