Big Brothers Big Sisters is the oldest, largest and most effective youth mentoring organization in the United States.
We have been the leader in one-to-one youth service for more than a century, developing positive relationships that have a direct and lasting impact on the lives of young people. Big Brothers Big Sisters serves children, ages 6 through 18, in communities across the country — including yours. Big Brothers Big Sisters of Berrien & Cass, Inc.. has been serving our community since 1967.
Big Brothers Big Sisters of Berrien and Cass, Inc. prepares children for the future by enhancing their strengths through new experiences and friendships with qualified volunteer mentors.
We will serve the community based upon these guiding principles:
Commitment to quality and safety
We are committed to one-to-one, safe and professionally supported mentoring with proven, measurable outcomes.
Dedicated to serving at-risk youth
In a world of scarce resources, we will focus on youth receiving free/reduced lunch, in a single parent environment and/or who have a parent in the criminal justice system.
Accountability to our stakeholders
We are committed to mutually beneficial relationships with our stakeholders and to building and funding our capacity for sustainable, quality growth.
Focus on diversity
We will address our communities’ racial, ethnic and gender diversity in all aspects of how we operate.
Culture of performance
We are a progressive organization that measures our impact and will recruit, build and retain the most effective team and Board of Directors.
Who We Are
For over a century, Big Brothers Big Sisters of America have helped children reach their potential through professionally supported one-to-one relationships with proven results.
In 1903, a young Cincinnati businessman conceived the idea that became the keystone of the Big Brothers Program. Irvin F. Westheimer, distressed by a young boy foraging for food in an alley trash can, befriended the youth and learned that he was fatherless. Projecting that his new friend represented many boys, Mr. Westheimer informally talked to some business and personal friends, and they all agreed that such boys could benefit from an association with interested men who would act as a “big brother” to each of them.
Big Brothers of America
In 1904, a young New York City court clerk named Ernest Coulter was seeing more and more boys come through his courtroom. He recognized that caring adults could help many of these kids stay out of trouble, and he set out to find volunteers. That marked the beginning of the Big Brothers movement. By 1916, Big Brothers had spread to 96 cities across the country.
Big Sisters International
At around the same time, the members of a group called Ladies of Charity were befriending girls who had come through the New York Children’s Court. That group became Catholic Big Sisters and later, Big Sisters International.
Two mentoring groups join together in 1977
Big Brothers of America and Big Sisters International continued to work independently until 1977, when both groups joined forces and became Big Brothers Big Sister of America.
Serving Niles and Buchanan since 1967
In 1967 a group of local volunteers saw the need for mentors to work with at-risk children. In April 1967, Big Brothers of Niles and Buchanan received its incorporation from the Michigan State Treasury Department. Our local affiliate followed the national trend of offering mentoring services to both boys and girls in 1979.
Serving Berrien and Cass Counties since 1998
In 1998, Big Brothers Big Sisters of America requested that our affiliate expand into the unserved areas of northern Berrien County and all of Cass County Michigan. The local Board of directors approved this expansion and the agency has been officially known as Big Brothers Big Sisters of Berrien and Cass, Inc. since that time.
Meet Our Team
Board of Directors
Our board of directors is our chief governing body and is composed of community members nominated by current board members and elected by affirmative vote of two-thirds of the directors present at a meeting of the Board at which a quorum is present. The total number of directors varies year by year, but averages 12-15. Each member is asked to contribute annually. The term of office is three years and the board meets monthly.Our board is an active board and all members take on significant roles and tasks as board members.
|Lauren Thurston, President
Lauren was born in Beaumont, TX. After moving several times as a child she ultimately landed in Michigan. Lauren graduated from H.H. Dow High School in Midland, MI where she went on to obtain her BBA from Saginaw Valley State University. Lauren started her career with Chemical Bank in 2003 and upon moving into a Commercial Loan Officer role in 2011 she relocated to Edwardsburg, MI with her family.
Lauren and her husband are the proud parents of Abigail (11) and Bryce (4). Abigail keeps the family busy with her various activities and sports including softball, cross country, gymnastics and band. They look forward to seeing Bryce on the field next year too. When they aren’t on the ball fields or hanging with the kids they try to spend as much time as possible in the woods hunting or on the water fishing.
Lauren began her involvement with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Berrien and Cass in 2011, originally joining the 1st Annual Bid for Kids’ Sake Auction and ultimately joined the Board of Directors the following year. As the current Board Share she is honored to be a part of the current team and grateful for the opportunity to be a part of this mission.
|Jenni Ranft, Vice President
Jenni is the Human Resource and Office Manager for ET Products, a business owned and operated by her family. She joined the Big Brothers Big Sisters Board of Directors in 2013. During her time on the Board she has worked in many capacities, including Secretary, Vice President, co-chair of Bid for Kid’s Sake and co-chair of the Human Resource Committee. Jenni earned a Bachelor’s of Science in Interdisciplinary Studies from University of Missouri – Columbia. A native of Chicago, (Bear Down! Go White Sox!). She now lives in Niles, Michigan with her husband, Chad. Jenni has a love for travel, time on the water and family.
|Brian Hake, Treasurer
Brian was born and raised in St. Joseph, Michigan. He attended Lake Michigan Catholic Elementary and High School, then moved on to the University of Dayton, in Dayton, Ohio. There, Brian studied in the school of business, obtaining a B.S. in Accounting and a B.S. in Finance. In the summer of 2006, he studied abroad in Asia, visiting eight countries. Through this experience he gained an understanding of various cultures, religions and international business, and an appreciation of the opportunity and freedom of the United States that he still values greatly.
After Dayton, Brian moved back home and began practicing at a local public accounting firm in 2008. Shortly after, in January 2010, he studied and became a Certified Public Accountant. He remains at the same firm today (now known as Kruggel Lawton CPAs), and during his time at the firm, he has practiced and gained experience in a wide array of areas, including individual and business tax consulting and preparation, payroll and bookkeeping assistance, and assurance work for local private businesses, not-for-profits, and governments. Brian has joined BBBS in hopes that he can use his knowledge and skills for the benefit of the organization, and the children that we serve, in the community that he deeply cares about.
In his free time, he loves playing sports of all kinds, including tennis, golf and pickleball. He currently resides in Benton Harbor. He and his partner, Heidi, also enjoy challenging hiking trails and spending time with their two adopted dogs.
|Vickie Wagner, Secretary
Vickie is an education consultant, develops curricula for publishing companies and volunteers as a Big. Vickie served as the Director of Development at the Institute for Latino Studies at the University of Notre Dame. Before joining the Institute, Vickie was associate faculty at Holy Cross College, Indiana University and Ivy Tech Community College, and served as the Tech Prep Specialist at Purdue University. Prior to university administrative duties, she served as a consultant to the airline, banking, hotel and cruise industries and has traveled, studied and worked in over 80 countries. Vickie received her degrees from Capital University and Michigan State University.
|Edward (Hank) Yeomans
Hank has lived in Cass County for 39 years. He and his wife Ruth have been married for 46 years and have 3 grown children. He has been a Big Brother to two young men. The first match was in 2006 when the young man was 9 years old. Their friendship has continued since that time. Hank is currently a Big Brother to another young man. Their relationship is now 5 years old, starting when his “Little” was 9 years old. Hank retired from Bayer Corporation after over 30 years in various financial management positions. He is also involved in various voluntary activities in Cass County. Hank graduated from Western Michigan University with an MBA in Management and is a CPA.
Ryan is a Product Development and Marketing Manager for Whirlpool Corporation. He joined the Big Brothers Big Sisters Board of Directors in 2016 but has been involved in fundraising and supporting Big Brothers Big Sisters since 2007 and has had the joy of being a big brother to two young men. Ryan earned a Bachelors of Science in Engineering from Western Michigan University and resides in St. Joseph with his wife Rebeccah. In his personal time, Ryan enjoys staying active, live music, playing guitar and traveling.
Jessica is the Regional Manager for Honor Credit Union overseeing branches in Berrien and Cass County. Jessica was born and raised in Dowagiac Michigan and graduated from Dowagiac Union High School. Jessica went on to attend Central Michigan University earning a B.S.B.A in Human Resources Management. Jessica joined Big Brothers Big Sisters of Berrien and Cass Board of Directors in 2012. Jessica enjoys spending time with her family and currently resides in South Bend, Indiana with her husband Jerry, daughter Riley and two bulldogs Jersey and Jax.
Larry has served on the Big Brothers Big Sisters Board for 4 years. Larry is a pillar in the community, serving many organizations as a Board Member, including Fernwood Endorsement, Niles-Buchanan YMCA, and the Underground Railroad Society of Cass County. At 80 years young Larry continues to put his professional fundraising skills to good use by managing our Sponsor-a-Match campaign each year. Larry enjoys time with his companion, Emily Egan, a former Niles High School Librarian.
Amanda was born and raised in Niles Michigan. She grew up participating in local sports, working with family members, and exploring Southwest Michigan. After High School Amanda attended Western Michigan University where she obtained a Bachelor of Science in Organizational Communication, and then she ventured out to Phoenix Arizona. Amanda resided in the Phoenix area for a little over seven years and spent several years working in Higher Education, and several more working as a Mortgage Underwriter. In addition to exploring careers Amanda was able to obtain an MBA from the University of Phoenix.
Amanda always loved the Southwest Michigan atmosphere and was able to return to the area in the fall of 2015. She is excited to be home and be involved with the community. Amanda values a child’s education both inside and outside of schools, and chose to work with Big Brother Big Sister because she strongly believes this program will help our children and community grow.
|Jenny Miner, Executive Director
Jenny has been a non-profit professional for over 25 years. With an education from Michigan State University, Jenny has provided services to children and families through Head Start and Early Head Start services, the YWCA, Susan B. Komen and many other mission driven organizations, always working to improve the lives and conditions for those facing challenges. Jenny is a Certified Grant Writer through the American Grant Writers Association and serves as the volunteer Treasurer of the Benton Harbor Downtown Development Authority.
Jenny has two teenaged children and lives in St. Joseph, Michigan where she has lived for 15 years.