Honoring a humble hero


Tori Potter, 16, is hugged by her "Big Sister" of seven years, Jill Wagstaff, 29, during an awards ceremony Tuesday for Wagstaff at Sigma Kappa sorority house. Wagstaff, a University of Florida graduate and Gainesville resident, received an award from the American Greeting Card Association called "Heroes in Our Midst" for her work with Big Brothers Big Sisters. Wagstaff is the award's first recipient from Florida.

DOUG FINGER/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Wednesday, January 31, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 31, 2007 at 12:00 a.m.

Gainesville resident Jill Wagstaff insists the closest she's come to being a hero was dressing up as Wonder Woman for Halloween.

Facts

How to get involved

  • To learn how you can volunteer to be a Big Brother or Big Sister, go online to ww.bbbsa.org.
  • To learn move about the "Heroes In Our Midst" program, go online to www.HeroesInOur Midst.org.

Others disagree.

On Tuesday, Wagstaff was recognized by a national program called "Heroes In Our Midst" for her dedication to Big Brothers Big Sisters of Mid-Florida.

For the past seven years, Wagstaff has filled the role of Big Sister to 16-year-old Talorean "Tori" Potter, now a freshman at P.K. Yonge Developmental Research School.

In a ceremony at the Sigma Kappa sorority house, where Wagstaff serves as chapter adviser, Tori said, "I'm proud to call you my Big Sister. All my friends hear about you and the things we do together."

The pair's close relationship began almost on a whim when Wagstaff was a student at the University of Florida and a member of Sigma Kappa sorority.

"I saw an ad for Big Brothers Big Sisters…and it sounded like fun," Wagstaff recalled. She recruited a couple of sorority sisters and the trio volunteered their time — an hour a week — in the Big Brothers Big Sisters school-based program.

Tori's mom, Tonia Potter, was a single mother of four who applied to the organization seeking a Big Sister for each of her three daughters.

Wagstaff and Tori began meeting once a week at the elementary school. They shared a love of dancing and the performing arts, and both came from big families.

Soon Wagstaff went through the additional screening process to become Tori's Big Sister in the community-based program and they were able to spend more time together.

"Sometimes we wouldn't see each other for several days, and other times we hung out for 24 hours straight," Wagstaff said Monday.

Tonia Potter said Wagstaff has become her daughter's role model, stressing the value of family and the importance of continuing her education.

"Jill has taken the time to understand our family values and what I hope to instill in Tori," Potter added.

After Wagstaff finished college, she got married. Tori, who was 10, was a junior bridesmaid. Since then, Jill and Tobin Wagstaff have had four children in four years, all of whom love "Aunt Tori."

In addition to mothering four youngsters under the age of four, Wagstaff is co-founder and board president of Studio Percussion Inc., a nonprofit music school she created with her husband. She is also a member of the Gainesville Junior Woman's Club.

Tori, a self-confident and well-spoken young woman, runs track and plays junior varsity basketball at P.K. Yonge. When she and Wagstaff meet now, the discussions are often about her plans for college.

Wagstaff shrugs off her impact on Tori's life, saying, "Anyone can be a hero. Tori deserves the credit for sticking with me."

In introducing the pair, Joy Race, CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Mid-Florida, said that with 300 boys and girls currently on the waiting list, many more everyday mentoring heroes like Wagstaff are needed.

The organization received a $1,000 check from the Greeting Card Association, sponsor of the "Heroes In Our Midst" program.

Juliette Bogus, spokeswoman for the Washington-based trade association, said Wagstaff was chosen to represent the state of Florida because she demonstrates "the power of amazing people making small strides to impact others in big ways."

Diane Chun can be reached at 374-5041 or chund@gvillesun.com

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