It’s hard to imagine Big Brothers Big Sisters of Southwestern Illinois without Barb Cempura.
She founded the nonprofit organization in 1980 and served as its president for 35 years, helping to pair thousands of children with adult mentors and role models.
“It’s really gone by fast, and it’s been wonderful,” said Barb, who is retiring Wednesday. “I’ve got some great memories.”
Jim Schneider, Belleville’s director of community development, called Barb a “community service icon.”
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“She’s an amazing woman,” he said. “Her service, her commitment, her dedication, her sacrifice ... How many people can take on something like this and stick with it all these years?”
Jim volunteered at a Big Brothers Big Sisters picnic in Fairview Heights recently. He led games to help children build teamwork and leadership.
“People like me who are out in the community can’t say ‘no’ to Barb,” he said. “It’s hard to turn her down because you know her heart’s in the right place.”
Mover and shaker
Two of the biggest challenges faced by any nonprofit organization are recruiting volunteers and raising money. Barb has done plenty of both, often at the same time.
Hundreds of metro-east residents have participated in the Big Brothers Big Sisters annual bowling competition, house raffle and golf tournament.
Occasionally, Barb gives her famous homemade brownies as gifts to supporters or thank-yous to staff.
“One thing many people don’t know about Barb is that she’s from Louisiana,” said Case Manager Beverly Holland, 44, an employee since 2004.
“She’s a Southern girl, so I think all kinds of things come out of that upbringing. She’s a hostess in her way of interacting with people. You can see the Southern charm. It’s innate.”
Barb grew up in a family of “wild Irish Cajuns” in Sulphur, La. She gained insight as a teenager that would come in handy later.
“My mom died when I was 18, and I had eight younger brothers and sisters,” she said. “Dad didn’t remarry for eight or nine years, so during that time, my siblings grew up in a single-parent home.
“We had a big support system of grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and neighbors who didn’t let you get away with anything. But it’s just not like that anymore.”
Barb studied speech and hearing pathology at Our Lady of the Lake University in San Antonio, Texas, and worked as a speech therapist when her husband, Walt, was stationed at an Air Force base in the Philippines.
The Cempuras and their son, Walter, lived all over the United States. Barb’s pursuits ranged from creating an adult-education program at church to counseling rape victims to running a thrift shop for charity.
“My goal was to do something worthwhile that I could leave behind in every place I lived,” she said. “If you waited until the end of a military career, you wouldn’t be able to do much.”
$108 in seed money
Barb hadn’t been in Belleville long before a group of residents asked her to help start a Big Brothers Big Sisters branch in 1980. They had $108 in the bank.
“Obviously, I was not going to get paid,” Barb said. “I had to raise the money, and that was OK.”
She worked out of her kitchen before Fairview Heights offered a rent-free office in City Hall. The organization hired its first case manager in 1982 and occupied two other spaces before settling on Frank Scott Parkway in Belleville.
The Southwestern Illinois branch served more than 500 children in St. Clair, Madison, Clinton and Monroe counties in the past year.
“The thing I’m most proud of is our pursuit of excellence,” Beverly said. “I think that starts at the top and continues down the line to case workers. We’re the gold standard as far as Big Brothers Big Sisters goes.”
Big sister Pam Manning, 61, of O’Fallon, has been impressed by the organization’s system for matching children with mentors.
Her little sister is Keywanna Strong, 14, of Belleville, an only child who wanted to learn more about the world. She and Pam play tennis and go to movie theaters, museums and shopping malls.
“We like the same things, and we have the same personality,” said Pam, who teaches education at McKendree University. “She has the same dreams I had when I was her age.”
Sisters for life
Barb believes Big Brothers Big Sisters benefits not only children but also volunteers and the community, and she has plenty of stories to back it up.
One of her favorites involves former Belleville resident Rene Micka, 37, of Nixa, Mo. Rene was 11 when her single dad signed up her for mentoring.
“He just felt like I needed a female role model, someone who was positive, someone I could talk to,” Rene said. “He worked 12 hours a day. He worked every holiday.”
The family lived in a trailer park with mostly poor and uneducated residents. Rene’s big sister, Melissa Moggio, took her to the St. Louis Art Museum, watched her cheer at basketball games and invited her over for Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Rene gives Melissa, now a New York City writer, at least partial credit for the fact she went to college and became a teacher.
“I’m still her little sister,” said Rene, a mother of two married to a doctor. “We still talk. We still see each other on holidays. I was in her wedding. She was in my wedding. We’re family.”
Passing the torch
The Big Brothers Big Sisters board has picked a new president to replace Barb. He is Waterloo resident Doug Clements, former director of Wings of Hope, a St. Louis-based organization that provides world humanitarian aid.
Big Brothers Big Sisters will hold a 35th Anniversary Celebration and Retirement Party on Nov. 7 at the Four Points by Sheraton in Fairview Heights (cocktails at 6:30 p.m. and dinner at 7:30 p.m.). Admission is $50.
After retirement, Barb plans to volunteer with the St. Clair County Juvenile Justice Council's Teen Court and Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Fairview Heights, spend more time with her son and grandson near Detroit, enjoy long lunches with friends and just relax.
She likely will never stop advocating for Big Brothers Big Sisters. More than 180 children, mostly boys, are now on a waiting list for mentors.
“After being in this business for so long, I’ve learned that it’s important to keep perspective,” Barb said. “We’re working with kids one on one, and we have to focus on our mission and what we can do.
“We can’t do anything about some of the family situations, except refer them to get help. We can’t take on the world, so we take on one child at a time.”
At a glance
Big Brothers Big Sisters of Southwestern Illinois
- What: Nonprofit organization that matches children with adult mentors and role models
- Where: St. Clair, Madison, Clinton and Monroe counties
- Paid staff: Nine
- Mentor criteria: Must be 18 or older and able to commit 10 to 12 hours a month for at least a year
- Other opportunities: Volunteers always needed for fundraisers
- How to donate: Mail donations to Big Brothers Big Sisters of Southwestern Illinois, 2726 Frank Scott Parkway West, Belleville, IL 62223 or visit www.bbbsil.org
- 35th anniversary party: Nov. 7 at Four Points by Sheraton in Fairview Heights; $50 admission
- More information: Call 618-398-3162 or visit website