Sisters, but not by blood: Program brings together 'big' and 'little' in perfect pair

Tina Locurto
York Dispatch

Aja Gray and Ki'mani Hartzog took a drive up to Springettsbury Township Park on a breezy, cloudy Wednesday afternoon. After passing by the ever-so-tempting jungle gym with kids giggling and climbing, the pair walked to a quieter area underneath the pavilion at the rear of the park.

Gray, 30, of York City, plopped down a dark blue canvas bag and pulled out a pair of tiny canvases, a roll of paper towels and brushes she brought from her school's art classroom.

Ten-year-old Ki'Mani was elated to paint — especially a subject that she loves: unicorns. At the end of their hourlong session, Ki'Mani was happy to hold up the masterpieces and named them Rainbow and Star — they were sisters, she said.

To any onlooker, it's clear Gray and Ki'Mani have a special relationship. Much like the unicorns, they are sisters — just not by blood. 

Ki'mani Hartzog (left) and Aja Gray (right) pose for a photo at Springettsbury Park on Wednesday, June 22, 2022. Tina Locurto photo.

"I think we're a perfect match, right?" Gray said, turning to Ki'Mani, who was hard at work painting her unicorn. "I kind of want to be that for her. Like, this is something she always remembers. Somebody that's always there for her."

The pair first met in 2019 after Ki'Mani's mother signed her up to be part of Big Brothers Big Sisters of York & Adams Counties at the age of 7. The program, which pairs a child in York County to a "big," aims to create a mentor relationship and help the child reach growth goals.

Ki'Mani is Gray's first "little" in the program.

One of Ki'Mani's personal goals, for example, was to become less shy and come out of her shell more.

Aja Gray and Ki'mani Hartzog work on a painting together at Springettsbury Park on Wednesday, June 22, 2022. Tina Locurto photo.

"Within the first couple of months she really started to open up," Gray said. "It took her a little while just to get comfortable in the sense of being free and having conversations."

"Littles" and "bigs" within the program are meant to meet up at least a few times each month. For Gray personally, she aims to spend time with Ki'Mani every other week. 

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While she tries to find free activities like park trips, Gray also spends her own money to do special activities too — like taking Ki'Mani to get her nails done or going to the movies. Ki'Mani always returns home after an afternoon with Gray with a full belly.

"(Ki'Mani's) mom is so sweet. She's always thankful and very happy," Gray said. "I have (Ki'Mani) spoiled, which I do."

Gray, who is a York City School District social worker, said it is vital for children in her community to have an outlet to see the world. 

Ki'mani Hartzog works on a unicorn painting at Springettsbury Park on Wednesday, June 22, 2022. Tina Locurto photo.

"We can explore some things that maybe she might not have if we weren't together," Gray said. "I think it's just exposure and building relationships that they need."

Big Brothers Big Sisters of York & Adams Counties has two primary programs — a school-based mentorship program and a community-based mentorship program.

Currently, the community program has 45 mentorship matches — down 20 from before the COVID-19 pandemic started, according to Mark Lakin, a spokesperson for the nonprofit.

Parents often sign their children up on recommendation from their school or other family members. Matching a little to a big can be a challenge, however, and geography and personality types come into play when selecting the right volunteers, Lakin said.

Aja Gray and Ki'mani Hartzog work on a painting together at Springettsbury Park on Wednesday, June 22, 2022. Tina Locurto photo.

"Our mission here is to help support one-on-one, mentoring relationships to ignite the biggest possible futures for youth," Lakin said. "Just having that one person there for them to be a role model and to be there can help them see the opportunities that they have to feel more confident in themselves."

The program especially is beneficial to children who come from low-income or minority households, he added.

Additionally, around 60% of children in the program come from single-parent households, and 15% of those children have a parent who is incarcerated, Lakin said. 

Like any program involving children, safety is a top priority. Each prospective mentor who wishes to volunteer will undergo a seven-layer background check.

All mentors must be over the age of 18 and own a car, Lakin said. 

Individuals who are interested in becoming a mentor can visit www.bbbsyorkadams.org/ for more information.

While volunteering to be a mentor may seem time consuming, Gray thinks otherwise.

"Even if it's just once a month, that makes a difference in the child's life," Gray said. "They want to feel loved and they just want that attention. And so I want to give them the time."

Though the pair only sees each other every other week, Gray and Ki'Mani stay in each other's lives through means of texting, FaceTime or sending TikTok memes. 

"One of the biggest reasons why I did this is because I do want to give back to especially a child in my own community, I wish that I had a big sister," Gray said. "That means a lot to me, and I think that's the most important part of this, is just giving back to the children."

— Reach Tina Locurto at tlocurto@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at @tina_locurto. 

Aja Gray and Ki'mani Hartzog work on a painting together at Springettsbury Park on Wednesday, June 22, 2022. Tina Locurto photo.