Nine years ago, Candra was a shy 8-year-old from an unstable home. Today, she’s a confident teenager on her way to become the first member of her family to graduate from high school. She says much of the credit goes to a woman who drew her out of her shell: her “Big Sister” Katie Nielsen.

candra and katie first pics together
One of the first pictures Big Sister Katie Nielsen and her Little Sister Candra took together in 2006.

Almost every Saturday for the past nine years, Katie and Candra have gotten together to do activities ranging from hiking to visiting every museum in Balboa Park and every amusement park in San Diego County. They’ve bonded and developed a trusting relationship thanks to the Big Brothers Big Sisters program.

“Her successes are as important to me as my successes are,” says Nielsen, who’s named California’s Big Sister of the Year.

The program is simple. Volunteers apply and are matched with children from San Diego based on their mutual interests. The adults are expected to meet at least twice a month for a couple of hours with their Little Sister or Little Brother.

Here are 5 things you should know about Big Brothers Big Sisters:

1. They Create Long-Lasting Bonds

Many Big Sister/Big Brother pairs enjoy each other’s company so much that they keep seeing each for years.

“It’s fun to be a kid again on Saturdays,” Nielsen said. “We’ve been hiking, bike riding and rollerblading. Now we’re starting to look for colleges for Candra, and I’m teaching her how to drive.”

Candra and her Big Sister know they’ll be friends forever.

“It helps you have guidance from someone other than family,” Candra said. “You see the bond grow over the years.”

Nielsen and Candra before they go on a bike ride.
Nielsen and Candra before they go on a bike ride.

2. They Help Kids Develop Courage

Three years ago, Big Brother Lee Mills and Little Brother Julian were matched into the “Sports Bigs” program because of their love for activity, adventure and the outdoors.

“Sports is a great way for kids to build confidence,” Mills said. “It opens up new opportunities for them to try and experience new sports and activities that otherwise they may not be introduced to.”
Mills remembers the time he took Julian out for wake surfing, a water sport where you ride a wave behind a boat without a rope. Julian was wary at first but got a big confidence boost from succeeding at something new.

3. They Build Brighter Futures

Julian, who lives with his mom and sister in San Diego’s Little Italy neighborhood, joined Big Brothers Big Sisters three years ago when he got bad grades in school.

“I didn’t have that male role model or good influence,” Julian said.

Now, Julian is only one credit away from graduating high school. He said being a part of Big Brothers Big Sisters has played a crucial role in helping him stay focused and motivated in school. For the Big Brother or Big Sister, he said, “it’s a good opportunity to be there and help somebody.”

4. They Break Barriers and Open Up Opportunities

Candra’s childhood wasn’t easy: She shuttled between houses and didn’t feel stable. Now, Nielsen, her Big Sister, has given her a reliable constant in her life.

Candra puts it this way: Big Brothers Big Sisters “helped me to open new doors to my life and think of a brighter future for myself.” And that’s not all she’s accomplished.

“Candra has been a real inspiration to her family,” Nielsen said. “She has become a role model to her two younger sisters, both of whom aspire to go to college.”

5. They are Community-Oriented

Big Brothers Big Sisters has forged many partnerships with local businesses, sports teams and local schools.

“The community recognizes the work the volunteers do and know how impactful it is to be a mentor,” said Edith Sanchez Cruz, the program manager of Big Brothers Big Sisters.

The organization hosts ongoing activities like tailgating parties, San Diego ballet shows, Padres games and ice skating parties. Mills recalls attending an event with Big Brothers Big Sisters, where they learned how to box by retired professional boxer Paul Vaden.

“The benefit was hearing a story about someone that had a lifelong dream and accomplished it in addition to learning how to throw a good right-hand hook,” Mills said.

Big Brother Lee Mills and his Little Brother Julian pose with retired professional boxer Paul Vaden.

Why volunteer?

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There are 500 “Littles” in San Diego waiting to be matched with their Big Brother or Big Sister. If you’re interested in being a mentor, Cruz recommends attending a volunteer information session to learn about the program and guidelines.

The organization is currently in high demand of men, and Spanish-speaking male and female volunteers. Areas of high demand are the South Bay, North County and Mid-City (City Heights, Normal Heights and Logan Heights).

Learn more about Big Brothers Big Sisters’s sponsor, SDG&E.


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