April 19, 2014

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Big Sister of the Year

Lorain volunteer earns national honor

LORAIN — It’s hard for Crystal Rivera to believe that she probably saved Ariana Melendez’s life.
When they first met, Ariana was barely maintaining a C average in elementary school and was getting into fights once a week. Just three years later, the 12-year-old girl is on the honor roll at Meister Road Elementary, and she prefers shopping and amusement parks to getting in trouble.
Rivera, 25, is Ariana’s big sister. Not by blood, but the kind of sibling who’s part of the Big Brothers Big Sisters of America organization. Earlier this week, Rivera learned that she was chosen over hundreds of volunteers across the country as the 2007 National Big Sister of the Year.
“It’s definitely an honor,” she said Friday from her home in Lorain. “I’m honestly … I don’t have lot of words for it.”
She and Ariana will attend a ceremony in Arizona later this month with the national big brother of the year and his little brother. They’ve already toured the state legislature, ridden in the Cinco de Mayo parade in Lorain and will meet the president at the White House later this year. 
Rivera was nominated by Big Brothers Big Sisters of Lorain County and beat out 30 other nominees from Ohio and 48 others from the country to win the top honor.
“What pushed her over the edge was a drawing that Ariana sent in that showed them both sitting at a park with reasons why Crystal should be chosen written above,” said Marcus Madison, spokesman for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Lorain County.
Rivera joined the organization when she was attending Lorain County Community College as a way to help out in the community.
“I enjoy working with children — I work at a charter school in Cleveland now — and it just seemed like a great organization to volunteer with,” Rivera said. “Plus I’m the baby of seven siblings, so it’s nice to have a little sister.”
Ariana joined on the suggestion of her teachers, who saw her grades slipping and her behavior spiraling out of control. The two shared similar interests according to their applications, including shopping and playing baseball, and were paired together.
“She was very shy at the beginning, and it took about a year before she really opened up, since I only saw her once a month while I was in college,” she said. “I saw a slow change in her, but it got bigger when I started to see her every weekend.”
Ariana’s parents spoke little English and they rarely had a phone in the house, so the two set up a system where Rivera would pick her up every Saturday at 2 p.m. The system hasn’t failed once.
“She never missed a meeting,” Rivera said. “Not once.”
The two would go to movies, amusement parks, or just hang out at Rivera’s home. Since the birth of Rivera’s son 11 months ago, they’ve been spending more time just talking with each other and Ariana has been an excellent babysitter.
“She tries to make the baby laugh if he’s crying, and if there’s dishes in the sink she’ll walk right over and do them without saying anything,” Rivera said.
Because of Rivera’s involvement, two of her sisters and a brother-in-law have joined Big Brothers Big Sisters of Lorain County. Rivera said she’s looking forward to watching them change the lives of others.
Contact Adam Wright at 329-7151 and awright@chroniclet.com.