OAKLAND — As a busy high school junior, there were days last year when Emily Larsen didn’t want to go to Big Brothers Big Sisters for volunteer work after school.

But that would always change when Larsen, 17, walked into Williams Elementary School and was greeted by her “little brother,” 8-year-old Parker Stevens.

“He always had a way to brighten your day,” Larsen said. “I could have days where I had 100 things on my mind and just want to go home, but as soon as I would get there, his face would light up. That would light up my day, and I would just want to spend the rest of the day with him.”

On Tuesday, Parker was killed by a gunshot wound to the head while handling his father’s shotgun in their home on Church Street in Oakland. The tragedy has shaken the community, especially many of the students involved in the local Big Brothers Big Sisters program, which was started in memory of Cassidy Charette, another local student.

“He was such a kind and compassionate child,” said Monica Charette, who works as communications director for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Mid-Maine, and whose daughter, Cassidy, died in a hayride accident in 2014.

She remembers Parker taking her aside one day when he first entered the program to tell her he was sorry for her loss.

“For me, that was very unusual for a 7-year-old child,” Charette said. “After that connection, he was always at events to honor her.”

The local Big Brothers Big Sisters chapter is called ShineOnCass and places mentors in Williams Elementary School, where Parker was an incoming fourth-grader; in Atwood Primary School; and at the Alfond Youth Center in Waterville. Like other chapters of the program, it pairs mentors, or “bigs,” with children and adolescents, or “littles,” facing adversity.

Parker Stevens throws a cream pie into the face of his “big sister,” Emily Larsen, during the last program of the year for the ShineOnCass group in 2017. Photo courtesy of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Mid-Maine

Larsen said she didn’t know what kind of adversity Parker was facing — that part of a student’s background is kept confidential from their big — but he never showed it.

“He was happy,” she said in an interview from George Washington University, in Washington, D.C., where she was on a college tour Thursday. “He could have no idea what was going on in your life and make you smile and not want to stop smiling.”

Parker quickly bonded with Larsen over their shared love of arts and crafts, whether it was finger painting or making necklaces and bracelets. He loved to make a mess, but he always knew to clean it up afterward, she said.

While other students and mentors in the program — which meets weekly during the school year — would gravitate toward group activities such as basketball games, Charette said many could see the special bond between Larsen and Parker in their contentment with one-on-one time.

“They were an incredible match,” she said. “He would wait for her at the door every day when she arrived on Tuesdays. Other matches were drawn to group activities, but Emily and Parker would settle into a craft project and he would create a gift for her or his mom. He was really happy with Emily. He was all smiles.”

Still, when she first started as a mentor, Larsen said she wasn’t sure she was doing a good job.

“We clicked pretty quickly, but it’s hard to get to know somebody in a mentoring situation,” she said. “I was always asking myself, ‘Am I making a difference in his life?'”

For Parker, the answer was yes.

A few months into their mentorship, he made her a bracelet with red beads, his favorite color, and a bead in the middle that said “I love you” with a heart.

“Knowing he felt he loved me was so eye-opening for me,” Larsen said. “It felt amazing that I could make a difference in his life and that being with me made him happy.”

It wasn’t long before the Larsen family household was filled with arts and crafts made by Parker, whether it was lanyards or paintings, said Larsen’s mother, Lee Anne Larsen.

“It’s an incredible opportunity for teens in our community to have a chance to mentor a younger child,” Larsen said. “I think they learn a tremendous amount about confidence, about leadership. It’s powerful and I’m extremely grateful Emily had this experience and that she had it with Parker.”

The family heard about Parker’s death on Wednesday, the same day they were scheduled to leave for the college visits in Washington, D.C.

Parker Stevens and Emily Larsen do arts and crafts during one of their regular after-school meetings at Williams Elementary School in Oakland. Parker was a part of the school’s ShineOnCass mentoring program for the last two years and met weekly with his “big sister.” Photo courtesy of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Mid-Maine

“I’m still kind of in shock,” Emily Larsen said. “It comes in waves of emotions. Things pop into my head and all of a sudden I think, ‘That’s something Parker would have liked.’ It’s definitely been a rough few days.”

On Thursday, Regional School Unit 18 Superintendent Carl Gartley sent a message to the community about Parker’s death, saying counselors are available at Williams Elementary School, Atwood Primary School and Messalonskee Middle School and anyone who is in need should stop by or call the school district.

He said the tragedy has affected the community deeply, especially those involved in the ShineOnCass program, which many students were inspired to join in the first place because of the loss of Cassidy Charette.

Gartley said the district has limited information about what happened Tuesday but has been in touch with Parker’s parents, Sara and Wade Stevens. They have three other children, including Parker’s younger brother, who is also a student in RSU18 and part of the ShineOnCass program.

“The parents have asked for their privacy,” Gartley said. “We’ve reached out to them through the principals and said when they are ready, if they need something, do not hesitate to call. We will also be having a staff meeting today with staff who knew the family well and know what they might need. Right now they are asking for privacy, and we are trying to follow that lead.”

Parker Stevens and his “big sister,” Emily Larsen, attend Putt 4 Cass in May 2018. The mini-golf event is fundraiser for the ShineOnCass mentoring program, which was founded in memory of Messalonskee High School student Cassidy Charette. Photo courtesy of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Mid-Maine

Charette, meanwhile, said she has been in touch with Sara Stevens, though she knew her only peripherally before Tuesday.

“She was very thoughtful when it came to Cassidy,” Charette said. “As a mom to another grieving mom, my heart is broken and shattered for her, and I’ve been trying to offer any support I can to her.”

For her family, Charette said the ShineOnCass program and the involvement of students such as Larsen and Parker have been healing experiences.

“We’re already trying to think of things we can do to remember him,” Charette said. “His personality was just too big to ever forget. We want to make it our mission that kids who become a part of Big Brothers Big Sisters will also get the opportunity to know him like we did.”

Before they left on their trip, Lee Anne Larsen said she asked her daughter if she still wanted to go, and she said she did, because it’s what Parker would have wanted her to do.

“We are really sad, but being together on this trip, we’ve had a chance to talk about all the wonderful memories she has of Parker, and I think that’s one of the best ways to keep someone you care a lot about alive,” Lee Anne Larsen said.

On Wednesday, Emily Larsen painted a rock in memory of Parker that will be placed somewhere in the community this weekend as part of a ShineOnCass activity to spread positive messages at the community’s OakFest.

She also said she’ll be thinking about him when she returns to the Big Brothers Big Sisters program this fall. Parker’s younger brother, Hunter, is also in the program, and Larsen said she hopes to do some arts and crafts to remember Parker and his favorite activity.

“It will be really hard the first few times without him there, but I still want to go, because I know he would want me to be there every week helping other littles and new bigs,” she said. “I can’t imagine having had this experience with anybody else.”

Rachel Ohm — 612-2368

[email protected]

Twitter: @rachel_ohm

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