History of Neighbor by Neighbor 

In the spring of 2017, Janet Cocciarelli who was Executive Director of the Pokagon Fund met Linnea Berg for lunch. Ms. Berg was a retired nonprofit executive who had recently moved to southwest Berrien County. Ms. Cocciarelli shared local data that indicated that there was significant poverty in southwest Berrien County and that it was not being adequately addressed by nonprofits charged with serving all of Berrien County. Low-income people did not know that help was available and how to access it. With no public transportation and a 30-50-minute drive one way to most service providers, area residents could not easily get help with bills, referrals and resources. At the end of the conversation, Ms. Berg offered to be of help to Ms. Cocciarelli and the rest, as they say, is history.

Initially, the model for a proposed program was “Resource and Referral,” which is essentially giving people contact information tailored to their needs and linking them up to the service providers. Ms. Cocciarelli and Ms. Berg met with several large nonprofit organizations located in the Benton Harbor/St. Joseph area to determine whether they would accept a grant from The Pokagon Fund to hire a staff person to locate in southwest Berrien and provide Resource and Referral services. No organization was willing to do so for several reasons including the difficulty of having a “lone ranger” staff member working with minimal supervision and no colleagues.

Ms. Berg was working as a part-time administrative assistant at the Episcopal Church of the Mediator in Harbert, whose priest was a trained master’s level therapist and worked in the field for over 20 years. Rev. Paula Durren was a therapist in Benton Harbor and Niles prior to completing seminary, and she understood what was involved in working in a nonprofit. Because of Ms. Berg’s and Rev. Durren’s previous work history, the Church of the Mediator became the first fiduciary manager of a new program targeting southwest Berrien County low-income residents. Mediator’s church treasurer, Peggy Lefebvre, had experience with a nonprofit in Pittsburgh that had modest beginnings, and she brought her accounting skills and experience to the table.

On July 1, 2017, Neighbor by Neighbor was born, although it did not yet have that name. The first employee, Megan Bolinder, worked part-time, meeting people requesting help and giving them information on how to get that help. Ms. Berg was also part-time and available for consultation. It was Ms. Bolinder who suggested the name and worked with a graphic designer of her acquaintance to create a logo. The first year was on the rough side with a steep learning curve for all involved. Ms. Bolinder realized that what people needed was much more extensive than contact information. They had layers of interwoven problems needing to be addressed. Some people couldn’t navigate the service provider systems on their own and needed her help. Year one revealed that the social work model most appropriate was “Case Management” rather than “Resource and Referral.”

Rev. Durren retired as priest at the Church of the Mediator, and the church did not want to burden either an interim priest or a permanent priest with managing Neighbor by Neighbor. Harbert Community Church stepped up and agreed to serve as fiduciary for Pokagon grants.

Ms. Bolinder decided to pursue other activities after one year, and Stephanie Rutherford was hired to replace her. Ms. Rutherford was in her last year of a Masters of Social Work program and worked part-time for Neighbor by Neighbor. With her previous employment and clinical work for graduate school, Ms. Rutherford was able to provide Case Management. Ms. Rutherford also helped to expand community awareness regarding Neighbor by Neighbor’s services.  Upon graduating, Ms. Rutherford accepted a full-time job and once again Neighbor by Neighbor needed to find a replacement social worker.

Since most of the funding came from The Pokagon Fund and was managed by Harbert Community Church, Neighbor by Neighbor did not have a traditional Board of Directors. Rather, it had an Advisory Board that included Rev. Paula Durren, a retired priest of Church of the Mediator, Marcie Dust, a client representative, Rev. Jay Fast, Pastor of Harbert Community Church, Peggy Lefebvre, a member of Church of the Mediator, and Leslie Wood, a Life Coach and retired school social work administrator. Toward the end of the year, Bob Stine, a retired business owner, joined the Advisory Board.

Margaret “Peg” Kohring joined Neighbor by Neighbor providing direct client services, and then became a part-time Executive Director in 2020. The program was growing by leaps and bounds as COVID hit and people lost employment. Neighbor by Neighbor grew from serving 150 people to 752 in 12 months. People went from barely getting by to going under without help paying their bills. Seasonal jobs were fewer because 40+ local businesses shut down and many limited their hours and capacity for customers. Bills kept accumulating and unemployment did not always cover them. Fortunately, Neighbor by Neighbor was able to help families remain housed in homes with the lights on and with food on the table.

Much of Neighbor by Neighbor’s work was done via phone since in person meetings were precluded. Staff worked from home and from their cars, meeting clients when appropriate in outdoor spaces, wearing masks.

Food Insecurity was recognized as a real challenge in Harbor Country. Neighbor by Neighbor discovered that a great number of area seniors worry about having enough to eat. The cost of food rose 3.9% while the seniors’ incomes were stagnant. Neighbor by Neighbor volunteered for the local Mobile Food Pantries and kept clients informed of resources and future MFP dates, times and places. Neighbor by Neighbor also partnered with Meals on Wheels over the summer to deliver boxes of produce to 60 food insecure seniors. 2020 was a year to strengthen partnerships with churches, other nonprofits, fraternal organizations and governmental programs. Neighbor by Neighbor was able to hire a “social navigator” who helped people sign up for unemployment, Covid relief checks, Medicaid, Food Stamps and Veterans benefits. A total of 149 people received this assistance.

Neighbor by Neighbor needed volunteers to serve as food deliverers, and 16 people were recruited and given an orientation. 

2020 also saw a dramatic growth in both the amount of funding and the diversity of funding sources. Foundations other than The Pokagon Fund approved grants, 140 individuals and 12 churches or businesses became donors. Income raised was $240,015 and expenses were $189,153. The excess meant 2021 began with strong reserves. The Board held a retreat and created a five-year Strategic Plan for the first time.

Harbert Community Church continued its role of fiduciary manager, but it was clear that the time was right for Neighbor by Neighbor to become its own IRS recognized 501c3 nonprofit. With the help of the late John Krsul and Dan Peterson of The Pokagon Fund, Neighbor by Neighbor submitted its lengthy application to the IRS and awaited a determination.

2021 saw an expansion in the types of assistance Neighbor by Neighbor gave in response to client needs including:  donating used cars, helping to pay for car repairs, short-term stays in motels for homeless people, funding modest home repairs to make seniors safe, and building 2 wheelchair ramps for homebound persons with disabilities. For the first time, a full-time social worker was hired to meet the exponential increase in clients. 

The level of sophistication of the organization was raised with the purchase of Charity Tracker, a  client database management program, and Keela, a donor software tracking program. A new website was developed with a more professional appearance, and Facebook and Instagram presence was established. The number of volunteer hours donated was tracked for the first time. Office space in Union Pier meant that Neighbor by Neighbor had a more permanent feel and visibility in the community.

The IRS granted nonprofit (501c3) status to Neighbor by Neighbor in January of 2022, and the transition from Harbert Community Church commenced immediately. A formal Board of Directors was formed, along with all necessary paperwork (Bylaws, Articles of Incorporation, Conflict of Interest Policy, updated Strategic Plan) Three new board members were added:  David Ball, Janet Henderson and Bruce Murphy.

The staff optimistically thought that 2022 would see the end of the pandemic and life going back to “normal.” Unfortunately, the pandemic continued to wreak havoc and inflation reared its ugly head. Local landlords increased rents by as much as 50%. The price of gas, utilities and food strained low-income people’s budgets to the breaking point. People who previously squeaked by were now coming to Neighbor by Neighbor for help for the first time, usually saying something like, “I have never been in this position before. I have never needed to ask for help.” It was like a trap door opened and people fell through, and it took a toll on staff to the point that a full-time Outreach Worker was added. Peg Kohring was made a three-fourths time employee when it was abundantly clear that she had been serving in that capacity for quite some time. Peg Kohring and the Board recognized that the time for a full-time executive director had arrived.

Despite the demands for financial help to survive, Neighbor by Neighbor was able to partner with Michigan Works! to launch a GED program under the capable hands of Kip Walker, a retired school superintendent, and Liz James. Kip and Liz are both volunteers who have a passion for seeing clients increase their life chances through education.

Neighbor by Neighbor continued to strengthen its professionalism and functioning through engaging outside professional resources. Advantage Accounting was retained to provide accounting and payroll services, and one of its employees spends a day a week in the Neighbor by Neighbor office. HR 360, a human resource firm, assisted in creating an Personnel Manual and assisting with Human Resources for the agency. Miller Canfield, a prominent Michigan law firm, offered to do pro bono legal work.

Mid-summer Peg Kohring announced her retirement beginning at the end of 2022/early 2023. The board began to formulate plans for the executive director search to begin in early fall of 2022. Keri Haskins was hired as the new ED in January of 2023.