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Leslie Bennett is the first person from Roanoke to receive the honor.
STEPHANIE KLEIN-DAVIS | The Roanoke Times
Leslie Bennett, 27, has been a mentor and a member of the board of directors for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Southwest Virginia. She’s also a program recruiter.
Courtesy of Big Brother Big Sisters of Southwest Virginia
Leslie Bennett (right) has been a big sister to 15-year-old Marsha Stanley. Bennett said she tried to focus on little things that could have a big impact, like showing gratitude.
Tuesday, May 21, 2013
William Byrd High School freshman Marsha Stanley said she didn’t get out much when she was growing up. She said her grades were not that good and she “watched TV 24/7.” Her mother, Anne Meador, said Marsha had some struggles in her pre teen years.
Now, Meador says, whenever her 15-year-old daughter is having trouble, she calls Leslie Bennett, her big sister.
Bennett, 27, is not Marsha’s biological sister. She is part of about 440 volunteer mentors of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Southwest Virginia. Bennett’s work with Marsha and her role in local volunteer recruiting efforts earned her the Virginia Big Sister of the Year award Tuesday night, which she accepted in Center in the Square in downtown Roanoke.
This marks the first time someone from Roanoke has earned this honor. Of Virginia’s 3,000 big brothers and sisters, each affiliate nominates someone for the top state award. June House, president of the Southwest Virginia chapter, said nominating Bennett was easy.
“She’s got a lot of energy and is very positive,” House said. “She made an impression on all of us.”
After being a mentor for Marsha for two years, House said Bennett took a leadership role and joined the board of directors. Through this she has helped recruit more than 10 people to join Big Brothers Big Sisters, and Bennett said she is crafting plan to have a workplace mentorship program with Advance Auto Parts, where Bennett works in the marketing department.
“I found my passion,” Bennett said before accepting the award.
However, working as a mentor wasn’t always easy. Marsha had already had two other big sisters, according to Bennett, and it took a while to earn her trust.
“People go in with an expectation to have an automatic impact,” Bennett said. “It’s not like that.”
She originally adopted a business-style plan for her and Marsha to develop goals, but eventually she realized she needed to change her plan to adapt to the constantly evolving needs of a teenager and add more heart and fewer deadlines.
Other than the traditional mentoring methods such as school tutoring and being active, Bennett tried to focus on some little things that had a big impact, like showing gratitude.
When she was 12, Marsha was shy and softly spoken, but Bennett took her to purchase thank-you notes to send to people. Bennett tried to show Marsha the importance of expressing appreciation for people and displaying good manners. Bennett would, to her pleasant surprise, receive a thank-you note weeks later.
According to an essay Bennett wrote during her nominating process, one time during dinner, Bennett saw Marsha place a napkin in her lap — something Bennett taught her. It was then Bennett realized she was having an impact.
“I’m more confident. I work harder in school,” Marsha said about the role Bennett played in her life the past three years. “My grades have definitely improved.”
Marsha, who now stands taller than her big sister, stood by Bennett’s side on Tuesday evening as she accepted the award. She was joined by Dave Koehn of Charlottesville who received the Virginia Big Brother of the Year award.
Charles Pierson, the president of Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, made his first trip to Roanoke for the occasion.
“Seeing people give their time when they don’t have to is always inspiring to me,” Pierson said. He said House invited him to Tuesday’s ceremony and that he was impressed with the local organization, one of Virginia’s largest.
Big Brothers Big Sisters helps match volunteer mentors with local children who have been struggling in various ways. House said volunteers are crucial because the wait list is long.
In her three years of being a big sister, Bennett coordinated a 150-guest recruitment event and presented a $5,000 donation from her company at her first board meeting.
Bennett said she got involved in the organization through a mentor at work . Not wanting to do anything halfway, she gave her mentoring role everything she had, especially after finding a connection with Marsha. She said she tried to “lean in,” crediting the motto of businesswoman Sheryl Sandberg’s best-selling book “Lean In,” which encourages women to take on leadership roles.
Marsha wrote an essay on Bennett after she was nominated for the award. She said Bennett not only gave her positive activities to do, such as trips to the gym, but inspired her to be a role model for her own little sister.
“As you can see, my big sister had helped me be a better person and helps me achieve my goals,” Marsha wrote. “Leslie is one of the best things that ever happened to me.”
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