MANATEE -- When Ashley Roodbergen first met Moe Chan, her Mr. Right and the love of her life, he told her he loved camping.
Roodbergen's eyes twinkled with excitement.
She loved camping,too.
But what if camping had conjured images of spiders to her and she had given Mr. Right a look of camping rejection?
She might have lost him, lost Mr. Right.
But it didn't happen.
Roodbergen had camped starting at age 8 in East Manatee thanks to a special person in her life.
And, on June 30, 2012,Roodbergen -- a MoodyElementary School starand a Class of 2003 graduate from Bayshore HighSchool -- the girl who never camped before she was 8, became not only Ashley Chan but, as evidenced by her wedding pictures, one of the happiest brides ever.
Thanks to a Big Sister
Twenty years ago, LindaEdwards, who lives in the 2500 block of RiverviewDrive, wanted to be a mentor and volunteered withBig Brothers Big Sisters of the Sun Coast, which serves 10 counties, including Manatee.
For 45 years, Big Brothers Big Sisters has matched Manatee children who need someone special to spend time with, to meet them for an hour at school, takethem to the library, go on camping trips or just sitand talk with an adultvolunteer, said Gina Taylor of Big Brothers Big Sisters.
"In 1993, my two sons were pretty much out of the house and I told my husband, Mike, 'I want a little girl," Edwards recalls.
"Mike said, 'Try a plant.' Finally, he suggested I call Big Brothers Big Sisters."
Ashley's mother had also called Big Brothers and Big Sisters because she wanted Ashley, then 8, who had a real younger sister named Courtney, 6, to have a Big Sister and another role model in her life.
"I got my little girl through Ashley," Edwards said.
Linda Edwards saw Ashley once or twice a week. Linda and her husband, Mike, took Ashley camping and boating. They built fires and told stories in front of them. Every fish she caught she kissed, per Mike.
"Mike told me I had to kiss the fish for good luck," Chan said last week. "I had experiences I definitely would not have had. Linda took me to see the 'Nutcracker' at the Asolo Theater. I got to see the plays 'Annie' and 'Cats.' I spent Christmas at her house. Every Valentine's Day we got together for lunch at Pizza Hut and then we would go and make cookies, which I would take to my friends at school."
With all that time on the water, is it any surprise that Chan joined the U.S. Navy on June 10, 2004?
Chan served a tour inJapan from 2008 to 2010and she is going to Japanagain for a three-year tour, this time with her husband.
And, perhaps, Moe Chan embodies the outdoor spirit Ashley discovered in Mike Edwards.
"Moe is a good listener," Chan said. "He is honest, also quirky and funny. He has introduced me to cross country mountain biking and wake boarding. We both like to go camping."
Linda Edwards' breathing difficulties last year kept her from attending Ashley and Moe's wedding.
But Edwards got to meet Moe Chan shortly after.
"He likes Linda," Chan said of her husband.
"And she approves of him. We got the seal of approval from her."
Over the past 20 years, Chan and Edwards havenever been long out oftouch. Sometimes it's aphone call. Sometimes it's a letter.
"We email back and forth," Chan said of Edwards. "We get on the phone once a month. I was very shy when I mether and I am definitely more outgoing now. I thinkknowing Linda and Mike helped with my self-esteem. I would say she is mydear friend and always will be."
"I am very proud of her," Edwards said of Chan. "Her mom worked long hours to care for she and her sister. Ashley and Courtney would come home from school, lock the door, microwave their dinner and wait for their mom to come home. Their father was up north."
Chad and Edwards celebrated their 20th reunion last weekend in Bradenton.
Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Sun Coast considers the Edwards/Chan relationship one of its longest and strongest ever, although, officially, children and adults are matched just until the child turns 18.
"But many go on for years afterward," Taylor said.
Chan and Edwards took pictures on the dock. There were many emotions. But the pictures tell the real story.
Seeing them together, it is clear that 20 years ago, one little girl met her Mrs. Right.
Do you want to be a Big Sister or Big Brother? Manatee County adults interested in becoming a Big Brother or Big Sister volunteer for Big Brothers, Big Sisters of the Sun Coast can call Brandi McArthur at 941-746-7000. The organization asks adults to give at least a year of their time. Volunteers can either visit a child in school on campus for one hour a week or visit a child in the community for several hours a week or more, said Gina Taylor, an organization spokeswoman. Big Brothers, Big Sisters of the Sun Coast serves 10 counties and has roughly 1,200 matches in all 10 counties at present. In Manatee County, approximately 300 children are paired with Bigs and 35 are waiting to be matched, Taylor said.