Best friend of the elderly

Aten ends long career with LBFE

Jennifer Donahue/For the Mining Gazette Mike Aten is shown with his wife Cathy Kass-Aten. Mike retired last month from Little Brothers Friends of the Elderly after 41 years.

Mike Aten is passionate about a lot of things. He adores his wife, his son and daughter. He loves meeting and talking with all kinds of people. But Little Brothers Friends of the Elderly has been his abiding passion for more than four decades.

“I love the philosophy,” he says, “spreading love and friendship to elderly people who feel isolated.”

Aten studied architectural design at a community college in Lansing, where he was raised, and he worked for the state for a while, but “my heart was always in human services,” he says. So after a stint as a medic in the Army, he enrolled at Central Michigan University to earn a degree in community development.

He had served as a volunteer at Little Brothers in Chicago, “and I loved it,” Aten says. So after earning his degree, in 1979 he went to work for LBFE in Minneapolis, visiting elderly folks, providing them friendship, transportation and meals, and organizing celebrations in St. Paul.

A rural chapter

Aten brought LBFE to the Keweenaw in 1982. Hearing that the national LBFE organization was offering funds to create a rural chapter, he jumped on the opportunity.

Wanting to gather data to back up his gut feeling about Houghton County being the place for a Little Brothers chapter, Aten examined the need for Little Brothers in the Keweenaw, comparing the rates of poverty and numbers of isolated elderly people here to those in two rural counties in Appalachia and two in the Mississippi Delta. Our tough climate, the region’s high proportion of elderly people, high rates of poverty, lack of family support and shortage of services for the elderly convinced him that the Keweenaw was the place for LBFE’s rural chapter. So he crafted and submitted a proposal.

The national LBFE agreed with Aten’s assessment. It funded an LBFE chapter here, with a caveat: the chapter had to find its place in the community and become self-supporting within 10 years or funding would cease.

Aten loves a challenge. He jumped into action, heading the service organization and the foundation that funds it ever since, working day and night, weekends and holidays to bring friendship and support to more than 1,000 elderly people. His LBFE chapter was self-supporting well before the 10-year deadline.

Aten says Little Brothers “is like my family.” The elderly people that LBFE serves are all part of that family. “Volunteers and donors are part of the family too.”

Retiring but not stopping

Aten retired last month, turning the helm of the Little Brothers Friends of the Elderly Foundation over to his wife, Cathy Kass-Aten. He’s excited about stepping down, handing off the all the management details and paperwork. “Now I can fulfill my dream of spending my time just visiting donors,” he says. Aten plans to work for the foundation about 10 hours a week for a few months doing just that. Then he says, he’ll continue as a volunteer.

Aten and his wife have worked as a team in Little Brothers for decades. For some, working with a spouse can be problematic, but it’s a good fit for the Atens.

“Mike and I have always worked well together,” Kass-Aten says. “We seem to balance each other, as he is very social and spontaneous and I am more calm and like to think things through. Mike sees the good in everyone and is full of passion for Little Brothers. I love these qualities in him, so working together has really worked for us.”   

Since they work and live together, their work doesn’t end when they leave the office. “Little Brothers has really been a way of life for us, so it can be hard not to bring work home,” she says, “but we also relate to each other, so it can be helpful. Sometimes that energy we bring home is exciting too, if one of us has had a great day or we are looking forward to an upcoming event. At the same time, we are definitely aware that we do bring work home, and sometimes we make a deal to take a break and leave that discussion for the next day.”

How will their relationship change now that her husband has retired? Kass-Aten laughs. “I don’t think Mike will ever be ‘retired,'” she says. “He will always have more energy than me, and Little Brothers is such a huge part of him. I know he will always stay involved, whether that is to volunteer or consult. He is Little Brothers greatest ambassador.”

And what does Aten think? “Now she’s my boss, and that’s fine,” he quips.

Praise from LBFE presidents

David Geisler, president of the LBFE board, waxes rhapsodic about Aten. “His energy is just absolutely infectious, so enthusiastic, so positive,” Geisler says. “What he has accomplished is phenomenal. When Mike comes up to you and puts his arm around you, with that big smile on his face, you just have to say, ‘What can I do for you?’ His enthusiasm draws you in and makes you want to get involved.”

In the Keweenaw, grown children tend to move away to pursue their careers, and their parents are left isolated, Geisler pointed out. “Mike saw that need and did something about it.” He built the UP chapter into the second largest chapter in the whole LBFE organization and the only rural chapter in the nation.

Ted Simonsen, chair of the Little Brothers Friends of the Elderly Foundation, adds: “Mike has been a joy to work with for the last handful of years. As a board member and now chair of the board, it has always been clear to me that Mike is passionate about the work Little Brothers does and that he truly cares about the elderly we serve.”

LBFE is a member of the International Federation of Little Brothers of the Poor. It was founded in France in the early 20th century by Armand Marquiset, who said, “The greatest poverty is the poverty of love.” He brought meals and flowers to the elderly poor in Paris. His motto, “flowers before bread,” is intended to remind the world that help for the needy must be animated by love.

To which Mike Aten says amen.


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