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Honorary siblings 30 years and counting

Hope Padilla, left, and Gloria Rael do some catching up recently at a cafe on Albuquerque’s West Side. In 1985-86, Rael was Padilla’s Big Sister in the national program that matches mentors with children. The Big Brothers Big Sisters program is celebrating its 50th anniversary in New Mexico. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Sitting close together on a recent day at a table in the Flying Star Cafe on Corrales Road, chatting about old times and what’s happening now as they share a plate of mac and cheese and grilled chicken, it’s not difficult to imagine Gloria Rael and Hope Padilla as big sister and little sister.

And that’s just what they are. Only not in the blood kin sense.

A good match

Little Sister Hope Padilla, pictured here in Big Sister Gloria Rael’s car, was just 8 when her mother enrolled her in the program in Las Vegas, New Mexico.

Back in 1985, when Rael was a junior at New Mexico Highlands University in Las Vegas and Padilla was an 8-year-old girl in that town, Rael was the Big Sister and Padilla was the Little Sister in the national program that matches mentors with girls and boys who need the encouragement and support of an older person in their lives.

“I grew up in a single-parent home in an impoverished neighborhood,” Padilla, now 42, said. “There was not a lot of money. Mom worked a full-time job and I had two older brothers. The graduation rate (in the neighborhood) was not real high, and there was a lot of drug use. My mother understood the value of getting us involved (with positive influences). My brothers were part of the program as well.”

Hope Padilla, left, and Gloria Rael embrace during a 2002 visit. (Courtesy of Gloria Rael)

The program, Big Brothers Big Sisters, marks its 50th anniversary in New Mexico this year. Angela Reed Padilla (no relation to Hope), is the chief executive officer of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central New Mexico, the oldest of three program agencies in the state. She said an estimated 15,000 kids have been matched with mentors during those 50 years.

An interesting aspect of the program is that the mentors (referred to as Bigs) often benefit as much from the relationship as the kids (Littles).

Rael, who grew up in Anton Chico, the second youngest in a family of five girls, had a lot of experience as a little sister. But her position as a mentor in Big Brothers Big Sisters was a new to her.

“It was a different role, a different responsibility,” Rael, 55, said. “In college, you think of forging ahead. I was going for a business degree. It impacted me to know that someone was ultra dependent on me. It kept me centered and focused.”

Rael and Padilla’s official Big Sister-Little Sister relationship lasted just two years, concluding when Rael graduated from college, got married and moved to Albuquerque. But Rael stayed in touch with Padilla and her family.

“The connection never ended,” Rael said. “I took her to a spa this April for her birthday.”

Big Brothers wanted

Reed Padilla has been with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central New Mexico for 23 years, serving as the agency’s CEO for most of that time. Before joining Big Brothers Big Sisters, she was a social worker here in the state.

“When I was a social worker, I was constantly referring kids to Big Brothers Big Sisters,” Reed Padilla said. “This (program) is the one thing in their lives that is hopeful, gives them joy and improves their lives. When you bring in an outside person, it opens up possibilities and hopes. Here is one stable person in their life that is just there to help them.”

Mentors, usually 18 or older, take kids on outings such as hikes, bike rides, trips to the mall or to the movies. Bigs help Littles with homework, and, perhaps most importantly, just listen to them as they unveil their fears and their hopes.

Reed Padilla has herself been Big Sister to four Littles.

“My first Little Sister is 30 now and we are still in touch,” she said. “My fourth just graduated from high school and is going to New Mexico State.”

The Central New Mexico agency serves Bernalillo, San Juan, Sandoval, Cibola, Valencia, Torrance, Socorro and Otero counties. The Mountain Region, headquartered in Santa Fe, covers 17 counties, and the Southeastern New Mexico agency, operated out of Roswell, is responsible for eight counties.

Big Brothers Big Sisters gets federal, state and local funding but still receives much of its operating funds from donations. Families of the children pay nothing for the mentoring services.

Reed Padilla said the Central New Mexico office is estimating it will make 469 matches this year.

“We match Little Sisters as soon as they come into the program,” she said. “We never have enough Little Sisters referred. We get four times as many Little Brothers applicants. We never have enough men (Big Brothers). We have an active waiting list of 200 boys (in Central New Mexico).”

A major impact

Hope Padilla was the flower girl at Big Sister Gloria Rael’s wedding. (Courtesy of Gloria Rael)

On their first outing together as Big Sister-Little Sister, Rael took Padilla to a basketball game at Highlands. Then they went to a Miami Sound Machine concert.

“I just remember her being quiet and shy,” Rael said. “I had to reach out to her. But once we got past that, she was calling me. Even though she was shy, she wanted to experience things. She was curious.”

The two became friends very quickly. Padilla was the flower girl at Rael’s wedding. Years later, Rael attended Padilla’s graduation from West Las Vegas High.

“She took me to my first political rally,” Padilla said. “It was Jesse Jackson in Albuquerque.”

“She went right up to him,” Rael said. “She got a handshake from Jesse Jackson.”

Now, Rael is the mother of two grown daughters and the executive director of the Albuquerque Adult Learning Center, Inc., which provides adult education programs to help students attain high school equivalency degrees, get jobs or get into post-secondary education.

Padilla, married and the mother of a 10-year-old boy, is employed by Albuquerque Public Schools, doing family-liaison and community-outreach work for Alameda Elementary School.

“I work with families at risk, providing food, clothing, housing and help with school registration,” Padilla said. “I was one of those kids. I got the shoes. I got the jacket. I think (Rael) being my Big Sister was one of the major impacts in my life. It influenced me to want to do more. I might not be doing what I do now if I had not been involved with (Big Brothers/Big Sisters). I still try to connect students at my school with the program. I think it is super important.”

Rael and Padilla see each other at least several times a year. Rael goes to birthday parties for Padilla’s son. When the little boy was thrown by a horse and injured a couple of years back, Rael was at the hospital with Padilla.

“It’s like she is another part of the family,” Rael said.

“I never thought of it any other way,” said Padilla.