Julie Leone and her "little sister" Karma are now one of the recipients of the "Bigs and Littles of the Year" award by Big Brothers Big Sisters of America

Big Brothers Big Sisters of America's annual "Bigs and Littles of the Year" award
Karma and Julie Leone
| Credit: Big Brothers Big Sisters of America

A teen who became wheelchair-bound after a fatal car crash is crediting her Big Brothers Big Sisters match for helping her through those difficult times — and now the duo is being awarded by the very organization who paired them up.

On Thursday night, Big Brothers Big Sisters of America (BBBS) announced that Julie Leone and 15-year-old Karma had been named one of two recipients of their annual "Bigs and Littles of the Year" award.

The nonprofit organization, which has more than 235 agencies across the country, matches children from adverse situations, or a "little," with adult volunteers known as a "big", who then serve as mentors and friends.

Out of thousands of matches, the Kansas City-based pair earned the prestigious title for their remarkable bond and story, which dates back to June 2017. (Mark Bezilla and his "little brother" of 10 years, Eric, were also selected for the award.)

"We started as strangers and this friendship formed into a family," Julie, 31, tells PEOPLE. "I think of Karma as a sister now, and I just have so much respect for her... Our friendship has really meant a lot to me."

Adds Karma, whose last name is purposely withheld by BBBS for privacy reasons: "It's been very meaningful and very touching to have this bond, and I know that I can lean on her whenever."

Big Brothers Big Sisters of America's annual "Bigs and Littles of the Year" award
Karma and Julie Leone
| Credit: Big Brothers Big Sisters of America

Just two months after Karma had matched with Julie, her life was flipped upside down when she was involved in a head-on car crash that ultimately killed her mother.

At the time of the August 2017 collision, which was caused by a drunk driver, Karma and her younger sister were in the back seat of the vehicle, while her mom and a driver were both in the front.

"The car accident was very destructive," recalls Karma. "The driver and my mother, they both died. My sister was in the back seat with me, and we both had critical injuries."

Karma was rushed to a hospital, where she spent eight days in a coma and in a life-threatening condition. When she finally awoke, she learned she had become wheelchair-bound.

"My sister stayed in the hospital for about 10 days after the accident, but I was [there] for about four months," Karma explains. "It was very hard at first because getting around was completely new to me and even just getting out of bed and sitting up was a challenge."

By that point, Julie — who works as a third-grade teacher — and Karma had already formed a friendship, bonding over their shared love of school, reading and movies.

Big Brothers Big Sisters of America's annual "Bigs and Littles of the Year" award
Karma and Julie Leone
| Credit: Big Brothers Big Sisters of America

But because their match was still relatively new, Karma's Aunt Kirsten was concerned that Julie may want to call it quits.

"Life was going to look significantly different than it was before the accident," Kirsten said in a statement for BBBS' award press release. "I worried that Julie would want to consider ending the match."

Julie quickly put those concerns to rest, and reassured both Kirsten and Karma that she would not be leaving, regardless of the teen's new circumstances.

"I used my faith to guide me and strengthen me, and I knew I wanted to be there for Karma," says Julie.

And she certainly has. Over the last three years, Julie and Karma have strengthened their bond while making lasting memories together.

Some of their favorites include attending a Carrie Underwood concert, mini-golfing, going to dinners and doing ice cream tastings from various shops around their area to find their favorite.

"We love spending quality time together and learning from each other," says Julie.

Big Brothers Big Sisters of America's annual "Bigs and Littles of the Year" award
Mark Bezilla and his "little brother" of 10 years, Eric
| Credit: Big Brothers Big Sisters of America

Adds Karma: "Julie, just being there, made everything feel a lot more normal. When you find that person, it's like an unbreakable bond you have, and it's very comforting for those who are lacking."

Looking ahead, the pair say they have no plans of letting their friendship fade away.

Julie is currently preparing for her wedding next week and says she has found a special way to incorporate Karma into her big day.

"Karma has designed our wedding reception glasses, our wedding favors, so that's pretty cool," she says. "I'm excited for her to be at the wedding and be there for my big day... I definitely see our friendship going in the future and staying strong."

Karma agrees, and plans to stay close even when she graduates high school in a few years and moves on to college somewhere in Kansas.

The teen hopes to major in psychology and interior design and later do outpatient therapy for hospitals while also running her own interior design business.

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As the pair reflect on their bond and their ability to represent Big Brothers Big Sisters this year, Julie and Karma hope their story will encourage others to get involved.

"Anybody thinking about joining the program or to be a Big should definitely do it. It's rewarding, and it's a great thing to be a part of," says Julie. "I joined the program four years ago because I wanted to help, but I didn't realize that I would be getting help, too."

"It's just made such a positive impact on my life and a forever friendship, and it's just really changed my life for the better," she continues.

Adds Karma: "It is very life-changing, in the best way."

Those interested in learning more about getting involved with Big Brothers Big Sisters can do so here.