Before he boarded a plane to New York City last December, Brandon told his Big Brother he wanted to see the Statue of Liberty. It was a trip that had been in the works since Adam Alsamadisi promised Brandon, then a student at Career Magnet Academy in Knoxville, that if he graduated with Bs he’d fly him up to the big city he had seen only in movies.
“It was Brandon’s first time on a plane,” says Alsamadisi, who graduated in May with a PhD in geography. “I told him it was going to be very cold in New York, so he needed to pack right because we had a lot we were going to try to see in three days.”
When Alsamadisi picked Brandon up at LaGuardia Airport, he saw him standing there in just a sweatshirt.
“It’s one of those teenager things,” Alsamadisi says. “It’s funny because the first time we met, he told me, ‘If you tell me something, I’ll never forget it,’ and he never forgot that I promised him I’d take him to New York. But he forgot to bring a coat.”
Alsamadisi met Brandon for the first time in summer 2013. He had just moved to Knoxville from Memphis to start a master’s degree in geography at UT. With extra time in his schedule, and curious about Big Brothers Big Sisters from watching the TV show The West Wing—in which two characters served as mentors—he got in touch with the organization’s Knoxville office.
Chris Whitehead, a program specialist with Big Brothers Big Sisters of East Tennessee, was Alsamadisi and Brandon’s match support specialist from 2015 until Brandon graduated from the program.
“Adam put a lot of energy and time into their relationship,” Whitehead remembers. “No matter what was going on, he always kept Brandon a priority. He never let him down.”
Whitehead drove Brandon to the airport the morning of the New York trip. Brandon called him at 5:30 a.m. to make sure he was awake so he wouldn’t be late picking him up. On the car ride to McGhee Tyson Airport, he told Whitehead how proud he was of finishing high school.
“He kept saying: ‘I did it, I made it,’” Whitehead says. “Adam always made sure Brandon stayed on track academically. His guidance and consistency made a big difference.”
Bigs usually introduce their littles to new activities, eat meals with them, and try to be a good influence in whatever they’ve got going on in their lives. The academic side of the match came naturally to Alsamadisi, whose dissertation research focuses on building maps that detail species distribution to better understand community ecology and physical geography.
As a geographic information system (GIS) analyst, he has developed mapping products for parks, scientific organizations, small businesses, and real estate companies.
Over time, Alsamadisi and Brandon grew closer. Alsamadisi took Brandon to eat Japanese hibachi on his birthdays, and they explored used bookstore McKay’s together searching for old books and movies. Alsamadisi shared in many of Brandon’s firsts: his first bowling experience, in the old University Center alley; his first kayaking trip; his first time watching a movie in a theater.
The pair also shared many hard moments and conversations. Brandon was bullied at school, his father worked two jobs, and his mother wasn’t always around. He didn’t have anyone to talk to except Alsamadisi some days.
Mentorship isn’t easy,” Alsamadisi says. “Brandon has gone through a lot. It can be hard enough to guide a kid without problems at home. But I tried to be there for him, and I still do despite the distance.”
Last spring, Alsamadisi was there to see Brandon become the first person on one side of his family to graduate from high school. By that point, Alsamadisi had moved to Manhattan, where he was working in GIS (he now teaches technology at the Buckley School). He flew to Knoxville the morning of Brandon’s graduation and back to New York that night.
“I couldn’t get the day off work,” Alsamadisi says. “It was my only one-day round-trip flight.” Months later, Alsamadisi and Brandon were in New York together. They visited the big Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center, ate New York–style pizza and bagels, and watched The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical on Broadway.
One day, Alsamadisi found a Thai restaurant for Brandon, knowing it was one of his favorite foods. “We always went to Chaiyo’s near campus together,” Alsamadisi said. “That’s where Brandon learned how to use chopsticks and fell in love with pad Thai. It was a nice homage to those times.”
Alsamadisi and Brandon’s time together was documented in a pair of viral posts on Humans of New York, a project that tells the stories of people in New York on social media with photos and captions. The posts were liked more than a million times on Facebook and Instagram and were shared by thousands of people around the country.
Before Brandon’s visit, Alsamadisi sent an Instagram message to the founder of Humans of New York, Brandon Stanton.
He had heard Stanton give a talk at the Tennessee Theatre in Knoxville and couldn’t stop thinking about a point he’d made: how little people across the United States know about each other.
Alsamadisi thought that Brandon, a teenager from Appalachia working in a factory and figuring out his next steps in life, had a story to tell that might resonate beyond the boundaries of Tennessee and New York.
“Humans of New York gets thousands of requests a year,” Alsamadisi says. “This was the first one he told me he ever responded to.”
The photos in the post were taken near Chinatown. Alsamadisi wasn’t expecting to be included in the story, but Brandon kept bringing up their friendship. How Alsamadisi would see him three times a week (Big Brothers Big Sisters requires only two monthly meetings between matches), throw rocks into First Creek with him when he needed to blow off steam, and pick up the phone to talk whenever Brandon felt sad or alone.
“This was really Brandon’s story to tell,” Alsamadisi says.
The impact of the Humans of New York posts was immediate.
“That week we had about 50 inquiries for new volunteers— considerably above what’s normal for us,” says Brent Waugh, CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of East Tennessee.
Typically the organization averages two inquiries a day and even fewer during the holidays. The posts had been published the day after Christmas.
Waugh had known about Alsamadisi and Brandon. They had been regulars at board game nights—a weekly event that Alsamadisi reportedly started.
“Ah, that is true,” Alsamadisi says. “Brandon loved playing Clue, Risk, and Battleship.”
Like Alsamadisi, Waugh attended graduate school at UT, earning a master’s degree in communication and information in 2006. Afterward he served as a Big Brother for nearly four years while working for the agency he now leads.
“Adam was very involved,” Waugh says. “He didn’t reach out to Humans of New York for attention. He wanted people to know the impact being a mentor makes on both the one doing the mentoring and the mentee.”
As of February 2020, about 50 UT Knoxville students, faculty, and staff serve as bigs to children from around the city. The Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity on campus hosts an annual holiday party, with Santa and gifts, for more than 200 people. Many students volunteer in other ways or serve as interns for the organization.
But for Alsamadisi, deciding to sign up as a Big Brother nearly seven years ago wasn’t volunteering. When he showed up at Brandon’s house to meet him for the first time, he knew he was taking on a duty to be there for the long haul.
“It may have started as volunteering, but it turned into a responsibility to be my brother’s keeper,” Alsamadisi says.