It Takes Little to Be Big

Big Brothers Big Sisters of Northeast Indiana celebrates 50 years of doing big things.
Dec 1, 2023
Jennifer Blomquist
Jeffrey Crane & Provided

For 50 years, Big Brothers Big Sisters has been educating northeast Indiana about the power and the success of volunteer mentoring — a lesson that has proven to last for lifetimes and passes through generations. This successful program has inspired extraordinary longevity in its leaders (just two CEOs account for 48 years of leadership), and lasting involvement and support from its volunteer mentors and the children they’ve served. With just a few hours each month, volunteer mentors create lifelong change in both the lives of the children they mentor and their own families.

“I grew up in a pretty negative environment,” says Donnevin Wolfe of Fort Wayne. “I am one of three kids and we all have different dads, and they weren’t really around when we were growing up. My mom thought Big Brothers Big Sisters would be a good fit for me, so she enrolled me in the program and I was matched with a Big.”

At the time, Wolfe had no idea that Big Brothers Big Sisters would change his life in ways he couldn’t imagine.

“My Big’s name was Don Zawlocki and he was a basketball coach at Grace College. The first time we met, he took me to see ‘King Kong’ and out to eat. We did all kinds of fun stuff together. We played putt putt, went camping with his son, hung out at their house all of the time and he took me to a lot of basketball games. A few years ago, we reconnected and still try to keep in touch as much as possible. When I turned 18, I decided to become a Big myself. My Little was six-year-old Maurice and we still keep in touch today.”

Now 29, Wolfe is married with two young daughters. He works as a sales support coordinator for Do it Best and credits his Big for his successes.

“My Big Brother Don opened up my eyes to a world outside of what I knew. He motivated me to work hard and stay focused so I could achieve the kinds of successes he enjoyed.”

BBBS remains a part of Wolfe’s life. He regularly volunteers and assists with numerous functions to help young people who are in situations similar to his.

“That is the ripple effect. This is community investing in community because we wouldn’t exist without our Bigs,” says Josette Rider, CEO of BBBS of Northeast Indiana. “Volunteers become engaged with children they would have never met and change those children’s lives forever, so they can then go out and have a ripple effect of their own. The impact that BBBS has had over 50 years is pretty staggering.”

Rider has been the CEO for the last 25 years and says her passion for wanting to help as many young people as possible stems from an innate love for the community.

“I believe we’re making a huge difference, especially when you look at the numbers. We’ve served over 30,000 young people. We boast a 90% graduation rate and young people with a mentor are more likely to become volunteers and donors themselves. What we have figured out is that with a positive successful relationship a child is more likely to navigate successfully to adulthood. The evidence shows us that children who go through our program see themselves as part of the community and are connected to it. They see themselves as being a part of something that is bigger.”

“What’s beautiful about it is that we connect people from all different walks of life,” she says. “The children all have a need for a mentor. Eighty percent are in poverty; 25% have a parent who is incarcerated; 12% are in a situation where there’s no financial need, but a parent has passed away and the child simply needs a relationship. Volunteers are screened and approved so that they can have a positive influence on a child. What they have in common is they want to make a difference in their community. Then, we make the match.”

BBBS of Northeast Indiana was founded in 1972 by Do it Best president Don Wolf and a group of local community leaders. Jerome Henry Sr. was one of those early leaders and for 50 years the Henry family has passionately supported Big Brothers Big Sisters. Jerry Henry Jr. has followed in his father’s footsteps and has been a supporter and leader for decades, and his son, Phil, currently serves as president of the Board of Directors.

Don Wolf recruited Frank Zirille to serve as the first BBBS executive director, which he did for 23 years, launching a 50-year legacy of service and success at Big Brothers Big Sisters that is recognized today as one of the oldest, most respected and effective youth service organizations in northeast Indiana. Lead for the past 25 years by Rider, the local program has won numerous regional and national awards and is recognized as one of the top Big Brothers Big Sister programs in the country.

At the time of its founding in 1972, there were just 27 boys served in the local Fort Wayne program. Today, there are over 1,200 boys and girls matched with caring adults through a myriad of BBBS programs, each focusing on providing kids lasting friendships and invaluable mentorship.

“BBBS has been a part of my family’s life for as long as I can remember,” says Tony Zirille, Frank’s son. “Over the years, my dad had 10 Little Brothers who spent a lot of time with our family. It was a great lesson in mentoring and giving back for myself and my siblings.”

Zirille followed his father’s lead, serving on the BBBS board and advisory committees for more than two decades, and now a volunteer with his wife, Joy, as part of the Big Couples program with their Little, 10-year-old Averee. More recently, Zirille, along with business partners George Huber and Dan Michael, helped establish a new scholarship fund for kids from the Big Brothers Big Sisters program for post-secondary education. “It’s a real honor for our family to take part in this scholarship program,” Tony says, “and it’s particularly special given the scholarship’s name.” The new scholarship program is named the “Frank Zirille BBBS Scholarship Fund.”

“What a great legacy — a past to be proud of, a current organization worthy of our continued pride and support, and a bright future for Big Brothers Big Sisters and the kids of northeast Indiana that they serve,” Tony concludes.

Laura Kapp Miller had a similar experience, seeing the rewards of Big Brother Big Sisters both for the kids in the program as well as the volunteers. Growing up, both Miller’s mom and dad were Bigs in the program.

“I was around eight-years-old when brothers Ken and Joe came into our lives,” says Miller. “They became a part of our family. We had a place on Lake Oliver and they were always with us swimming, fishing, boating and just having fun. Now, 45 years later, they are still a part of our family and we see them regularly. Joe was a Big for a Little, and my son and daughter both had Littles, so it’s really become a generational thing. I’ve been on the board for seven years and also work on recruiting efforts. We can all work together to keep this great program growing and succeeding for the next 50 years.”

Rider says there are always Littles looking for Bigs, so volunteers are needed as are resources and donations.

“With a little time, you can make a big difference and, collectively, we can change the way northeast Indiana looks and feels. I’ve never seen anything that works better than having someone who cares about you, believes in you and spends time with you.” 

Big Brothers Big Sisters Northeast Indiana

Owner(s): CEO: Josette Rider

Address: 1005 W. Rudisill Blvd., Fort Wayne, Indiana 46807

Phone: (260) 456-1600

Website: bbbsnei.org

Years in Business: 50

Products & Services: Mission: To create and support one-to-one mentoring relationships that ignite the power and promise of youth.

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