NEW BRITAIN – When Sashima Brown realized an organization that once saved her childhood is now helping her own son, something was written in the stars for that to happen.
“It was like life came back full circle,” said Brown, 31, a New Britain resident. “I can’t believe that it happened the way it did and it makes me so grateful and happy.”
Beyond School Walls, a youth mentoring program that is a collaboration between Comcast, Nutmeg Big Brothers Big Sisters and Lincoln Elementary School, reached out to see if Brown’s son, Cardiair Arnold, 9, would like an extra tutor to help with his school work. Brown, a former Nutmeg Big Brother Big Sisters mentee, didn’t initially make the connection that NBBBS was involved but the moment she did, it blew her away.
The mentoring service came into Brown’s life when she was 13 years old. New to being in foster care, Brown said while her foster mom was her stepfather’s aunt, the experience was horrific, abusive and dark.
“It was me and my little sister, and my aunt wouldn’t let us go anywhere. It also became apparent that she was only there to collect the check,” Brown said. “My aunt wouldn’t let me out of the house or even just out on the street to play. It was after I told my social worker about it and put me in touch with Nutmeg, that’s when I got a chance to get out of the house.”
The experience was a major game-changer for Brown, who’s Big Sister (mentor) was a neighborhood friend who also took in her younger sister. They went out for pizza, played at local parks and spent time chatting and had fun as young children should.
Having the chance to get a semblance of childhood back was a significant change for Brown, who had to grow up faster because her mother became ill with multiple sclerosis.
“I was missing out on school a lot because I was helping to take care of my mom and my two brothers and sisters,” she said. “A truancy officer came and took us out of the house because they wanted my mom to get her medical situation under control, especially since I was taking on a parental role.”
While Brown’s mother did not want her husband’s sister to take her children, she knew they would be split up if they went into the system. Brown recognized that her mother made the only choice she could, but being in foster care brought a lot of darkness for the children and Brown said not being around her mother was difficult.
“It can get really depressing in foster care. But Nutmeg really helped me get through it and I appreciate them so much,” she said. “Everything is better now and turned out OK.”
Now with Cardiair being a Little Brother himself, his mother said his experience hanging out with an older mentor really opened up the fourth grader.
“My situation is very different from Cardiair’s. When I was with Nutmeg, it helped me realize that I wasn’t alone, that there was still hope and I could get through the hard times,” Brown said. “For my son, it’s a chance to meet someone who he can talk about things that he’s interested in, like computers and comic books, get out of his comfort zone and have a friend.”
Cardiair loves talking to his mentor about school, his artwork and computer games. He also has attention deficit disorder and being connected with someone outside of his family and school helps keep him focused.
“It’s so good to see him opening up and laugh a lot,” said Brown, who has two other younger children. “With three kids, I have to give them all attention. Nutmeg allows a closer one-to-one attention and I think it’s great. My younger son now wants a Big Brother too.”
Beyond School Walls, which started its sessions several weeks ago, is now in its 12th year of operation. Andy Fleischmann, president and CEO of Nutmeg Big Brothers Big Sisters, said there is a special need for that relationship now with the physical distancing and isolation caused by the ongoing pandemic.
“It’s hard on everyone, but it’s especially hard on kids who have already been through a lot,” Fleischmann said. “We’re also heading into winter, which will be more isolating. For these kids to have that time with their mentors to connect with each other really makes a difference.”
With the holiday season embracing the community, Fleischmann said they are so thankful to be associated with the wonderful children that they serve and the generous volunteers.
“Everyone has worked so hard to make sure these kids get the support they need,” he said. “We really appreciate everything that everyone has done, not just because of the pandemic but beyond.”