John Theisen, Vice President of the Polish Falcons Aid Society of Grand Rapids
, isn’t actually Polish himself. However, despite his German/Irish heritage, Theisen was introduced to the local cultural club through his best friend’s dad about 14 years ago — and the rest is history.
“My best friend’s dad was a member of the Polish Falcons and wanted me and my buddies to join, but I guess it was kind of through the camaraderie of being part of the Falcons that I decided to get more involved,” says Theisen, who first served as the Society’s treasurer before stepping into the role of vice president seven years ago.
Located at 957 W. Fulton Ave., the Grand Rapids branch of the PFAS was founded way back in 1927 with the intention of helping Polish immigrants new to the city find work in the furniture factories and places to live in the surrounding neighborhood.
In its heyday — during the 1940s through the 1970s — the Polish Falcons Aid Society of Grand Rapids
had more than 400 members, its clubhouse on W. Fulton benefiting from new equipment, extensive renovations and improvements to both its exterior and interior as membership grew.
“Back in the day, everybody that lived in the neighborhood that was Polish would walk to the club and do their thing,” says Theisen, adding that, since then, a lot of the club’s membership has moved away from the downtown area and into the suburbs, and although there’s been quite a bit of reinvestment and redevelopment in the John Ball Park neighborhood where it resides, the late 1990s and early 2000s were rough on both the building and its surrounding community.
In fact, Phillip Mitchell, treasurer for the Society, says over the past year or so, the city of Grand Rapids issued citations to the clubhouse for the poor condition of the building’s exterior.
“Funds are pretty tight in general, we just don’t generate much to pay for repairs and stuff and that’s the biggest problem,” says Mitchell, who joined the PFAS around three years ago even though he, like Theisen, is not Polish himself, but instead was brought in by his wife, who has Lithuanian/Polish roots.
With a crumbling exterior and official citation from the city of Grand Rapids, exterior renovations cost the PFAS around $50,000 — a number Mitchell says is significant, especially relative to what the group typically brings in — and the group spent the last year raising money for repairs, which included various event-based fundraising efforts as well as an increase in membership dues.
“We do a variety of things that promote the Polish heritage too, like Pulaski Days
. Anything that really gets people in the doors and works like a fundraiser for us,” says Mitchell. An example of such includes a raffle held last Friday during the building’s grand re-opening, for which attendance included a few county commissioners, the city comptroller and West Side advocate Rev. Msgr. Edward Hankiewicz, who blessed the space before the ribbon was cut.
Although recent fundraising has been geared largely toward renovations, Theisen says community support and member-organized charity work isn’t new for PFAS’ Grand Rapids chapter — it’s just part of what makes them such a tight-knit group.
“If there’s a charity event going on, someone in the Polish community that needs help, we jump on it,” he says, citing scholarship programs for local elementary schools, PFAS’ participation in Angel Tree during Christmastime, and a successful rally cry to help a neighbor whose house caught fire about a year ago.
“We’re always very charitable, and if someone asks and needs help, we’re one of the first to step up,” Theisen says. “First to fight, first to help out. That’s the Polish Falcons motto.”
That’s why every August, volunteer members of the PFAS lead the charge in organizing and staffing the annual Polish Festival in downtown Grand Rapids, and despite the hike in membership dues, the PFAS still has around 250 members to pack its 2,700-square-foot clubhouse with activities, events, and, more simply, each other’s company.
Part of this interest stems from the renewed accessibility to the club, says Theisen, who notes his larger community is on the mend thanks to reinvestment in buildings and new businesses on Grand Rapids’ west side.
“The neighborhood was a little rough at the time, and it’s really come back since Grand Valley has moved in down the road, and people are taking pride in their structures and really doing a lot of stuff in the neighborhood now that they didn’t do in the past,” he says.
Though it may have taken some time for their neighbors to catch up, the PFAS has always taken pride in their structures, both visible and unseen. And more than anything else, that pride has fostered the group’s ability to thrive for decades, with members like Theisen passing the love of the Polish heritage in all of its forms down to both old faces and new.
“I enjoy polka music as one of those lost music [forms, which] you don’t see a lot of the young kids listening to anymore, and we’ve really actually brought in a lot of young people grasping the culture and liking the music,” he says. “My son is six years old, and he loves polka music now. We’ve also got kids in their 20s who come to the club when we have the polka band play, and they love it too. When I was growing up, it was just a bunch of old people who liked polka music, and it’s kind of cool to see a generation of young people accepting it.”
Written by Anya Zentmeyer, Development News Editor
Images courtesy of John Theisen