My Big Sister Jo Ann changed my life

Jo Ann at my wedding

I want to thank Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Bay Area for changing my life.  For giving me a chance at wonderful life by matching me way back in the 70’s and by doing this I was given the amazing life I have today.  I am 55 years old.  My Big Sister Jo Ann Robinson passed away in January. I have been meaning to reach out and thank you since then but wasn’t certain how to.  I will inherit some money from her estate and when I do so I plan to make a donation.

In the meantime  I thought maybe I could just share with you the speech I read at her memorial and you might get a glimmer of what your organization did for me.  I will also attach a photo (although it is 23 years old).  I wrote to you way back then and you published my thank you letter which meant a lot to Jo.  I am not expecting anything like that now.  I just want to confirm that your organization changes lives!!

Jo Ann Robinson

A memorial

 Today is about Jo Ann and celebrating her life and how she impacted other peoples’ lives.  In order to better understand what she meant to me I think it makes sense to hear a bit of how we came to meet and where I came from.  I met Jo when I was 12 years old.  A quick synopsis of the first 12 years of my life goes as follows:  my mom had 5 kids by the time she was 21.  She and my father were forced to be married at 15.  One child was given up for adoption and she was left with 4 others and my dad was gone.  I didn’t meet him until I was 17 and he died when I was 18.  He was in and out of jail, due to his drug addiction.  He was not in our lives and never supported us financially.  My mom was in and out of mental health facilities, probably due to being a child raising 4 children.  Her addiction was and still is to prescription medication.  Not a lot of joy in my childhood.  There were two male influences in my life, my Grandfather who worked his entire life to support his 3 adult children and all of their children.  You see my aunt and uncle didn’t make good choices either.  So I was quite literally from a broken family. The other man in my life was Hal Robinson.  Both men are gone now but I know how very blessed I was to have them in my life. 

 Now back to how Jo Ann and I met.  A social worker suggested that my mom sign all of her children up in the Bay Area Big Brothers/Big Sisters program.  This program matches needy children with a mentor of sorts.  The only requirement to the Big Sister is to spend one day a month with her little sister.  Well as it turned out our relationship was more than a visit once a month. It was 42 years of amazement for me and I am still pinching myself.  Imagine, if you will, how my life changed when that Carmengia pulled up in front of my house and out stepped Jo Ann Robinson!   In the beginning Jo would take me to all the Big Sister/Little sister gatherings.  Lots of really fun stuff and I felt so special.  She would buy me amazing clothes and unique gifts.  I think she must have seen that these outings were the highlight of my life and so we began to go more places and do more things.  She took me to plays and concerts, trips to GG Park and Tilden park and A’s games and just a plethora of fun activities and excursions.  I guess I didn’t bug her too much because I was beginning to spend time at their house in Hayward and more time with Hal when he was home.  I was in awe of them.  I had never seen a 3 story house before and the room I stayed in was so pretty.  It seems to me it was shades of yellow and there were sewing things in there but I could be wrong I just remember thinking it was so pretty and I was so happy. They were very down to earth and I couldn’t wait to spend time with them.  It was always an adventure.  There was my first fancy restaurant, my first live theater experience, my first ferry cruise on the bay, my first trip to Sausalito, my first shopping excursion, and just a lot of live sports events, lots of movies, and grand adventures.  I especially loved when we would go to the Mountain Play on Mt. Tam and I now take my daughter and my sister.

 I had the pleasure of knowing Elaine and Don and Christine and Art early on but when I first met the Adkins family as a long group I could not have been more petrified.  I think it was a Holiday dinner at the Hayward house.  Never, except on TV, had a seen anything like it.  A large group of family members who cared for one another, who were respectful and kind, happy and full of joy.  I sat back praying I wouldn’t do or say anything stupid, and of course I did, but I won’t go into that.  I just felt so special to be there with them.  As time went on I came to admire each of them for different reasons.  Christine, Jo’s mom, was always so happy and so kind to me.  She and Art seemed to be so proud of their children and loved each one so much.  Buddy was always funny and brought a lot of excitement when he came.  Elaine along with her husband Don showed me what loving and devoted PARTENERS were really like and they modeled what being really good parents was about.  The Adkins grandkids are such a great group of human beings and I think it all comes from the root of that family.  I used to wish I could be an Adkins kid. J  The times when I was invited to join the group for the annual family birthday luncheons were very special to me.  When, at Amy’s wedding I was placed at Adkins grand children’s table, even though we were all adults, I was still all giddy inside.  At Diane’s wedding I was again included in family photos and had a place at the family table.  These gestures meant more to me than they could ever know.

 Jo Ann was not someone you would call maternal or all mushy.  She was only 18 years older than me so when people asked “is this your daughter?” she immediately said no, but it was difficult to define our relationship.  Jo Ann was always comfortable saying “she is my friend”.  But for me she was everything I wished I could be.  I was so proud to be with her wherever we went.  Even though she was not my mom she, without meaning to, showed me what being a mom could be.  She always included me and kept in touch with me.  When I graduated she gave me a string of pearls, I treasure them to this day. When it came time for me to marry, she and Hal quite literally gave me my wedding.  All the while staying in the back round and making it my day and including all of my family.  They did everything and although the marriage lasted only 13 years it is still one of my very fondest memories.  And again Jo’s family came into play Elaine, Don, Amy and Diane were there.  The girls stepped in for me when my greeter and guest book person showed up too late.  Don video taped the entire day and gave me a beautifully edited keep sake that I have viewed and shared with my daughter many times. They were always gracious and supportive.   I know everyone in this room knew that Hal and Jo Ann were the best host and hostess and never said no to anything.  Even after the wedding was all over, the guests were gone and the last dish was washed… our wedding party showed up at 11 at night tipsy and craving more of Hal’s tri tip sandwiches.  Most people would say “get the hell out, we’re going to bed” but no.  They dug everything out and we had more champagne and those sandwiches, out on the porch in Forestville in the middle of the night. 

 This relationship would never have stood the test of time if not for Jo Ann’s dedication to me.  There were no computers or the technology that easily enabled two people a world apart to keep in touch.  It was all Jo Ann.  She was an excellent letter writer.  I was a teenager when she was in Japan and a young adult when she was in Panama.  I was all wrapped up in ME and if not for her letters and her making the effort to stay in touch I may have lost her.  I am so blessed she was the women that she was.  She would often drop a line and would always send these amazing gifts to me.  She made a point to see me whenever she came back to the States and was there for me at very important times in my life.  As I grew older and realized what a gift having a true friendship is I was even more grateful that Jo Ann stayed in my life.  She cared for me, worried about me and tolerated my annoying personality.  And WHY I don’t know, but she welcomed anyone I ever brought around.  The more the merrier.   Once she invited me to bring my daughter Rebecca to join her for lunch and an excursion to Safari West.  Well I had no idea what it was but she gave me the impression it was a sort of zoo.  At that age my daughter had her constant friend Megan and she went everywhere with us.  I asked Jo if I could bring her too and rather than say no and inform me of the expense of the day she said sure.  When I got there and realized it cost a small fortune I was mortified and felt awful.  She let me believe it was not a big deal.  She would often do that when I made mistakes and I am forever grateful for that.  Their home was always open to my gaggle of friends.   In addition, when she was in Panama each winter she would allow me to use the house.  The Russian River became my home away from home.  And even when I stayed with her above the garage in Sebastapol, before they bought the Trenton Rd. house I got to be around Art and Christine and the kennel, and those were glorious days too. 

 There were so many River Road adventures.  Those that come to mind are: The Annual Forestville BBQ, the annual 4th of July celebration of Elaine’s birthday, the annual barrel tasting weekends, all of these events were well know by my friends and they would do anything to be honored with an invitation to come along.  My association with the Robinson’s made me very popular as word of the great parties would get out.  Another generous thing Jo was willing to do for my daughter’s school fundraiser was to allow me to auction off a wine tasting weekend trip in their home.  In addition Hal and Jo would allow me to auction a pair of 49er seats at the same fundraiser. Those two items were the hottest items on the program.   I always made sure my good friends were the ones who bid the most on the wine weekend.  And Hal was more than happy to have all the ladies show up.  We took over the bottom level of the Wickiup house and had a blast.  And of course Jo would make some amazing food and it was all the talk when my friends got together.  I tell you, if everyone that wished they were included actually showed up when I went up to Santa Rosa, we would have to put up tents in the yard.  Jo Ann was always the chauffer and was our tour guide and constant hostess.

 Jo Ann taught me that seeing the world is a wonderful thing. I have traveled from Finland to what was then the Soviet Union and England, Ireland, France, Greece and Turkey.  But my most memorial trip was visiting Hal and Jo Ann in Panama.  Because being on vacation and seeing new places is one thing but being on vacation with Hal and Jo Ann and meeting more of their friends, and having adventures in their company was simply the best way to see the world.

 I could go on and on.  Because she literally gave me my life.  She selflessly gave of herself never expecting anything in return.  When I tried to express how much she meant to me and how she changed my life she would poo poo it and change the subject.  After they hosted my wedding at their home she wouldn’t allow me to make a fuss over it.  So, I wrote a letter to the Big Sisters agency to let them know of a success story and how much I appreciated their program.  They put the letter on the front page of the newsletter that Jo Ann was still getting in the mail.  I think she was embarrassed but I also think it made her happy.  She shunned praise and affection but in the end I think I was able to express my never-ending love and appreciation to her.  We had a good talk last year and I kind of made her listen to me praise her, to tell her what I learned from her and what she meant to me.  There were tears all around.  So when her end came I know I did my best to thank her, to honor her and to let her know how very much I loved her.  I can’t imagine never seeing her again.  She taught me how to cook, how to be a hostess, she taught me manners and ethics, she showed me what it meant to be graceful, humble, generous, caring, accepting and kind.  I have failed in some of those areas, but there IS only one Jo Ann Robinson.  I know God is good, because that first day when she opened her car door in front of my house, He blessed my life by putting her in it.

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