This is a story about a “happy accident.” As part of her nonprofit legal work and role on a Hennepin County diversity committee, Ellie envisioned a program that matched lawyers with high school students for long-term mentoring. In the course of designing this initiative, she met with Big Brothers Big Sisters. “I got to know the people and the program, and they got to know me,” said Ellie. “They ended up needing a mentor for a seven-year-old girl.”
That seven-year-old was Joss. Joss is one of a big Northeast Minneapolis family. Inspired by the loving mentorship of her own grandmother, Joss’ mom Shannyn looked into Big Brothers Big Sisters. “My grandmother was a very strong woman; she raised me, and she helped me with my kids,” said Shannyn. “When she passed away, it was a hard time for our family.” Shannyn decided that the time was right to seek some one-on-one companionship for Joss.
New thinking was required. After parenting her two daughters through their adolescence, Ellie initially pictured working with an older teen. And since Ellie transitioned from male to female in 2009, Joss and Shannyn needed to be open to this experience. Ellie said, “Here was this smart kid right on the precipice of tweendom, aware about the world. There was a maturity there.” She decided to go for it. So did Joss, who has always just thought of Ellie as what she is: a tall, lovely woman. When her mother asked her what she thought about transgender people, Joss simply replied, “I think it’s magical.”
A friendship was born. “When I first met Ellie, I was excited but I was also nervous,” said Joss. “But then Ellie just talked to me, and I felt fine.” Ellie claims that it’s “easy to be with Joss. She’s so intelligent and observant.” They began hitting the regular kid hot spots: Chuck E. Cheese, the playground, the latest animated movies. Joss notes that their current favorite is Penguins of Madagascar.
Hangouts are the best. The high-energy outings are fun, but both Big and Little are true fans of just connecting. “Fun times are doing nothing, really. We love looking at the eagles at Gold Medal Park or just talking at my house,” said Ellie. Even if they check out a movie, it’s all about the after-show conversation. “We talk about the movie’s message. What was the lesson, what was the moral? A lot of kid’s content is about self-empowerment, making it through challenges, loving oneself. We could all learn from that.”
Service is at the center. When asked if she recalls any special mentors, Ellie replies, “Do I have any mentors? Do you have all day?” A favorite uncle made a difference by inviting Ellie to his rural home for adventure-filled summers. Growing up in the era of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy also ignited her lifelong passion to be a role model for others. “Surrounded by that kind of inspiration, service was everything to me. It is everything. We have an obligation to be civically engaged and to give of our skills and our time. I have always wanted to help people think differently about themselves and about the world.”
She shares that dedication with her Little. Ellie emphasizes to Joss how crucial it is to remain engaged, to have a goal and to work hard. The pair visited Augsburg College, where Ellie’s daughter was a student, and talked about what it takes to make in school and life. “When I grow up, I think I want to be a hair stylist—do cuts, color, braids and everything!” said Joss. Whatever her goals may be, Ellie reminds her to keep her eyes on the prize. “I tell her I believe in her,” said Ellie.
In the meantime, fourth grade feels fantastic. When not dreaming about the future, Joss just enjoys being nine. “I like to play with my friends. They come over, and we do jigsaw puzzles and play on my tablet.” She loves science, and recently did an experiment to determine what makes soda pop taste so good. She hangs out with her older sister Chelsea. “She helps me with my homework and makes me laugh,” said Joss.
Everyone wins. “Joss’s mom was really smart to look into BBBS,” said Ellie. “No one can be everything to any other person, even parents. I am incredibly lucky Shannyn let me—a stranger—spend time with her child. I am better for having Joss in my life.” Shannyn agrees: “Since she met Ellie, Joss has better self-esteem. Her favorite thing is this opportunity to have special one-on-one time. Joss’ eyes light up whenever Ellie arrives. She’s just happier.”