Big and Little: Sisters at Heart

By Claire Edwards


They have never met; they work and live in different areas and come from various backgrounds. Yet Connie Ruble Avery, Ann Geers and Dawn Salley have something very special in common as mentors in the Big Brothers Big Sisters of Western North Carolina program. They each have a deeply appreciative Little Sister.


Big Sister Connie Ruble Avery, Hendersonville, shares her upbeat personality and creative ideas for activities and takes advantage of BBBS events (horseback riding, rafting, holiday parties) and free passes (great shows at the Flat Rock Playhouse, she says). She and Little Sister Becca have been matched for just over three years.


“About three years ago I decided I wanted to do something for someone else, not just for me, and that is when I became involved with BBBS,” she says. “I met Becca when she was 9 and in the 4th grade. We were a great match from the very beginning, due in large part to our shared love for sports and the outdoors. It has been a very rewarding experience for me; and a special treat has been attending some of her school functions and honors, something I had never done since I have not had children of my own. Now 13 and in the 7th grade, she is an excellent student, and recently made the girls basketball team at her school. I am so proud of her!”


Connie says some of the most fun activities that they have done together have been the simplest, like riding bikes in Jackson Park, jumping together on an inflatable trampoline, running together in the Girls on the Run 5K, snow tubing down a hill and petting the baby goats at the Carl Sandburg home. She says Becca loves to skateboard so they spend a lot of time at the Skate Park in Hendersonville.


“Becca is one of the few girls who skate there, but she is strong and courageous and does not feel intimidated by the boys,” Connie says. “But this is one sport that I do as a spectator and let her be the star. “


Connie sings with Womansong Chorus of Asheville and says that Becca and her family have attended several of her concerts.


“I am somewhat of a fitness fanatic and love to do several different sports,” says Connie, whose car license plate reads FIT4EVER. “Life, and fitness, can truly begin at 50!”


At 50 Connie found the Body for Life program, lost 35 lbs, started going to the gym regularly and says she embarked on a healthy way of living that lasts to this day (she’s now 60). In her late 50s she trained for and started participating in triathlons (swim, bike and run) and did three in one month last summer when she completed her first Olympic distance triathlon, about a one-mile swim, 25-mile bike ride and a 10K run.


“I like to challenge myself to bigger, better, harder, higher,” she says. “Last year a friend invited me to climb Mt Whitney with her, in California, the highest peak in the continental USA. Well, we did it, a 22-mile hike in one day, starting and ending in the dark with headlamps, and the single hardest thing I have ever done in my life. Cycling is my favorite sport, and a few weeks ago I rode in the CNC Cycle North Carolina ride, from Brevard to Carolina Beach near Wilmington, over seven days, with 1000 other people, camping out at night, such blissful fun! I have to mention snow skiing also, which is at least as blissful as biking for me. I love to fly down the mountains in Colorado.”


Connie works as a Physical Therapist for CarePartners out of the Hendersonville office doing home care, which means going to the homes of the patients who are homebound and providing physical therapy. She says this work allows her to help people—mostly elderly—get stronger and regain their function and mobility and be able to resume their normal lifestyles in their homes. This very special one-on-one time is sometimes the only contact the patient has with the outside world, she says, so a very important part of their lives.


“Also, instead of being inside a building all day, I get to be outside,” she says. “Driving in the mountains and setting my own schedule is very appealing to me. “


Next year Connie wants to complete at least three cross-state bike rides.


“I want to help my Little [sister] get a ‘grown up’ bike (she just has her old ‘kids’ bike’) and start riding with her on some of the trails around here,” she says.


In Waynesville, Ann Geers has been very involved with Little Sister Paige since being matched almost two years ago. She discovered Paige’s “sparks” early on and has supported and encouraged her. Paige is a gifted horseback rider, so Ann helped her with riding lessons; Paige has a passion for gymnastics, so Ann has helped her pursue that; Paige also has a beautiful singing voice and Ann has encouraged her.


Ann is a semi-retired developmental psychologist. She worked with children with hearing loss at The Central Institute for the Deaf in St. Louis, MO, directing a speech and hearing clinic, conducting research, and teaching graduate students at Washington University. She currently works from her home office writing articles, conducting research and lecturing around the world on the benefits of cochlear implantation for young deaf children.


“I am a ‘city girl’ who relocated to the mountains 11 years ago,” she says. “I enjoy spending time with my animals (4 dogs, 2 cats, 2 horses), hiking and riding in the mountains. I have enjoyed meeting lots of great local people volunteering for the Obama campaign and helping my husband in his work with HART Theater. I spend time with my two grown sons (one in Chapel Hill, one in St. Louis) and two grandsons whenever I get a chance. And, of course, Wednesday afternoons spent with my Little Sister, Paige, are among the highlights of my life.”


Paige, 11, says that she loves hanging out with her Big Sister and says that they have similar interests. They both really love horses; Ann has a farm with horses and early in the relationship she made sure Paige took riding lessons and learned safety before being allowed to ride her horses. Paige says that once she was riding and the horse stumbled and fell over, causing her to fall. She says that Ann encouraged her to get up and get right back on the horse, which she did. She now has no fear at all. She says that recently the horse stumbled again but she was not fearful at all and the horse did not fall.


“My Big Sister has become my very best friend,” Paige says. But her first New Year’s Resolution will be to increase her physical strength and endurance “so I can keep up with her. She keeps me young.”


Ann says she applied to be a mentor because she believes in community service and wanted to contribute to a better life for someone in Haywood County.


“Probably I also missed my grandkids, who live in St. Louis, and thought a Little Sister might help fill the void,” she says. “What I discovered after being matched with Paige was much more fulfilling than I ever imagined. Not only does she bring sunshine into our lives every week, she has also taught me so much about growing up as a girl today (I only have sons and grandsons). She is funny and smart and talented and enthusiastic. Her basically positive attitude toward life is so much like my own, and we are constantly amazed at our similarities. I have high hopes for her future as she strives to fulfill her great potential. I think we will remain good friends for the rest of our lives.”


Ann says they have enjoyed getting to know each other’s families. She says Paige’s family wants only the best for her and each of them seem to fully accept Ann in her role as a loving and supportive mentor.


Big Sister Dawn Salley is a firefighter based in Asheville but travels with her crew to wherever there’s an emergency in the US, including to the forest fires in the southwest last summer and for cleanup in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in New York last fall. She has also made three trips to Bolivia to do volunteer work at an orphanage there.


Asked why she volunteered to be a Big Sister four years ago, Dawn says she just wants to help one person to have a better life.


“I can’t change the world,” she says. “So I try to think of whatever small thing I can do to make a difference. I don’t think I do anything very amazing.”


But her Little Sister Lyric, now 18, will tell you that Dawn, in fact, is amazing.


“She is an inspiration to me especially for graduating from high school and college,” Lyric says. “She’s the only person I know who completed college then went back to college to get a better job.”


Lyric is in all honors classes in high school and volunteers for at least four different community groups in addition to working at Ingles. She has applied to several colleges and has been accepted to some already, but hasn’t made a final choice of which one she’ll attend. She knows when she graduates from high school this year she will also “age out” of the BBBS program, but says that she and Dawn will “always be friends.”


Dawn says she and Lyric have enjoyed walking, putt-putt, baking and just hanging out together. She says they went to see “The Woman in Black” at Flat Rock Playhouse a couple years ago and she remembers that Lyric “just laughed at me the whole ride home because there were parts in the play that startled or scared me.”


“It has been wonderful to watch Lyric grow so much in the last four years and see how her interests have changed,” Dawn says. “She has been interested in dance as long as I’ve known her but she also played basketball for a couple years and now is working a steady job. I’m so proud of how much she volunteers and keeps up with her school work to be better prepared for college.”


Dawn says that she was inspired by her own mother.


“She worked over 40 hours a week but she and my dad still made it to all the games and performances my brother and I had growing up,” she says. “I rarely heard her complain about being tired from trying to keep up with us but looking back I know she must have been. She is still working and taking care of her family, just in different ways as we all age.”


November, 2012 marked the 30th anniversary of Big Brothers Big Sisters in western North Carolina. This nonprofit strives to provide children facing adversity with strong and enduring, professionally supported one-to-one mentoring relationships that enrich their lives forever. Girls and boys in WNC are on a waiting list to be matched with a mentor. BBBS hopes to add these to the over 10,000 children in this area who have been matched in the program over the years with caring, inspiring adults like Connie, Ann and Dawn.


Find out how you can volunteer as a mentor or support Bowl For Kids’ Sake (February 23 in Buncombe and Henderson Counties and March 9 in Haywood County) by visiting the BBBS website at, Facebook page at, or contact Jamye Davis at 828-253-1470 or


For More Information: Jamye Davis, Assistant Director Big Brothers Big Sisters of WNC 828-253-1470,


Claire Edwards has been employed with Big Brothers Big Sisters of WNC for the past 4 years as a Match Support Specialist. She works closely with Bigs, Littles, and parents/ guardians and sees firsthand the impact that having a mentor can have on a young person.

Sandi Tomlin-Sutker
Written by Sandi Tomlin-Sutker