Correction: An earlier version of this story gave the incorrect location for Tolosa Winery. It is located in San Luis Obispo.
Growing up below the poverty line outside Santa Margarita, San Luis Obispo resident Sarah Levanway remembers being teased about wearing hand-me-down clothes.
But she didn’t fully realize her situation until a Sunday school teacher explained how economic disadvantages can limit a person’s options.
“I’ll never forget that,” recalled Levanway, who was a high school student at the time. “That really changed my thinking about my life … (about) being willing to work hard to do what I needed to do, not only to make a difference for myself but for others as well.”
She’s held true to that resolution ever since — most recently as a volunteer with Big Brothers Big Sisters of San Luis Obispo County.
Levanway, now 33, and another San Luis Obispo resident, Bryan Gingg, 50, were named California’s Big Brother and Big Sister of the Year, respectively, for their work mentoring two Los Osos teens. They will be honored at the local nonprofit’s May 6 shareholders reception at Tolosa Winery in San Luis Obispo.
“We have always thought our volunteers are the best here, so we are in some ways not surprised,” said Anna Boyd-Bucy, executive director of Big Brothers Big Sisters of San Luis Obispo County. Still, she added, “We’re really excited.”
Launched in 1995, Big Brothers Big Sisters of San Luis Obispo County pairs teenage and adult mentors with boys and girls between the ages of 6 and 18.
Many of the children, whose parents and legal guardians enroll them in the program, belong to low-income, single-parent households, Boyd said. Big Brothers and Big Sisters, as volunteers are known, are required to spend at least six hours a month hanging out with their “Littles” for a minimum of a year.
According to Boyd, the local group made 350 “mentor matches” last year. It serves about 150 children involved in community-based programs and 85 in school-based programs, she said.
The latter matches students from Morro Bay High School, Nipomo High School, San Luis Obispo High School and local colleges with students from Del Mar Elementary School in Morro Bay, Nipomo Elementary School and Sinsheimer Elementary School in San Luis Obispo.
Bryan Gingg and Javier Valencia
Gingg got involved with Big Brothers Big Sisters in the mid-1990s after spotting a television ad for the group. The Cal Poly graduate spent years on the local branch’s Board of Directors, even serving as president for about a year.
After mentoring a local paraplegic boy, Jacob Slattery, for four years, Gingg was matched with 13-year-old Javier Valencia in 2009. At the time, the boy lacked a male role model; his sister, Mayra, became his legal guardian at age 19 after their mother died and their father was deported.
From the start, Gingg said, he was struck by Valencia’s polite and thoughtful attitude — as well as the fact that the soccer player didn’t seem fazed that his mentor uses a motorized wheelchair.
“It’s a testament to Javier’s openness,” said Gingg, who is paralyzed from the neck down due to a 1982 car accident.
Over the past 4 1/2 years, the two have bonded over fishing trips, sporting events and visits to the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art, where they like to pose for pictures in front of their favorite pieces.
That’s not to say everything has been sunny.
Gingg said Valencia has struggled with school repeatedly — at times cutting classes, failing to do his homework and flunking important courses. The teen was suspended at one point for missing too many days of school.
“He had a rough few years, but he came back on top,” Gingg said.
The 18-year-old is on track to graduate from Gingg’s alma mater, Morro Bay High School, in May. Following a summer internship at a local law firm, he plans to attend college in New York in the fall.
“Bryan always pushes me to keep my grades up at school, and because of this, I have become more motivated,” Valencia wrote in an essay submitted to the national Big Brothers Big Sisters organization.
“I work harder in school because Bryan makes me want to be better.”
Gingg also spoke about Valencia’s emotional growth, noting he’s seen improvements in decision-making and self-confidence.
“I like to think we’ve grown together,” Gingg said. “I don’t look at it as I’ve only changed his life. … He changed my life, and we’ve changed together.”
Sarah Levanway and Mayra Rios
Levanway has forged a similarly strong bond with her Little, Mayra Rios. The two were matched in 2007, when Rios was 11.
“I noticed from the get-go how full of life she is and fun to be around,” Levanway said, but she noticed something else about the chatty cheerleader. “Very early on, I realized that one of the biggest things that I could bring to our match was the ability to listen.”
Rios, who is deaf, grew up with a single mom who does not speak American Sign Language or English. Levanway, who started studying sign language in high school, has worked as a sign language interpreter at Cal Poly since 2005 and is married to TekTegrity co-founder Russ Levanway, who has two cochlear implants to help restore hearing.
She said she specifically sought to be paired with a deaf person from a Spanish-speaking family. Levanway said she often translates conversations between Rios, now 19, and her mother. In addition, Levanway accompanied Rios to her first-ever dentist appointment, and helped her get a driver’s permit, pick out glasses and search for a summer job. The two bake birthday cakes, go bargain hunting and go for walks.
Because Rios attends the California School of the Deaf in Fremont every Monday through Friday, she and Levanway hang out primarily on weekends. But they stay in touch via texting and Apple’s FaceTime app.
Over the eight years she’s mentored Rios, Levanway said she’s seen a “huge change” in the teen.
“When we were first matched, I asked her what she wanted to do when she grew up. She told me that she either wanted to work in a restaurant as a cook or clean houses,” Levanway recalled. “She didn’t have anybody … in her life to tell her that education was important and to challenge her about her future.”
Levanway, a Cal Poly graduate, urged Rios to “think about your gifts and abilities and how you can make an impact on the world.”
Rios, who graduates in June, plans to attend Ohlone College in Fremont. In a Big Brothers Big Sisters essay, Rios wrote that, “I’ve learned a lot from Sarah, and I still have a lot to learn from her. … I am so thankful to have her in my life because I know she will always be there for me if I need her.”
“I’ve been just inspired by her and seeing how she’s overcome so many obstacles in her life,” Levanway said, noting that Rios was one of two students at her campus selected to attend a leadership summit in Washington, D.C.
“She is bright and beautiful and people are noticing her for who she is. That’s pretty amazing.”
WANT TO BE A MENTOR?
Big Brothers Big Sisters of San Luis Obispo County needs you. As of April 24, 29 girls and 69 boys in the county were waiting to be matched with adult mentors, according to the nonprofit organization.
Although the group tries to match community volunteers and children within 90 days, some of the children have been on the waiting list for more than a year, Executive Director Anna Boyd-Bucy said.
Volunteer Bryan Gingg praised the power of the mentor relationship, noting that it doesn’t take much to make a difference in a child’s life.
“Everybody thinks they don’t have enough time, and (mentoring) really doesn’t take that much time,” Gingg said. “The (real) commitment is, you’re thinking about somebody else besides yourself.”
Boyd-Bucy called mentoring “a relatively simple way to make systemic change in our community,” adding that it fosters young people capable of “paying it forward on a generational level.”
“Kids in our program grow up and they’re wealthier and have better relationships and … become mentors themselves,” she said. For more information about Big Brothers Big Sisters of San Luis Obispo County, call 781-3226 or visit www.slobigs.org.