Against great odds, a ‘match’ molds NC’s Big Sister of the Year

Debbie Welch of Western North Carolina has been chosen Big Sister of the Year (2022) by Big Brothers Big Sisters of North Carolina, celebrating National Volunteer Week April 17-23 like many nonprofit organizations in the country.

A Big Sister to Little Sister Devine for nearly a decade, Welch is supported by Big Brothers Big Sisters of Buncombe County. Through adversity, health problems, joys and triumphs, Welch has been Devine’s Big Sister since 2013.

“I can safely say that I have never known a family faced with more frequent and immense challenges,” Welch, an Asheville resident, said of her Little Sister’s family.

She has been inspired by their “underlying strength, faith, and resilience. I have been there to listen, provide a shoulder, mourn, rally, praise and celebrate.”

Welch was chosen Big Sister of the Year for Buncombe County, and then for North Carolina, in part because of her devotion to everyone in Devine’s household. She has delivered food and medicine to the family, and she consults with Devine’s mother continually. 

The match’s supervisor, Blaine Weiss, calls Welch “a supporter, not a savior” who “has not come into their lives to save” them, but “to uplift and love them.” Devine’s mother said her daughter’s Big Sister is “just the right amount of silly fun, serious, loving, intelligent, wise, aware, wonderful, sensitive.” 

“Mrs. Debbie is our hero,” Devine’s mother, Desire, said. “Our whole family has gained another family member.” (When talking about Littles and their family members publicly, Big Brothers Big Sisters protects their anonymity by identifying them by first names only.)

Devine described herself as shy and “stuck in a shell” when she was matched with “Mrs. Debbie” as a seven-year-old. Lacking motivation and focus, she struggled in school. Schoolmates teased her because of her red hair.  

Bonding over ice cream, difficult conversations, and lots of fun and educational activities, she and Welch began to establish the trust that successful BBBS matches like theirs are based upon. They went on long walks together. They repainted and redid her bedroom. 

The pandemic interrupted their face-to-face visits, a disruption that was hard for them. Welch brainstormed with Weiss for ways to stay in touch with Devine, ways to deliver the emotional support the family needed. During that difficult time, Weiss saw Welch “empower” Devine and her mother, helping them be “the writers of their own story,” Weiss said. The pandemic brought Big Sister and Little Sister closer, Weiss noted.

Now a high schooler who makes top grades, Devine plays cello in the orchestra, marches in the color guard, and is a member of JROTC. Devine’s success is grounded in her motivation, but Welch helped her learn how to balance responsibilities, Weiss said. 

As a result of Welch’s mentorship, Devine is poised to make a difference in her community, Weiss said.

“Every time I speak with Debbie, she tells me something new she’s learned from Devine,” Weiss said. “And every time I speak with Devine, she reminds me of something special that she and Debbie have done together.” 

Welch, once a first-grade teacher, knows the importance of children having caring adults in their lives.

“Being a mentor was the obvious choice,” she said of becoming a Big Sister.

What she didn’t know at the time was “how this relationship was destined to nourish me, and how I would flourish.”

“Together we laugh, cry, get angry at the bad guys and solve problems,” she said. “I have learned what it looks like to be resourceful and unstoppable when you are underwater and someone or something has a foot on your neck. I have not been and probably will never be as strong as these women are because I am spoiled. I love them.”

“Mrs. Debbie was the push I needed to be better,” Devine said. “I think the biggest thing I have learned from Mrs. Debbie is that what people think about you doesn’t matter. Mrs. Debbie told me being different from other people makes me the person I am.”

Devine and Welch are “an unstoppable pair,” Weiss said, “dynamic, full of laughter, thick as thieves. They are truly family.”

Winner of Big Brother and Big Sister of the year nationally will be announced at BBBS of America’s national conference in June. To learn more about BBBSWNC, click HERE

Pictured at the top of the article is Debbie Welch and Little Sister Devine.

Article and photo courtesy of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Western North Carolina.

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