Education

Big Brothers Big Sisters fosters a mentoring match between an Orting school administrator and a Tacoma teen

At age 12, the last thing CyCy Ocampo thought she needed was another sister. She was already the second of five daughters being raised by a single mother who struggled to keep an eye on all of them.

“I thought, hey, I am the big sister,” said Ocampo, now 18, recalling the time six years ago when her mother told the Tacoma family about Big Brothers Big Sisters of Puget Sound.

Ocampo’s attitude changed on her first dinner out with Brianne King, her “Big.”

King, director of finance and operations for the Orting School District, grew up as an only child who never would have dreamed of skipping classes, as Ocampo did in high school. She once assumed kids like Ocampo were being flat-out irresponsible.

But as a Big, King soon realized it wasn’t always that simple. She learned that when Ocampo’s family was in a stressful spot, CyCy would sometimes stay home from school to watch her younger siblings.

On their first outing, King took Ocampo to Red Robin, an exciting experience for the young girl who, until then, had only dined-out at fast-food restaurants. As she opened up to King, Ocampo was even more excited about the possibility of having a confidante and counselor outside of her family.

Despite a drastic contrast in their upbringings, Ocampo says she and King were well-matched.

“I truly believe our differences brought us closer together,” Ocampo said.

“Suddenly learning about someone growing up with a different background and a different culture made me see things in a different light, especially at work,” King said. “But it was fun to look at things with a different perspective and learn new things from each other too.”

Turning point

Ocampo doesn’t talk readily about life before she met King, but she gushes about her development as a person and student over the past six years.

Initially, having someone take her to museums, parks and performances was wonderful to Ocampo — so wonderful, that during the first two years of their relationship, her insecurities led her to, subconsciously, test King’s patience.

Despite King’s study-session help and encouragement, Ocampo became increasingly resistant to attending her 9th- and 10th-grade classes, and was at risk for not finishing high school. She started skipping sister outings as well.

“I’m so afraid of people leaving me,” Ocampo said. “I was afraid she’d leave me, too.”

A turning point came when King called to say she was almost at Ocampo’s house for one of their scheduled dates. Ocampo apologized and said she couldn’t meet. She was going to a pool party instead.

King forgave her, but let Ocampo know she was disappointed in her.

“It was like being disciplined in a different kind of way — I thought, ‘What? You’re not going to get mad at me?’ ” Ocampo said. “She taught me that I need to be accountable.”

Although Ocampo would struggle through the first half of high school, King said her standards and expectations of Ocampo never lowered. King kept Ocampo accountable for her grades and her behavior by checking her grades online and meeting with her whenever she needed encouragement.

“That’s a skill set she needed to learn — people need to count on you, and that will stay true no matter where you go in life,” King said.

With that in mind, Ocampo made an abrupt change in the middle of high school to strike a compromise between her hatred of traditional school days and everyone who didn’t want to see her drop out.

Last year, she decided to get away from friends at her first high school by attending another, a decision King was skeptical of at first. But Ocampo also decided she wanted to leave for six months earlier this year to attend Washington Youth Academy in Bremerton, a military-style school for at-risk youth that demands students wake at the crack of dawn to exercise, make their beds tidy and undergo a rigorous program that allows students to earn high-school credits fast.

King visited Ocampo while she was there, and was always available for a phone call.

Ocampo did well, earning several academic and leadership ribbons. She said she did it all while living and learning with some of the best friends she’s ever met.

“I was pleasantly surprised with how good it was for her,” King said.

Now a senior, Ocampo has all her credits to graduate, and she’s focusing on prepping for nursing school and working a part-time job to save money.

Tacoma schools partnership

Amy Mack, president of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Puget Sound, said she hopes the organization will continue to serve a growing number of struggling teen students in the next few years. It is always looking to create traditional Big-Little pairs like Ocampo and King who meet in the evening and on weekends. But the nonprofit is also trying to recruit more volunteers who only visit with students on school campuses.

Mack pointed to a partnership with Tacoma Public Schools. Big Brothers Big Sisters recruits and trains adult volunteers for an on-site mentoring program at several Tacoma high schools. Mack says she hopes to spread a similar program to schools in Tukwila and Seattle.

“These kids are at such a critical point,” Mack said. “We need to be helping them think about what happens after high-school graduation — we need to make them think about that before graduation, not after.”

Ocampo’s younger sisters have also had mentors from Big Brothers Big Sisters, though their matches did not last as long as Ocampo and King’s. Mack says that while most matches last two to three years, many others never end.

Ocampo and King agree theirs never will. Their lives and their families have intertwined over the years. King’s stepdaughter recently helped paint a Minnie Mouse-themed toy box for Ocampo’s niece.

“She is my family — my niece calls her ‘Auntie,’ ” Ocampo said of King, who this month was recognized as the Puget Sound region’s Big Sister of the Year.

Ocampo says it’s amazing to see how happy her 9-year-old sister is while doing the simplest of things with her Big.

“When I see them, I feel like I’m looking at Brianne and me so many years ago,” Ocampo said.

King says no matter who comes in and out of their lives, Ocampo is already a loving role model for her younger siblings and niece. And Ocampo, now always ready to take charge, doesn’t disagree.

“I am their big sister.”

Alexa Vaughn: 206-464-2515 or avaughn@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @AlexaVaughn.

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