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About Us

Bemidji Early Childhood Collaborative (BECC) is a non-profit organization officially established in October of 2018. BECC was formed by members of the organizations Bemidji Thrive Initiative and Bemidji Early Childhood Initiative after their dissolutions. Some of our current programs have been established for years originating from Thrive and ECI such as MAP, Gather and Grow, and the professional education conferences. BECC is comprised of over 80 professionals in the community who are passionate and dedicated to improving the lives of families with young children.


BECC is coordinated by Cailee Furer, M.Ed with the support of a strong and devoted board of directors.  Through collaboration and innovative ideas, we are able to work together to support those who work in a variety of professional fields related to Early Childhood and positively impact families with young children in our community. Programs that are represented by BECC encourage and support relationships with parents, developmentally appropriate and positive social and emotional learning, infant and early childhood mental health, and collaboration.  BECC hosts a multitude of projects and programs to bring awareness, education, and advocacy to the critically important early years and whole family, two-generational approach.  

Board of Directors

Board President:

Heather Sutherland is the Early Childhood Education instructor at Northwest Technical College in Bemidji. She has been in this position for 3 years, and before that worked with Head Start programs for 13 years. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Child Development from Concordia University and is currently pursuing a Master’s of Science degree in Early Childhood Special Education from Minnesota State University-Mankato. Heather’s daily reminder: By doing what you love, you inspire and awaken the hearts of others.

Board Treasurer:

Wendy Kalass Thompson is the Executive Director of Beltrami Area Service Collaborative (BASC), an entity that focuses on children’s mental health and family wellbeing.  Wendy has served in this position since 2013 and prior to that was an independent consultant for nonprofits, tribal entities, local government and collaborations.  She holds a Bachelors Degree in Social Studies/Political Science with a minor in Secondary Education from Hamline University as well as a Masters Degree in Public Administration from the University of North Dakota.  On her office wall is a framed picture of a lake dock that says “Dive in,” a reminder to do what we can every day to work toward community wellbeing.

Board Secretary:

Jessica Croatt Niemi, MSSW LICSW IMH-E(IV) provides mental health and consultation services through Lake Country Associates in Bemidji MN, specializing in work with young children, their caregivers, and early childhood professionals. She has been involved with Bemidji Early Childhood Collaborative, since its beginning as Thrive. She is an Advisory Board Member of the Minnesota Association of Children’s Mental Health- Infant and Early Childhood Division; an instructor at the University of Minnesota- Institute for Child Development; and a Supervisor of the MN Department of Human Services- Early Childhood Mental Health Consultation. She holds her graduate degree from University of Wisconsin- Madison and is a Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker. She holds an Endorsement as an Early Childhood Mental health Mentor. Today’s inspiration- Do not let the perfect get in the way of the possible.

Board Member:

Lydia Pietruszewski is fortunate to have the opportunity to celebrate childhood every day in her role as Director and Educarer at Pine Pals Intergenerational Learning Child Care and Preschool. She continues to be integral in the imagination and realization of all aspects of this unique community asset. She is committed to holistic, inclusive care and education and has demonstrated this by approaching completion of her master’s degree in Special Education with Early Childhood emphasis. Before embarking on her adventure in childcaring, she worked for 10 years as a licensed science educator in middle and secondary education until she was compelled to devote herself full-time to learning from the children that she gave birth to. A daughter of the woods and wild water, she is inspired by the wonder and awe she has experienced and witnessed in the small humans she knows as they explore the world around. When Lydia isn’t learning from her children at work, she can usually be found wandering in the pines or dreaming under the stars with all the children she is blessed to call family. If you can’t find her outdoors, well, she is likely playing a lengthy game of hide and seek…she is hiding - you seek your own spot.

Board Member:

Michele Andringa is the Head Start Director at Bi-County Community Action, Inc. (BI-CAP).  Michele has been in this position since 2017 and with Head Start for 12 years.  Michele has been serving children and families for more than 25 years. She has worked for public schools, county agencies and private non-profits. Michele has a Bachelor of Science from Bemidji State University and Certification in Early Childhood Education and Family Studies from St. Cloud State University. 

Michele’s motto for life is to live each moment to the fullest and find something to be grateful for in every situation you 

Board Member:

Jeff Haack

Board Member:

Kami Kelm

Board Member:

Layna Cole

Our Mission

Our Mission

The purpose of the Bemidji Early Childhood Collaborative is to promote culturally-responsive healthy development, quality education, superior childcare, and family support for children ages birth through five in the greater Bemidji community. This vitally important work is accomplished through the power of collaboration, community outreach, and advocacy for early childhood mental health and overall well-being.

Baby's Clutch

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