Mentoring kids for over 100 years.
Big Brothers Big Sisters is a national federation with more than 400 affiliated agencies throughout the United States. For over 100 years, Big Brother and Big Sister volunteers have helped boys and girls from single-parent families make the sometimes difficult transition into adulthood.
At the turn of the twentieth century, the American media was exposing the harsh conditions many children were exposed to, particularly in large cities. Issues confronting youth and children–poverty, inadequate schools, delinquency, crime and especially absent parents–convinced people that change was needed. Many caring philanthropists of that time were moved to befriend young people growing up adrift. But it was a man named Irvin Westheimer, a young businessman from Cincinnati, who is credited with creating the Big Brother Big Sister concept in 1903.
One day Westheimer saw a young boy and his dog scavenging through trash cans for food. He introduced himself to the boy and gave him a decent meal. Later he met the boy’s impoverished family, and soon he became a trusted mentor for the youngster. Westheimer went on to found the Big Brother Association of Cincinnati in 1910.
Many different groups in various American cities were enlisting adults to volunteer as “mentors” to children at risk around 1900. Then in 1904, New York Big Brothers was founded and the movement had its name. Ernest Coulter, a court clerk, is considered the official founder of what would later become Big Brothers Big Sisters of America. Coulter was probably influenced by the work of Judge Julius Mayer of the New York Children’s Court, where Coulter worked. Two years before New York Big Brothers was formed, Judge Mayer began recruiting influential men to mentor delinquent boys who came before him.
Coulter became increasingly appalled by the suffering and misery displayed by the thousands of children who passed through the court every year. In December 1904 Coulter appeared before a group of civic and business leaders. He told them about a youngster who was about to be sentenced for a petty offense: “There is only one way to save that youngster, and that is to have some earnest, true man volunteer to be his big brother, to look after him, help him to do right, make the little chap feel that there is at least one human being in this great city who takes a personal interest in him. Someone who cares whether he lives or dies. I call for a volunteer!” Every man in the room raised his hand. Coulter had the first group of Big Brothers he would need.
Various womens’ groups at this time were also pairing concerned women with girls in different cities. The Ladies of Charity in New York was one of the very first mentoring organizations aimed at girls. Shortly after New York Big Brothers was formed, the Ladies changed its name to Catholic Big Sisters in 1905. Its founder was Mrs. John O’Keefe, who is considered the first Big Sister. Her earliest volunteers were primarily well-to-do wives of influential businessmen and civic leaders in Manhattan. Big Sisters of Milwaukee, formed in 1909, was at one time considered the first Big Sisters agency. Milwaukee was the largest and best organized Big Sisters agency of the time, at one point serving hundreds of girls.
Planning for the first national Big Brothers and Big Sisters organizations began in 1914. There was tremendous growth in various cities, including New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Cincinnati and Milwaukee. Irving Westheimer and Ernest Coulter were influential in the movement for collaboration between the different agencies. The first federation got under way in 1921.
During the Great Depression, the federation dissolved. But by 1958, a newly formed Big Brothers of America was officially chartered by the U.S. Congress. Then, in 1970, Big Sisters International was chartered. In 1977 these two organizations merged, and Big Brothers Big Sisters of America was born. The national headquarters was established in Philadelphia. By 1993 the BBBSA federation had grown to include 400 agencies in all 50 states, providing one-to-one mentoring relationships between caring adults and children at risk.
Big Brothers started as an interest group on the University of Notre Dame campus in 1968. Big Sisters began through a South Bend Concerned Women’s Group, led by Sylvia DeBoskey in 1969. Big Brothers Big Sisters merged locally in 1973 and secured funding through the United Way.
The agency bought its first offices in 1980 on Madison Street in South Bend to house staff and administrative records. In 1995, the first School Mentoring initiative began at Perley Elementary School in South Bend. We currently serve children in the PHM School District and have site-based programming in several South Bend after-school neighborhood Centers. The agency moved to a leased office space in downtown South Bend in 2006 to save on escalating building expenses associated with owning a large office building.
In January of 2020, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Lower West Michigan (with offices in Niles, Michigan) merged with the St. Joseph County agency and one new partnership was formed: Big Brothers Big Sisters – Southern Lake Michigan Region.
Currently, hundreds of children are supported each year in our one-to-one Community and School Mentoring Programs.