Valerie King worries about all the children wandering around in this world, neglected and unhappy.
“You don’t know what’s going to happen when all these angry, sad little children grow up,” she said.
Valerie, 58, is a “big sister,” as in Big Brothers Big Sisters, an organization that pairs at-risk children with nurturing adult mentors.
I met her Thursday at the Alfond Youth Center in Waterville, where she and her “little sister,” Destinee Pearl, 9, hoped to go swimming at the indoor pool.
But the pool wasn’t available, so instead, we went over to the nearby North Street Playground.
Valerie, of Palermo, and Destinee, of Augusta, are fast friends and have been for the last two years.
We sat at a picnic table. Valerie, an upbeat woman with short brown hair, hazel eyes and a quick laugh, took out a photo album with the words “Friends Forever” written on its cover.
She and Destinee showed me pictures of them fishing with Valerie’s husband, Steve; baking cookies in Valerie’s kitchen; decorating a Christmas tree; having fun at the Clinton Lions Fair; ringing the bells for the Salvation Army; and swimming at the Waterville municipal pool.
Valerie pointed to a picture of Destinee, smiling hugely and wearing colorful sunglasses.
“Remember you had the sparkly sunglasses with the sparkly earrings?”
Destinee giggled. She pointed to a water slide in one photo.
“I came down this,” she said. “I knew you took a picture of it!”
The pair met two years ago after Destinee moved from Kansas to Maine to live with her grandmother, who has adopted her.
A third-grader at Farrington Elementary School in Augusta, she is a ball of energy with hazel eyes, a Dorothy Hamill haircut and freckles that dot her cheeks. She and Valerie spend about 11 hours a month together, doing both indoor and outdoor activities.
“It keeps me very young, and I love that,” Valerie said after Destinee ran off to the playground. “I love every minute of it, because children are so filled with wonder and joy.”
Valerie’s father died recently after having been sick a long time. Being with Destinee helped lighten her burden, she said.
“She’s an awesome little kid.”
Valerie has been involved in Big Brothers Big Sisters for more than 20 years, starting out as a member of the board of directors and then becoming a big sister. Destinee is her third “little sister.”
She remembers her first “little,” who never smiled, never said “thank you” and never showed emotion.
When the girl was very young, Valerie found out recently, her mother took away anything she liked. As a result, the child put up an emotional wall.
“She is now 26 and she’s about to have her first child,” Valerie said. “We are still in touch. Steve and I made a huge impact in her life, but we never, ever knew until recently.”
She acknowledged that being a “big sister” is not always easy.
“But I would encourage anybody, if they’re in a match and they don’t think they’re making a difference, they really are. You are helping children feel valued.”
Valerie and her husband have two grown children and four grandchildren. They love kids in general.
“Steve and I both are children still,” she said. “We love every minute of it. I love being a ‘big.’ It helps me feel like I’m giving back a little, one child at a time.”
She and Destinee plan to volunteer for the second year in a row at the Big Brothers Big Sisters of Mid-Maine’s Bowl for Kids Sake, a fundraising event set for April 22 to 27 in Waterville, Augusta and Skowhegan. Groups may take part by calling 593-0380.
Before we left the playground, I asked Destinee what she wants to be when she grows up.
“A veterinarian,” she said. “I like taking care of animals and putting Band-Aids on them.”
I told her I had one last question. How would she describe her friend Valerie?
“She’s funny, fun, friendly, nice, kind and playful,” she said. “Oh, and funny-tastic.”
We all shared a big laugh.
Amy Calder has been a Morning Sentinel reporter 25 years. Her column appears here Mondays. She may be reached at [email protected]