ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Mary Anne Varela-Spooner had been let down.
By the time she was 8 years old, Big Brothers Big Sisters unsuccessfully set her up with a young woman, a “big sister” who was supposed to be a mentor but that didn’t pan out.
So when she met Carla Eyberg of Albuquerque, her new big sister, she was wary. “I wanted to make sure this one wasn’t going to bolt either,” Varela-Spooner said.
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Big Brothers Big Sisters is encouraging past pairings who’ve stayed in touch to share their stories by calling 837-9223.
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After more than 20 years, it’s safe to say Eyberg’s not going anywhere. The two are the closest of friends; Varela-Spooner, who lives in Virginia now, said she owes her entire life to Eyberg’s influence, and even named a daughter after her.
They hit it off right away, said Varela-Spooner, now 35. “She was really nice. Those first few meetings were very low-key, not a lot of grandiose plans or anything like that. Just time.”
Eyberg, 59, remembers Varela-Spooner as a “bundle of energy” who loved nothing more than helping Eyberg make pizza from a store-bought package.
Eyberg wasn’t quite sure what she was in for, she said. She had just found a new appreciation for life on the heels of a “disastrous” divorce in her 20s.
“I was really blessed,” she said. “I wanted to give back but I didn’t want to sit in meetings.”
Spending time with a young Varela-Spooner definitely wasn’t sitting in meetings, but it wasn’t anything too extravagant, either. Sure, the pair went on a couple of ski trips and a trip to Taos, but Varela-Spooner is much more eager to talk about the nights they stayed in at Eyberg’s home cooking or the days they spent walking trails in the Albuquerque foothills.
“I went to therapy later in life, and my therapist and I called it ‘Carla World,’ ” Varela-Spooner said. Her home life wasn’t horrible, she said, but it was difficult and, at times, seemed all-enveloping. During those years, Eyberg worked as a legal secretary, then became a judicial assistant for federal court. “Carla gave me a different perspective.
“I live in a Carla World now, I gotta say,” Varela-Spooner said. “I love my life. It’s fantastic.”
Varela-Spooner graduated from high school – the only one from her family to do so – and had a successful career in the military before earning a master’s in business administration and starting a new life for herself and her family in Virginia, where she works in a hospital. Through it all, she said, she and Eyberg remained close. They still text or email each other at least once a week.
It’s not a situation that the organizers of the Albuquerque Big Brothers Big Sisters hear about often, but it is probably more common than they know.
“It doesn’t surprise me that people form lifelong friendships through us introducing them,” said Rosa Jennings, the Albuquerque chief program officer.
In fact, Varela-Spooner is so close with Eyberg that she named her first daughter Carla. “I don’t think it was ever a second thought.”
“She’s made her mark on who I am,” Varela-Spooner said. “She helped. She helped a lot.”
Though they met when Varela-Spooner was so young, both said that they now count one another as friends, no different from friends their own ages. “It’s nice having a younger person as a friend,” Eyberg said.
Varela-Spooner said she noticed that in her early 20s she stopped looking to Eyberg for parental-type guidance and began to think of her as someone she goes to for advice because she’s a friend whose judgment she trusts.
They live far apart now, and hadn’t seen each other in a couple of years, but they recently met up for a vacation in South Carolina.
“I’m so excited I can’t wait,” Varela-Spooner said before the trip. “I haven’t had a vacation in ages, and she’s so much fun to be around.”
Eyberg said Varela-Spooner wrote the eulogy for Eyberg’s father. She said she believes they will stay in touch forever. “I can’t imagine not.”