It’s a full house. Kha’s St. Paul home is packed with energy, music and kids. Her four brothers and three sisters range in age from 20 years old down to one. As the oldest girl, she enjoys constant companionship and handles important responsibilities: amusing toddlers, changing diapers and pitching in to help her mother around the house. “I’m kind of like an extra parent,” she explained.
The time was right. As a public health professional, Martha is no stranger to reaching out. Helping Minnesotans kick tobacco habits and avoid obesity keeps her engaged with communities. Seven years ago, she decided her busy life could accommodate one more thing. “I’m married, and we don’t have children,” explained Martha. “It just felt like it’d be great to have a special connection with a kid.”
She’s a blur on a bike! The pair met when Kha was a shy fourth-grader. Her mother told her that a grownup would visit to “spend special one-on-one time together, maybe do homework—I really had no clue what to expect,” said Kha. Martha had similar feelings. “I was nervous about our first meeting. This felt like a big responsibility,” said Martha. Walking up to Kha’s house, Martha spotted a tiny girl furiously pedaling her bicycle up the block. “It was Kha,” said Martha, laughing. “I wondered, Is this kid trying to make a quick getaway?”
They bonded over butterflies. Martha chatted with Kha’s mother, a native Hmong speaker, while nine-year-old Kha helped to bridge the language barrier. When everyone felt acquainted, the newly minted Big and Little climbed into Martha’s car and headed to the Como Park Zoo, where the two enjoyed the butterfly exhibit. “I will always remember the image of this little girl, surrounded by those colorful, beautiful butterflies,” said Martha. Kha recalls that she “felt a little awkward, but it was fun. Martha held my hand to keep me safe.”
The friendship flourished. The pair started meeting a few times a month, exploring St. Paul and learning about one another. They hit parks and playgrounds, where Kha would nimbly scramble up the highest jungle gyms. “Kha was so athletic and coordinated,” said Martha. “She could climb anything and always outrun me. I realized I needed to get my act together to keep up!” They checked out the Minnesota Historical Society and the Science Museum of Minnesota, and trick-or-treated around Kha’s neighborhood. The two also loved the library, reading books together and discussing them. “We read The Hunger Games, and went to the movie,” said Kha. “There were scary parts, but we had fun.”
Kha outgrew swings and slides. But their connection continued. “Martha has helped me really think about college,” says the high school junior. She loves how her favorite class, Human Geography, lets her explore the world. “I like learning about the differences between countries that have more and those that have less,” said Kha, who came to the U.S. from Thailand when she was six. Martha encourages Kha’s study of Chinese, a language that Kha says she plans to “make part of my life.” In her free time, Kha and her sister Yer love Korean hip-hop and Thai movies.
Role models matter. Martha’s own mentors helped to pave the way toward her role as a Big. “Growing up in Montana, my neighbor Nancy Erickson was an incredible artist—really inspirational,” said Martha. “And my grade school math teacher Bente Winston gave me the confidence to really do math,” a skill that wasn’t emphasized by her humanities professor parents. She’s passed along this encouragement to Kha. “Martha has helped me become more talkative and to take school more seriously.”
It’s a family affair. In turn, Martha celebrates all she has learned from her Little. “Meeting Kha has been an incredible cross-cultural experience. Her mom has been so welcoming of me, and I’ve learned about another family’s life.” She praises Kha’s quiet, intelligent demeanor: “She’s a listener and a thinker; I’ve learned from her how to pay closer attention.” And she delights in Kha’s siblings, noting that they have become “bonus Littles.” But it all comes back to her friendship with Kha. “She is so generous, kind, responsible—just a good kid,” said Martha. “I feel so lucky. I could have been matched with anyone. But I got Kha.”