Big Family helping foster kids

Agency reaches out to U.P. counties

Permanency resource monitor for the Department of Health and Human Services in Marquette, Barb Olsen, and John Iras, president and chief operating officer of Big Family, pack a van full of items to distribute to foster youth in the Upper Peninsula. (Courtesy photo)

MARQUETTE — Big Family of Michigan, a non-profit organization that supports thousands of foster youth in need, has partnered with Upper Peninsula counties to help youth during their time spent in the foster care system, and as they age out of it.

Over 400,000 children in the country are in foster care, with nearly 13,000 in Michigan alone, according to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services statistics.

Since 2002, Big Family has supported Michigan’s foster youth by raising funds for core programs and necessities, such as back-to-school supplies, Christmas and holiday gifts, a birthday-in-a-bag program, aging-out suitcases for teens who are preparing to move out on their own and college scholarships.

In January U.P. counties teamed up with Big Family of Michigan when Barb Olsen, a permanency resource monitor for the DHHS office in Marquette, contacted the organization.

“Shortly after I moved to the U.P. I realized there was also a need to help foster youth here,” Olsen said.

Even though the U.P. is fairly secluded, according to Olsen, there are more than 450 foster youth in the area.

“We work with foster agencies and supply clothing and aging-out kits that are distributed throughout the area,” she said. “The aging-out kits include supplies for first-time apartments or dorm rooms. (Foster teens) are supplied with a variety of items: … pots and pans, dishes, blankets, towels, alarm clocks, toasters, silverware — all of those little things needed to help them with their integration.”

According to the organization’s website, Big Family was founded in 2002 by Jeanne Fowler after she and her husband moved to the Detroit area. Fowler, a former nurse and abuse and neglect survivor, spent the majority of her adult life helping others.

In the 1950s, Fowler and her younger brother, Peter, were severely beaten by their alcoholic mother every day, according to Big Family’s website. The children were put into foster care for a year. However, when their mother remarried, she regained custody of them and the abuse continued.

Fowler and her brother were tied up by their limbs in separate rooms and were often forced to sit in their own feces for days, a video on the website describing Fowler’s story states. Fowler was put into foster care again after her 3-year-old brother died from injuries sustained from one of their mother’s alcohol-induced rages. Fowler’s story was also documented in a published autobiography, “Peter’s Lullaby,” which is now used as a reference book by social workers throughout the country.

After Fowler passed away two years ago, John Iras took over as Big Family’s president and chief operating officer.

“When (Olsen) transfered to the U.P. we got to talking about the lack of organizations like ours up there,” said Iras, a state-licensed counselor and former principal of Fillmore Elementary School. “Because of her help, we’re able to extend our services to children and teens in need in the U.P.”

Iras said Big Family has roughly 700 volunteers who share the same passion to help foster youth and teens.

“When (Fowler) was a nurse, she would provide birthday parties for kids at the hospital,” Iras said. “That’s kind of where the birthday-in-a-bag idea came from, shortly after she started Big Family; that was 15 years ago.”

Big Family also connects with children who are being raised by grandparents because, according to Iras, “They’re a heartbeat away from being in foster care if there’s no other family around.”

Roughly 1,050 kids and their grandparents received tickets to Detroit Tiger games, the Henry Ford Museum, the Detroit Grand Prix IndyCar Series race and several other venues last year. All the venues and events donated tickets to Big Family’s cause.

“We have some corporate sponsorships and volunteers. It’s important to have connections,” Iras said. “If it wasn’t for (Olsen) I’m not sure who would distribute items to foster youth in the U.P. We hope to continue doing so for a long time.”

For more information regarding Big Family of Michigan or how to volunteer, visit

Anyone considering becoming a foster parent can call Forest Care Navigators at 855-MICHKIDS for more information. Navigators are experienced foster care parents who can answer questions, help find an agency and provide guidance along the journey to becoming a foster parent.

For even more information, visit

Jaymie Depew can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 206. Her email address is