“You can’t sit with us. You’re not part of our group.”
The words stung 7-year-old Erykah, and she retreated to an empty table to sit alone. Her eyes welled with tears. It was the name calling, hair pulling, ripping of papers, breaking of pencils, pushing and alienation that ate at her, day in and day out, and begged the question: is it all worth it?
Is being intelligent worth the pain of being bullied? Why not just quit and be popular?
Intelligence came at a young age for this East St. Louis resident. Ever since she was 3 years old, Erykah has been a lover of books. Her smarts grew with her and by age five, she was leaps and bounds past most children her age and was given the opportunity to skip first grade.
But combining her good grades with being the youngest of the class provoked envy in her fellow classmates, and Erykah began being bullied because of her intelligence. This, in turn, wore at her confidence and provoked the idea that maybe being smart wasn’t so great after all.
“Bullying made me feel like no one was there for me. No one wanted to be there for me; no one wanted to be my friend,” Erykah said. “So for a while, I felt like I didn’t have friends, like I wasn’t worthy of friends.”
Unfortunately, one out of every 10 students in the U.S. drops out or changes schools due to repeated bullying. Erykah was at a crossroads. Erykah’s mom, Tracey, saw this and couldn’t let her daughter become that statistic. She wanted to help keep her on the right path but knew she couldn’t do it alone.
“Because we live in East St. Louis, there’s this stigma attached with children in our community that no matter how much potential they have, no matter how much is in them, they are always limited. They can only go so far,” Tracy said. “As a person, I can recognize my limitations, but as a parent, I can’t do that for my child.”
That’s when United Way supported Big Brothers Big Sisters of Southwestern Illinois stepped in. Through their mentoring program, Erykah was matched with Jeanine. For the next nine years, Jeanine would be Erykah’s Big Sister. But more than that, she would serve as Erykah’s shoulder to cry on, listening ear, friend, mentor and second mother.
“She’s everything I was missing,” Erykah said about her Big. “There’s so much trust, guidance and love.”
Before Erykah met Jeanine, she was shy and lacked self-esteem. But with Erykah’s potential, Jeanine’s drive and Tracy’s reassurance, the three bonded and formed an all-star team in helping Erykah gain the confidence she needed to keep her focused on her studies and the future that lies ahead.
“She has no limitations,” Jeanine said. “The only limitation is her thinking she has a limitation.”
With Jeanine in her life, Erykah had an additional mentor and support system which provided her with that “voice” she had been searching for, for years.
“Before Jeanine, I felt like I was small, no one listened to me, no one cared to think about how I felt,” Erykah said. “When Jeanine came around, there was someone there who actually listened to me, cared about me and my feelings and considered me in everything.”
Instead of bullies telling Erykah she wasn’t good enough or popular enough, Jeanine was there to tell her she was smart and that being socially accepted wouldn’t make her goals a reality – only she could.
“The sky’s the limit. If you can dream it, you can do it,” Jeanine consistently reminded Erykah.
Not only has the Big Brothers Big Sisters mentoring program changed Erykah’s life, helping to boost her confidence and assure her that being intelligent is something to be proud of, it has changed Jeanine’s life as well.
“It’s like watching your own child grow up,” Jeanine said. “Erykah’s always had the talent; she just needed a friend, and I’m really glad I can be that friend.”
Together, as a team, Tracy and Jeanine provided the support Erykah needed to make her future as bright as possible.
And that’s exactly what she’s done.
Looking back at 7-year-old Erykah, things are much different now. At the age of only 16, Erykah has recently graduated at the top of her high school class. Furthermore, she has a full-ride to University of Illinois at Chicago where she plans to pursue a degree in pre-medicine to become a doctor and help others the way she’s been helped.
“I want to help people because someone helped me,” Erykah said. “Someone stepped into my life when I was without hope and without confidence and without self-esteem, and they instilled all of those values in me.”
Both Tracy and Jeanine couldn’t be prouder.
“She has reached places that I didn’t think she could,” Tracy said. “She has blossomed, grown and sprouted up under Jeanine’s encouragement, my guiding hand and Big Brothers Big Sisters’ support. She has become this person that I am in awe of.”
“It really excites me to see how she’s grown from a little child to this grown up that can be anything that she chooses to be,” Jeanine said through tears. “I’m so happy that I’m a small part of that.”
Even today, Erykah and Jeanine remain close friends, catching up and even traveling abroad together.
Thanks to United Way and Big Brothers Big Sisters, Erykah’s one step closer to achieving her dream, and her Big Sister will always hold a special place in her heart.
About Big Brothers Big Sister of Southwestern Illinois
Big Brothers Big Sisters of Southwestern Illinois operates under the belief that inherent in every child is the ability to succeed and thrive in life. They create meaningful matches between adult volunteers (“Bigs”) and children (“Littles”), ages 6 through 18. They develop positive relationships that have a direct and lasting effect on the lives of young people. Big Brothers Big Sisters of Southwestern Illinois has been a United Way funded agency since 1985.