Judy Wendler, a volunteer from St. Clair Shores, collects items to be used for raffle baskets to raise money for Big Family of Michigan, which provides support for children in the foster care system.

Judy Wendler, a volunteer from St. Clair Shores, collects items to be used for raffle baskets to raise money for Big Family of Michigan, which provides support for children in the foster care system.

Photo by Kristyne E. Demske


Big hearts help foster children at Big Family of Michigan

By: Kristyne E. Demske | St. Clair Shores Sentinel | Published October 14, 2021

 Volunteer Judy Molitor, of St. Clair Shores, sorts through donated hats and mittens at Big Family of Michigan.

Volunteer Judy Molitor, of St. Clair Shores, sorts through donated hats and mittens at Big Family of Michigan.

Photo by Kristyne E. Demske

 Sharon McCaughrin, CEO of Big Family of Michigan, and Lisa Grodsky — program operations manager for Oakland Livingston Human Service Agency, which partners with Big Family of Michigan to provide items for grandparents raising grandchildren — stand in front of Big Family of Michigan’s facility in the Nonprofit Center at Pare.

Sharon McCaughrin, CEO of Big Family of Michigan, and Lisa Grodsky — program operations manager for Oakland Livingston Human Service Agency, which partners with Big Family of Michigan to provide items for grandparents raising grandchildren — stand in front of Big Family of Michigan’s facility in the Nonprofit Center at Pare.

Photo by Kristyne E. Demske

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ST. CLAIR SHORES — An organization that helps thousands of children across the state is gearing up for its busiest time of the year — and looking for help.

Big Family of Michigan was started about two decades ago by Jeanne Fowler. Sharon McCaughrin, CEO of the organization, said Fowler was abused in her home as a child, so she and her brother were in and out of foster care.

“The last time they were home, her brother was beaten to death, so she was moved on to a permanent foster home, where she was abused again,” McCaughrin said.

When Fowler grew up and began a family of her own, she began working in her garage, putting together bags of gifts to give foster children a birthday party, because she had never had a party, herself, growing up. Called birthday in a bag, they were one of the first signature projects of Big Family of Michigan, which was incorporated in 2002.

As the organization has grown, it now also helps children in foster care with Christmas presents, school supplies and backpacks, scholarships, and supplies for children who have aged out of the foster care system and are headed to their own apartment or to a dormitory at a college campus. Big Family of Michigan also helps children being raised by their grandparents; in Michigan, more than 142,000 children are currently being raised by their grandparents.

“We do a drive-by Christmas, and those grandparents and grandchildren come by and pick up their gifts from Santa,” McCaughrin said.

Volunteer Judy Wendler said she was “blown away” when she toured the Big Family of Michigan facility in the Nonprofit Center at Pare, 23500 Pare St. It inspired her to dedicate time to helping the organization.

“I lost my dad when I was 12, but I still had my mother, so I could really empathize with these kids,” she said. “I can’t imagine losing their home or being taken away from their parents.”

Wendler said it’s amazing the number of children that are helped at Christmas and when they head back to school. Each child’s Christmas gift includes a coat, a toy, a blanket, a game, an outfit, pajamas, a scarf and a hat. Everything given to the children is brand new.

“It’s a lot of work, but it’s very rewarding,” she said.

The organization will help 1,500-2,000 children in foster care this Christmas, each of whom will get seven brand new presents, including a stuffed animal. Big Family of Michigan relies on the generosity of donors and fundraisers to sustain their programs.

“People care, and I’m glad,” McCaughrin said. “People will drop off new toys, blankets, new stuffed animals ... jackets and coats. We work off a wish list, so we actually know what the child wants.”

For example, she said, she has a wish list from a 12-year-old boy who would love Legos and graph paper and whose favorite colors are blue and red.

“We try to fill that wish list based on the items the child would like to have,” she said.

Big Family of Michigan serves foster care children in 45 of Michigan’s 83 counties, including as far away as the Upper Peninsula.

McCaughrin said any donation is appreciated.

“If you want to donate $5, we’ll use it. If you want to buy something, go to Five Below,” she said. “I have some donors who come every week and give us something. It’s amazing.”

Volunteers are also needed to wrap the presents and work Oct. 20 through Dec. 20 getting everything ready.

“It’s just an amazing thing we do, and we love it,” she said. “I’ve been with them about five years now.”

There are three ways people can help Big Family of Michigan, she said: through monetary donations, donations of gifts and clothing, or volunteering time. Volunteers can sign up to help wrap presents at www.bigfamilyofmi.org or get more information by calling (586) 415-6968.

“Anything given is helpful,” she said.

The organization is always in need of items for the teens aging out of the system, anything from toasters and coffee makers to towels, sheets and bedding. They also always need new stuffed animals and toys for children under 3 years old.

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