Hali Lewis and Esther Gibbs are friends that are as close as sisters. They’re also sisters that are close friends.
Lewis, a graduate student at the University of Wyoming, has been paired with Gibbs through Greater Wyoming Big Brothers Big Sisters for that last four years. Gibbs is an eighth-grader at Laramie Middle School.
“I would say she’s one of my best friends, for sure, because we talk about everything together,” Lewis said.
Lewis was named Wyoming Big Sister of the Year last spring. James Christianson, also of Laramie, was named the Wyoming Big Brother of the Year. Both were honored at a reception in early November.
Lewis joined the Greater Wyoming Big Brothers Big Sisters program soon after moving to Laramie from Fort Collins, Colorado, as a transfer student. She had never heard of the program before that.
“I was looking for volunteer opportunities in Laramie,” she said.
Big Brothers Big Sisters of America is a nationwide program in which adult volunteers are paired with children for one-on-one mentoring and friendship. According to the organization, individual attention on a regular basis allows “littles” to develop a relationship that helps them navigate the challenges of growing up, gain skills and explore new interests.
Lewis, who has an undergraduate degree from the University of Wyoming in human development and family science, is finishing a master’s degree in higher education administration.
As she and Gibbs joked together over hot chocolate at Coal Creek Coffee one evening, it’s hard to imagine either of them being shy around each other, as they both professed to be during the initial stages of their partnership.
“I was nervous to meet her, and she was nervous to meet me,” Lewis said.
Gibbs quickly cut her off.
“I was nervous to meet anyone,” she said.
These days, the 13-year-old, who is the oldest of seven siblings, is involved in student government and has joined the swim team. Her interests include drawing, sports, hanging out with friends and singing. She said choir was her favorite class.
When she hangs out with Lewis, which they try to do about once a week, they do crafts, go out for ice cream, grab coffee or catch a movie.
How does she like having a big sister?
“It’s better than having a bunch of younger siblings,” she joked.
On a more serious note, she said, “I like how I can just talk to her.”
Lewis is planning to stay in Laramie after she graduates in May, and she’s hoping to eventually work in student affairs at a university.
She encouraged college students especially to consider becoming a “big.” The program allows them to get involved in the community, while the “little” gains a special connection with an older adult.
“It’s nice having a stable person in your life, especially if they don’t come from a home that has that,” she said.
James Christianson has been paired with little brother Xander Spence since the spring of 2015.
He’s a student at Laramie County Community College studying business finance who grew up in Gillette, and he was looking for a local community service opportunity when he joined the program. He decided mentoring through Big Brothers Big Sisters was something well-suited to college students.
“Kids that are in this program, I feel like they’re more likely to connect and look up to someone who’s like the cool college kid,” he said.
He and Spence, who’s now a seventh-grader at Laramie Middle School, both said they were apprehensive about whether they’d have a comfortable relationship with their match.
“I was nervous he was going to be a dork,” Spence joked.
But Spence, who has four younger brothers, said Christianson feels like another family member.
“He’s pretty much like a father to me, more than a brother,” he said.
Spence likes to play football, ride his bike and play video games, and he and Christianson have no shortage of things they like to do together. They play disc golf, go to the movies, go out for coffee and ice cream, play video games, go swimming and play paintball.
They love laser tag, and they even spent a day in Denver trying indoor skydiving.
“Whatever he feels like doing at the time, we go and do,” Christianson said. “I’m happy doing anything.”
Christianson said he loves how easy it is to spend time with Spence, who keeps him up to date on the latest trends among teenagers and always has a new fact to share.
“He encourages me, without realizing it, to be a better person,” he said of his little brother.
Christianson said he was excited, humbled and honored to receive statewide recognition.
“I was ecstatic,” he said.