Big Brothers Big Sisters offers guidance to local youth

Next up on the United Way tour, we talked to Jenny Miner of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Berrien and Cass, located at 19 S. 18th St., Niles. The organization is part of the national Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, which works to provide one-on-one relationships between area youth and adults in order to mentor and provide companionship for the youth.

Around this time of year, the office of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Berrien and Cass is filled with gifts. Toy trucks, walkie talkies and Spiderman figurines fill the plush chairs in the office’s lobby, while pink dolls set litter the ground in front of them.

“Sorry about the mess,” said BBBS executive director Jenny Miner as she welcomes guests from the United Way of Southwest Michigan in for a tour. “We are gearing up for our big holiday party.”

Earlier this month, BBBS invited the United Way to its office to showcase what the BBBS does in the community and how donor dollars can be used to help the children of Berrien and Cass counties.

Many of the children who are helped through BBBS come from low income, single parent homes, have an incarcerated parent or have parents with mental health issues, which is why the organization hosts a holiday party every year and gets the children presents, Miner said.

“With a parent kind of out of the picture or with a parent that needs help, [kids] need someone else to come into the home and stabilize them,” Miner said. “We want to be sure that during the holidays kids can still experience that miracle of the holiday season. We want these kids to experience the miracles that we sometimes take for granted.”

However, BBBS works with children year-round, not just during the holidays.

The program works by partnering a local child, aged 6 to 18, with a stable, qualified adult mentor to spend time with them and guide them. Because they will be in a one-on-relationship with a child, each volunteer goes through a major vetting process including a criminal background check.

In 2016 alone, BBBS helped more than 150 children from Cass and Berrien counties by partnering them with a “big brother” or “big sister.” In 2018, BBBS will expand to serve St. Joseph county.

“It’s a time commitment [for the adult volunteers], but it’s a fun one,” Miner said. “They might take [the child] to a movie or go roller skating or even just hang out at the child’s house. … It’s important for kids to have an adult that cares for them.”

Another, less time-consuming program, that people can take part in via BBBS is called Lunch Buddies. With this program, people have lunch with their little once a week, during which they work toward goals set forth by BBBS.

“It’s a really great way to get started with Big Brothers Big Sisters,” Miner said.

BBBS is a program that Miner said she truly believes in. Her experience with her own little is something that has changed her life as much as it has changed the life of her little, Miner said.

“She’s met my family and my daughters. … She is part of my family,” Miner said of her little. “The more time I spend in the program, the more it’s reinforced for me why I’m [working for BBBS].”

Miner said that BBBS would not be able to do what they do without the support of local organizations, the United Way, in particular. Currently, BBBS receives 30 percent of its funding from the United Way and 20 percent from individual supporters. The remainder for BBBS’ funding comes from annual fundraising events.

Without United Way funding, BBBS would only be able to serve 50 children a year, Miner said.

The funding from United Way is important because it allows BBBS to continue to help area children and provide them with an experience and relationship that will change their lives, Miner said.

“This is an incredible program that does incredible things on the individual level,” Miner said. “Kids need that adult relationship, and we are so happy to be able to continue to provide that for them.”

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