Shari Wahlin of St. Cloud was named the Minnesota Big Sister of the Year. John Kokula of Sartell is the Minnesota Big Brother of the Year. Both are competing for the national Big Sister and Big Brother of the year.
This is the first time the agency has won both the state’s Big Sister and Big Brother awards.
“Both of them have gone above and beyond,” said Ann Matvick, program director for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Minnesota. “You don’t have to have grandiose events for your little. It’s just incorporating them into daily life.”
The two will compete against at least 51 other Big Brothers and Big Sisters from around the nation.
The national Big Brother and Big Sister of the Year awards will be announced in April. Winners and their littles will receive a trip in June to the 2012 Big Brothers Big Sisters Leadership Summit in Washington, D.C., a visit to the White House and participation in national outreach initiatives.
“They have a great chance at the national competition,” Matvick said. “They have great stories.”
Wahlin and her little sister, Kirsten Skjonsby, who is also the Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Minnesota Little Sister of the Year, will speak at the organization’s Magic Moments Ball. Kokula and his little brother, Morcelli Kombo, will greet guests at the ball.
It is the organization’s largest fundraiser, and will be 6-11 p.m. March 30 at St. Cloud River’s Edge Convention Center.
Wahlin, 60, and Skjonsby, 17, of Duelm, have been matched for more than three years. They dined at a pizza joint in Foley one night. The duo talked about Skjonsby’s upcoming trip to Florida, how school is going and what they like on their pizza.
Skjonsby is in foster care. Her mother died in May 2011, after years of medical problems. Wahlin has watched the teen mature and become comfortable with herself.
“She has so much courage,” Wahlin said. “She’s been through so much. I marvel at how she’s gotten through it.”
Skjonsby credits Wahlin for always being supportive. They celebrated her acceptance this fall into St. Cloud State University. They discuss what Skjonsby could do with her life. She likes psychology. It’s her favorite class right now.
She spent a lot of time in a nursing home with her mother. Skjonsby watched how her mother’s face lit up when she would visit.
“All I know is that I want to help somebody,” she said. “It feels great when I can help someone.”
The possibilities for the teen are endless, Wahlin said. She feels proud for her little sister’s accomplishments.
Skjonsby just smiles shyly. She appreciates the praise and how Wahlin pushes her to excel.
Wahlin deserves this honor, she said.
“She’s perfect,” Skjonsby said. “With everything I’ve been through, I know Shari will be around no matter what.”
Morcelli Kombo, a 17-year-old from St. Cloud, showed off his first sports coat on a Friday night at a coffee shop. His big brother of five years, John Kokula, bought it for him.
Kokula, 69, of Sartell watched Kombo develop into a young man who loves to learn and prides himself on manners.
“His mother has done a wonderful job raising this young man,” Kokula said.
They learn about the U.S. government and geography. They watch movies, shop at the mall and even sometimes go to church together.
The duo also like to cook together. Kombo dreams of becoming a chef. He recently made Kokula his chicken noodle soup. It tasted wonderful, Kokula said.
Kombo carefully explained how he made his soup. He doesn’t keep any ingredients secret. He wants others to be able to make his recipes.
“People need to eat,” Kombo said. “It’s a good skill to have in case you’re independent, and you don’t have someone to cook with.”
Kokula joined Big Brothers Big Sisters after his son survived a life-threatening car crash in 2007. He cared for Alex, now 24, and afterward wanted to thank people for helping him.
Kokula prayed to God about finding a way to give back.
He was pumping gas one day when he saw a Big Brothers Big Sisters advertisement.
“I made the call,” he said. “The rest is history.”