Volume 18 • Issue 27 | November 18 - 24, 2005


Cecilia Guo with her mentor, Beverly O’Neal, during Easter.

‘Big sister’ shows girl there’s a world beyond Chinatown

By Caitlin Eichelberger  

Two years ago, Cecilia Guo rarely ventured outside of Chinatown. Allen and Broome Sts. and Broadway bordered the 10 year-old’s comfort zone. Even Little Italy, only blocks from her home, was foreign territory.   

Since she met her match in November 2003 through Big Brothers Big Sisters of New York City, a 100 year-old mentoring program for at-risk youth, Guo’s apprehensive nature has taken an adventurous turn.

“Over the course of the last two years, she’s really come to look forward to trying new things,” said Beverly O’Neal, 25, Guo’s mentor.   

Guo, whose mother died in 2000 from an asthma attack, was referred to Bigs NYC in 2002 by University Settlement, a social service agency, anticipating further transitions for the youth. “I was just not having a great time with anything so they suggested that I go meet up with the big brother, big sister program,” said Guo outside her family’s Allen St. before they went to dinner at a new Japanese restaurant on one of their bi-weekly visits last month.

“I remember once, on one of our first outings, she said about a restaurant we were going to eat at, ‘I’m not sure I want to go there, because I’ve never seen that place before,’” O’Neal said. When O’Neal arrived recently, Guo put on her pink fleece that her “big” complimented and was quickly out the door. As they seamlessly strike-up conversation about Guo’s latest social studies assignments, the 13-year age gap between the two goes unnoticed. It is an equal exchange while Guo gabs about school and O’Neal gripes about bridesmaid dress shopping.

“At first, going into it, I thought, well she is 13 years younger, she’s probably going to be like a little kid,” O’Neal said later. “But really when we start talking about the big topics in life or whatever you want to call them sometimes it feels like we are the same age. I really view Cecelia as a friend and not a little kid.”  

Of course, conversation took more effort in the beginning. Addressing Guo’s apprehension drove the duo’s activities early in the relationship. O’Neal, eager to diversify Guo’s experiences in the city, spent time with her all across Manhattan, from Little Italy to the Upper East Side. “She told me that she felt very comfortable in Chinatown and never wanted to leave,” O’Neal said. “I think it’s great that she’s comfortable in her surroundings, but I also feel it’s important for everyone to have a diverse range of experiences.”

As the eldest of two girls, Guo’s evenings with O’Neal give her the chance to be the “little.” “It’s just a very nice time to relax and talk,” Guo said. “If I have problems, I can share with her,” Guo said. Problems “that would be weird” to share with a parent. But most of the time, she said, Guo and O’Neal talk about “everyday stuff.”

Although O’Neal is the “big sister” in the relationship, she said she does not consider herself filling any familial role. “I don’t want to replace any adult’s role in her life – I’m not her mom, her aunt or any other role like that. But I am there as another reliable resource for her,” and, of equal importance, someone to have fun with. “When we’re together, I try to make sure that for those few hours, she doesn’t have to worry about anything – she can be herself and have fun.”

Aside from exploring more on foot, O’Neal said Guo is thinking more broadly too about her own future aspirations. When she first met Guo, O’Neal said she could identify two career goals – to not work in an office and to never leave Chinatown.

“Meeting her would just change my way of thinking about everything,” Guo said. “There’s so many things that I could do now so I am not really sure,” she added before listing a string of careers including being a lawyer, a doctor, a psychologist and teacher.  

A longtime interest in teaching is what inspired O’Neal, a consultant at Towers Perrin, a human resources consulting firm, to become a mentor. The southern California native graduated from college in 2002 and once her feet were planted firmly in N.Y.C. by 2003, O’Neal, an Astoria resident, said she “rushed to an orientation.”

O’Neal said personal growth through the relationship has not been one-sided. “Talking to Cecelia gets me to thinking about things in a different way as well,” she said, adding that she no longer views Guo as her “little.”

Jennifer Chang, the match’s social worker, attributes the success of the match to their ability “to show each other new and different things. From the get go they got along.”

Mentors are required to make a one-year commitment to their mentee. Most, however, maintain a relationship with their match for an average of three years, according to Chang. Aside from male mentors, the greatest need is for volunteers who speak Spanish, Mandarin or Cantonese. A year passed between Guo’s referral and match because her father, Da Wen, does not speak English and was unable to communicate in the application process. To correct the lapse, Bigs NYC created the New American Partnership for Immigrant Kids program, the latest of Bigs’ nine other mentoring programs developed to help youth deal with specific challenges, like being an immigrant youth, a teen mom or a 9/11 victim. Guo and O’Neal’s match was made through the new initiative which specifically aimed to reach the need in Chinatown and other Asian neighborhoods in Queens.

Bigs NYC aims to sign-up 1,000 men and women mentors by the end of June 2006. Over 360,000 children living in single-parent homes below the poverty level stand to benefit from a relationship with an adult role model. Those interested in becoming a mentor may visit BigsNYC.org or call 1.888.BIGS.NYC.


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