About 50 years ago, Pat O'Neil's mother encouraged her to try another round of the Big Sisters program. At the time, the 14-year-old was living in government housing in Boston with her mom and no siblings.
"I was kind of squeamish about getting another Big Sister," she remembers. Her previous two had been in college, then graduated and had to stop participating in the program. At her mom's urging, she signed up again.
"Thank God I did," O'Neil says.
She was paired with Lisa Paone, who was just out of high school at the time. Paone, who is now Lisa Paone Cutten, remembers deciding to do the program because volunteering was a family tradition. "I don't know how I heard about Big Sisters (now Big Brothers Big Sisters)," she says. "I knew it was something I could do to help someone — a very special someone, as it turned out to be."
Last week, O'Neil, 65, and Cutten, 72, reconnected after not seeing each other for 40 years and having lost touch. Cutten, who lives in Northern California, traveled to Austin, where O'Neil now lives, to see O'Neil and meet O'Neil's Little Sister, Maryah Harris, 45, who was paired with O'Neil more than 30 years ago.
Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Texas believes it's the first time a Big Sister has met a Little Sister's Little Sister.
Cutten remembers that when she first decided to become a Big Sister, she had something more in mind. During the 1960s civil rights movement, she wanted to have a one-on-one connection with someone of a different race. Cutten is Italian-American, and O'Neil is African-American. In the Boston area, the Big Brothers organization wouldn't allow it, but the Big Sisters would.
"I realized I could do something," Cutten says. "I could help bridge groups."
Cutten would travel from her home outside Boston to see O'Neil in East Boston. Later, O'Neil went to visit Cutten in her home and enjoy Cutten's mom's Italian cooking. O'Neil rode the train to get to Cutten's home and was scared about taking that trip, but Cutten assured her that she would be at the station to meet her. And she was.
About a year ago, O'Neil was doing some genealogy research and decided to also find that other "family" member, Cutten.
"Lisa was an important part of my teenage years," O'Neil says. She would look forward to their time together each week. "I think that's why I became a Big Sister," O'Neil says. "It meant so much to me."
O'Neil had kept in touch for years with Cutten even after Cutten moved to California and O'Neil joined the Air Force. Cutten would send Christmas cards to O'Neil's mom's house, and O'Neil's mother would then mail them to her. One time, either in 1973 or 1976, they can't remember when, O'Neil had a stopover in California on her way to a base in Asia. They saw each other then, but after that they lost track of each other.
O'Neil remembered a few important details of Cutten's life. First, she had married and had Cutten as a last name. Second, she had a son named Vito. O'Neil found a Vito Cutten on Facebook and reached out to him to see if his mother was named Lisa. Vito then connected the women.
Soon they began planning the reunion trip, which included dinner together with spouses and a carriage ride as well as a trip to Starbucks, where they talked for three hours straight as the time flew by.
One of the biggest lessons Cutten taught O'Neil was the importance of being reliable. It's a lesson O'Neil took with her when, 20 years later, at 34, she decided to become a Big Sister and got matched with Harris. No matter what came up, O'Neil wouldn't cancel on Harris — she knew how important it was for her to be there.
"Nothing stopped me on the day I promised her I would see her," O'Neil says.
At the time, Harris and her brother were being raised by her grandmother in East Austin. Harris was also 14. In her large extended family, she was the only girl, Harris says. "I always wanted a Big Sister when I was little."
She was also happy to get out from under her grandmother's strict thumb. "I get to get out of the house," Harris says. "It was good to get away."
Their best memory of their time together was Hobie Day, which Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Texas still does. They sailed a catamaran on Lake Travis. They ended up flipping over and into the water. They also remember getting to see "The Nutcracker" every year.
Harris also remembers lessons O'Neil taught her, like always have money for a phone call and money for a cab. But it went beyond the practical.
"I think it would have been hard," Harris says of what would have happened if she had not chosen to be matched with a Big Sister. Her life, she says, "wouldn't have been as fulfilled as it was. ... It made a big difference in so many ways."
They have been able to keep in touch, in part because O'Neil has had the same landline phone number. O'Neil came to all of Harris' graduations and school activities and now knows Harris' children and grandchildren.
Harris says even now, she tells people O'Neil is her sister. "I see her as my real Big Sister. She's the only one I ever had."
O'Neil says she just can't emphasize how "awesome" Big Brothers Big Sisters is.
"You don't know how much impact you had," O'Neil says. "It makes a difference."
"Lisa, if you had never taken that leap to volunteer, and taken that leap and come out ... the lives you affected," O'Neil said.
"It's very needed; it's very necessary," Harris says.
"You get back more than you put in," Cutten says. You may one day realize "what a far-reaching impact you had on others."