University News

WIU Has Deep Connection to Local Big Brothers Big Sisters Office

April 22, 2015

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MACOMB, IL – Many times, as a natural extension of academic and philanthropic programming, students, faculty, staff and alumni at Western Illinois University are deeply involved in helping the community.

In the case of the Big Brothers/Big Sisters (BBBS) of Warren and McDonough Counties office, the WIU connection is woven throughout the agency.

"This program does not exist without Western," said BBBS local chapter Director Pete Tarantola. "There are kids here who need this program, and without Western they wouldn't get it. They are a source of volunteer support, networking, in-kind donations…everything."

The WIU connection also includes student athletes and members of Greek and student organizations who volunteer to help with BBBS fundraisers and activities.

Tarantola took over as director of the local chapter office in August 2013 after spending four years in the Peace Corps. Since that time, matches between "Bigs" and "Littles" have grown rapidly to a recent total of 53 in McDonough County alone. Of those 53 matches, 38 of the "Bigs" have some connection to Western.

"The people at Western are very generous," said Tarantola. "It seems as if everyone at Western has done something for us at some point."

During his time leading BBBS, Tarantola has expanded a school-based program, where matches meet for lunch and recess at school periodically, and the out-of-school program, where matches spend at least eight hours a month doing something together.

WIU faculty and staff members, alumni and students have become matched with little brothers or little sisters over the years and the intern at the local BBBS office, in Prairie Avenue in Macomb, this semester is WIU student John Ross, a senior law enforcement and justice administration major, psychology minor, from West Chicago, IL.

"This internship experience has been more beneficial than I have ever imagined," said Ross. "About half-way through my second semester junior year, I decided that I no longer wanted to go into law enforcement; I was determined to graduate on time, but had no idea what I wanted to do. Thankfully, this internship experience allowed me to explore the other available options when graduating with a degree in law enforcement and justice administration, and boy, can I say I have found my passion. I was lucky enough to experience working with Pete, who allowed me to become involved in almost every facet of his job and made me feel like I was truly a part of the BBBS family and not just an intern."

Ross said the experiences he has also gained through being part of Greek life and other professional organizations at Western have prepared him for the day-to-day responsibilities of his internship.

"Working with the Big Brothers Big Sisters program, I have been able to witness both the amazing things the program does for the children of this community and the amazing things this community does for the children in this program," he said.

Numerous members of the WIU faculty and administration have been Big Brothers, or "Bigs," for several years, including Associate Vice President for Student Services John Biernbaum; College of Arts and Sciences Director of Development Bryce Dexter and Director of Annual Giving Tim Hallinan.

Biernbaum has been matched with a teenager for just over two years. He said being part of the program has been an "incredible experience."

"When my friends Beau and Scott asked me to consider doing it, they said I would get more out of it than my 'Little Brother,' and they couldn't have been more right about that statement," Biernbaum said. "Getting to be part of (my little brother's) life has left an indelible impact on mine. If you have even a little bit of time to devote, I can't think of a better program to be a part of. Pete and BBBS are great to work with and provide a ton of resources to make this an experience that makes a difference for a lifetime, and I thank them for it."

Dexter had been a Big Brother since the agency began, and he went on to serve on the BBBS Advisory Board. He is now matched with a fourth grade student as part of the school-based program.

His first "Little" match was a third grader who was in his second foster home in one year. The pair went fishing, sledding and hiking, as well as other outdoor activities.

"I was told by his grandmother that he had become a happier person once he started the BBBS program with me," Dexter said. "We became very good for each other."

Dexter said he has enjoyed watching the positive impact BBBS has on the community and the "energy" Tarantola has brought to the program.

"There are so many children right here in our little community who have such unsettled home lives; it is so sad," he said. "These children are looking for an adult figure to spend some individual time with them. Many of them do not get this at home because of a variety of circumstances."

More than a year ago, Dexter received his second match, and he now visits the student at school.

"We meet once a week at his school for lunch," he said. "I always bring him lunch, and we get to visit and sometimes work on subjects he has having trouble with in school. I was thrilled a few weeks ago when he passed his multiplication test to move on to fifth grade."

Before he came to WIU, Hallinan was the first director of BBBS when it opened in McDonough County in 2002. Hallinan continues to serve on the agency's board, and he said the impact WIU has on the local program has been enormous.

"Western Illinois University students have served as mentors to local children, event volunteers and fundraisers for nearly 15 years," he said. "Our local BBBS agency is able to demonstrate real, positive impact on children in our community, largely through their efforts and enthusiasm to make a difference in kids who can benefit from having an extra friend."

In addition to researching and considering each match applicant, Tarantola's office also provides support to the existing matches, including planning activities for the "Bigs" and "Littles" to do together.

Tarantola said volunteers must commit to the match for at least one calendar year, and group activities are planned once a month. Local schools refer students who would benefit from the program, and "Littles" can be up to age 18.

The local BBBS office survives on its own fundraising efforts each year. Activities planned annually include the "Bowl for Kids Sake" event, a music trivia contest on the Saturday night of Macomb's Heritage Days and a miniature golf event the WIU Veteran's Club held on campus in early April, where numerous student organizations designed golf holes.

An upcoming fundraiser, the office's annual plant sale, runs from Wednesday-Sunday, May 6-10 in the parking area next to Quick Print and Signs at 1140 E. Jackson St. The sale is open from 8 a.m.- 7 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday and from 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Sunday.

For more information about the local office visit For additional information about volunteering, contact Tarantola at (309) 837-5437.

Posted By: Jodi Pospeschil (
Office of University Communications & Marketing