For people who do not know Ana Robles well, they may think she has four children instead of just three.
Yesenia, the bright, bubbly 14-year-old who is frequently seen by Robles’ side is not her daughter, but her “Little” through the Nutmeg Big Brother Big Sister program. But the connection is so much more than that.
“I feel like she’s my child,” Robles said, who spends countless hours with Yesenia every month. “[My family] learns so much from her, just like she learns so much from us.”
Tonight, Nutmeg Big Brothers Big Sisters will honor her with the Victoria L. Soto Memorial Award at the Keeney Memorial Cultural Center in Old Wethersfield, along with four others who will be recognized for their volunteer efforts with the program. Soto, a teacher killed in the Newtown shooting, was an active Big Sister.
When Robles found out she would not only be honored for her work, but that it would be in Soto’s name, she said she was speechless. Once she found her words, the only thing she could say was “Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god. . .”
“I was in shock. This is a big deal for me, because it’s not expected,” she said. “I love it and my heart tells me to do it.”
Brian Kelly, Director of Marketing at Nutmeg Big Brothers Big Sisters, said Robles is the first person to be honored with the award. “The award was recently created to honor Vicki Soto, a former Nutmeg mentor, who died heroically last December trying to save the lives of children she was teaching at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown. Ana Robles, like Vicki Soto, is one hundred percent dedicated to educating, nurturing and encouraging children – especially children in need.”
When Robles started with the program, she just wanted to make a difference in a child’s life.
“I told them, ‘Just give me a child, I don’t care if they have issues or problems, because that’s my goal: To help them.’ I wanted a child I could help and mentor,” she said.
She was paired with Yesenia, a 10-year-old from Hartford, back in 2009. She was very shy back then, she remembers, nothing like the teenager who calls Robles over and over again until she picks up the phone just to talk and spends entire weekends at her house watching TV and eating popcorn.
The fact that she and Yesenia are both of Puerto Rican descent is a connection the two have, but it is not the reason they’ve become so close, Robles said. Their bond is made up of moments that Yesenia will carry with her for a lifetime.
She recalled many favorite days with Yesenia, like the time she introduced her to the Mayor of Hartford. He now knows her name and says hello to her at all of the Big Brothers Big Sisters events.
Another day, Yesenia went to The Hartford Insurance Group’s building to see where Robles worked (she is a senior administrative assistant in the intellectual property unit). She ended up landing a 30-minute meeting with CEO Liam McGee, who then gave Yesenia her own private tour. Those are the moments that matter most, Robles said.
“I know what it’s like to be raised in Hartford. . . [some children] need someone like me that can reach out to a lot of resources.”
The best part about the resources Robles provides is that Yesenia can go back and share them with her family.
“Now she knows her mayor, legislators and senators. These are things her parents don’t know and now she can take that knowledge back home to them.”
One conversation with Yesenia in particular stood out in Robles’ mind.
“She told me, ‘I really like it when you listen to me, you look at me.’ She said it doesn’t really happen a lot,” she recalled. Because her Little’s home is so busy, Robles is able to give her that individual attention so many teenagers yearn for.
But Yesenia is not the only person she has formed a bond with. She often speaks with her mother as well, and has cultivated an “open door policy”, keeping conversations with her open and honest.
If her mother needs advice with Yesenia, she calls Robles. If Robles suspects Yesenia isn’t working hard enough in school, her mother is the first to know.
Yesenia is moving on to high school next year and their relationship will continue to grow through the next stage of her life.
“I can’t wait to start talking about high school things,” Robles said excitedly. “That’s the real deal!”
“I always tell her, ‘Your family is going to be so proud of you.’”
Robles encourages everyone to take the time volunteer as a Big. The time commitment, six to ten hours a month, should not deter anyone from reaching out to a Little, she said. She pointed out that she is the perfect example of a busy working mother who makes the time to volunteer.
“There’s always time to help someone,” she said. “Why not help a kid?”