Andre A.J. Jones and Linda Cannon had similar challenges when they signed up as volunteers with Big Brothers/Big Sisters of the Heart of Georgia.
Linda was assigned to mentor a 10-year-old girl named Nayshla Garcia. The girls family had moved to Warner Robins from Puerto Rico. Nayshla did not speak English when she started school in the fourth grade at Russell Elementary.
A.J. became a Big Brother to a young man, Vidual Futch, who had no trouble speaking the language. He just didnt say much.
When I first met him, he didnt open his mouth, said A.J. He was shy and not very talkative. He didnt like what he saw in the mirror.
Vidual and Nayshla are now part of every conversation. They have become outgoing, well-adjusted young people with promising futures.
The Bigs deserve a lot of credit for these blossoms. Although neither did it for the recognition, the accolades are coming anyway.
A.J. and Linda have been named Big Brother and Big Sister of the Year for Georgia. They will be honored at a reception Nov. 13.
Linda grew up in Warner Robins in a neighborhood where she could climb on top of her house and see all three schools she attended -- Parkwood Elementary, Tabor Middle and Northside High. She has been a civil service worker at Robins Air Force Base since 1981.
In 2008, she was not married and her children were her three nieces and a nephew. Then something happened. They grew up on her. Suddenly, it wasnt so cool to be with Auntie, she said.
She had seen a commercial for Big Brothers/Big Sisters featuring former NFL quarterback Troy Aikman. She was matched with Nayshla in May 2008 as part of the agencys Hispanic Mentoring Initiative. Nayshla had recently moved from Puerto Rico with her mother and sister in search of a better life.
To help her classmates understand her struggles, Nayshlas teacher showed a film to the class. The dialogue was in Spanish. The students didnt understand a word of what was being said. Now you know how Nayshla feels, said the teacher.
Within a few months, Nayshla was speaking fluent English. By the end of the year, she was presented with the Presidents Award for Educational Achievement.
Linda and Nayshla began with a few common denominators. They both had September birthdays and their favorite color was red. Soon, they were speaking the universal languages of shopping, getting pedicures, going to the movies and creative cooking in the kitchen.
Everything was new to her, said Linda. She had never been on a hayride or roasted hot dogs on a campfire. She had never eaten at Chick-fil-A or had a Sunriser from Krystal.
They did simple things together, like hanging out with friends at backyard barbecues and feeding stale bread to the turtles at a nearby pond. Linda took her to Green Acres Baptist Church, the Ocmulgee Indian Mounds and the dragon boat races at Lake Tobesofkee, an annual fundraiser for Big Brothers/Big Sisters. Last week, they went to a Mercer University football game.
Linda is an excellent cook, and she has appeared several times on the Saturday morning news show on WMAZ-TV. She and Nayshla have baked casseroles and pies for Color Me Pink, a local business that provides food to Houston County patients undergoing cancer treatments.
The experiences have been reciprocal.
Linda was a guest of honor at a Puerto Rican family reunion and attended Nayshlas quinceanera, a Latin America celebration when a young lady turns 15 years old. Nayshla was on last years homecoming court at Northside High, Lindas alma mater.
It has been a tenfold blessing, said Linda. She has taught me about the culture and heritage of Puerto Rico.
A.J. was hesitant about any commitment to become a Big Brother in 2007. He was married with three children and had become a successful entrepreneur with his business, A.J. the D.J. Entertainment.
When he and Vidual were introduced, he saw both himself and someone very different.
A.J. had also come from single-parent home in a low-income neighborhood in Macon. After graduating from Southwest High School, he paid his way through college by providing sound, lighting and musical entertainment for parties, dances, graduation, wedding receptions and other venues.
Vidual shared the same passion for music, but he was far from upbeat. He had low self-esteem. A.J. found the delicate balance of encouragement and tough love to become a positive male role model in Viduals life.
I didnt sugar-coat anything, he said. I didnt want to come across sounding like I was preaching. I was always looking for teachable moments.
Vidual tagged along to entertainment events and began learning all aspects of the business. The shy kid started coming out of his shell. A.J. taught him how to look people in the eye, the importance of family and how to dress for success.
My family was never jealous of the time I spent with him, said A.J. He became part of our family.
Before long, he became more than just a little brother.
Folks started calling him Lil A.J.
By the time he graduated from high school, Vidual was senior class president at the Hutchings Career Center and president of the Student Government Association. He worked as a technology specialist for the Bibb Board of Education and anchored the schools morning news broadcasts. He was elected president of the Georgia Region 5 Future Business Leaders of America.
Vidual now attends Stillman College in Tuscaloosa, Ala., and is a business partner with A.J.s daughter, Amore, a student at Mercer.
Im very proud of him, said A.J. I didnt become a Big Brother to win any kind of award. The national winner gets to go to the White House. I look at it this way. Ive already won. Ive gained a lifelong friend. That means more to me than anything they could give me in Washington.
Reach Gris at 744-4275 or email@example.com.