It’s a sunny September evening, and Cami Hays, 7, is kicking around a soccer ball with 24-year-old Tessie Arambula. Cami is Tessie’s “little sister” through Big Brothers Big Sisters of Sedgwick County, a long-term mentoring program. The interaction between Cami and Tessie is easy and comfortable, and soon Cami scampers off to join her teammates for practice.
It’s a full-circle moment for Tessie. Tessie was once a little sister herself, matched at age 7 with Cami’s late mother, Natalie.
Adam Hays is happy that his daughter has yet another strong female in her life in Tessie. “She’s a really great connection between Camryn and her mom,” he says.
Tessie joined Big Brothers Big Sisters after her older brother got involved — it looked like fun, and she was jealous. Tessie’s mom, a single parent who was raising three children while working two jobs, thought it would be a good experience for Tessie, so she signed her up.
Natalie, a young social worker, was Tessie’s match. In their early years together, they did a lot of projects. “The older I got, the less it was about doing things — it was more about her guiding me,” Tessie says. “Anytime I had a difficult decision, she would be the person whose advice I wanted.”
When Adam Hays starting dating Natalie, Tessie was already in the picture. Natalie, he says, was big on doing things for other people, and it was clear that Natalie and Tessie just clicked. Oftentimes, Natalie would nudge Adam out the door so she and Tessie could have some of their deeper conversations.
There were also practical matters. Natalie taught Tessie to drive, including a stick shift, and walked her through the college application process. Tessie was there for Natalie’s big moments, too — her wedding to Adam and spending time with the new family of three after Cami’s birth.
All along, Tessie saw herself only as the little sister, even when Natalie’s breast cancer returned. It didn’t occur to her that she could be a mentor herself until Natalie’s last week in 2010, just before Cami turned 3.
“I started thinking through everything,” Tessie says. The advice Natalie wouldn’t be there to give to Cami. The firsts she wouldn’t get to experience.
So Tessie held Natalie’s hand and told her she would be Cami’s big sister. Natalie could no longer speak, but she squeezed Tessie’s hand in response.
Adam says he always knew Tessie was going to be in Cami’s life. He appreciates their bond and has enjoyed watching Tessie become a successful college graduate. Tessie played soccer at Butler Community College and then transferred to Wichita State University, where she studied accounting and was named homecoming queen. After graduating in 2013, she took a job at Koch Industries. She also spends evenings and weekends coaching under-8 soccer.
Soccer is one area where Tessie knows she can definitely help Cami. It won’t be quite as clear cut as Cami gets older. “I expect that we’ll probably have some growing pains,” Tessie says. “I know what advice she [Natalie] gave me, and I hope it’s the same advice she would give her daughter.”
Tessie says it has been a joy to watch Cami grow into a spunky, independent first-grader. “I think long term she’ll hopefully love me as much as as I love her,” Tessie says. “I say, do you know what kind of sister I am? I’m your soul sister.”
Big Brothers Big Sisters of Sedgwick County has a waiting list of 500 children looking for mentors, about 70 percent of them boys. Visit kansasbigs.org.