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Empowering those with disabilities -- and the rest of us

An organization designed to empower independence in people with disabilities wants everyone to be involved in the decision-making process on issues that may affect them. “Nothing about us without us” is a saying they use to demonstrate this philosophy of inclusion.

Disability Advocates of Kent County (DAKC) began in 1981 as the Grand Rapids Center for Independent Living. As a non-residential housing organization, the name was changed in 2002 to better reflect what they do and the people they serve.

“DAKC plays an integral part in creating thriving communities by providing direct services and a platform for people with disabilities to be involved in the decisions on how the community looks,” says Tyler Nickerson, Community Organizer with DAKC.

The organization assists persons with disabilities and the community as a whole by focusing on two main areas: systems navigation and systems change.

In navigating the current systems in place for those with disabilities, DAKC finds out which programs exist and how best to use them. Then they pass this information on to clients who may not know where to go or even begin when needing help.

DAKC also evaluates existing systems and programs to see what might need changes or adjustments in order to work more efficiently.

David Bulkowski, Executive Director at DAKC, says that the people with the disabilities are often the ones making the changes and his organization supports them in their efforts.

“We help folks get to the microphone,” he says.

DAKC has strong partnerships within the community as well and acts as an advocate for all of us, disabled or not. Bulkowski reminds us that we will all lose some mobility as we age. He adds that there is “an 80 percent likelihood of acquiring a disability before you die.”

Recently, DAKC became involved with the Michigan Street Corridor study and gave committee members a taste of what life with a disability is like. Organizers asked each of the 25 or so members to try to get up the steep Michigan Street hill while in a wheelchair. They quickly realized it’s not that easy.

DAKC also helped place a blind man, Casey Dutmer, on the steering committee. Bulkowski believes having a disabled person involved can sometimes change the dynamics in the room, otherwise, it may be “out of sight, out of mind.”

Nickerson says the organization has a long history of advocating for smart community development, especially when it comes to transportation and housing. A year ago, they helped the Rapid Transit System promote and pass its millage to provide enhanced service in more areas. DAKC’s goal is to “move the community transportation system forward to meet the needs of all residents” says Nickerson.
 
The organization is continually asking, “What do we want the community to look like?” They want to ensure Kent County is one of the best places to live for everyone.

“Unless you have a family member with a disability or have one yourself, you don’t know what it feels like,” says Bulkowski, referring to the unique issues those with disabilities face.

DAKC would like the community to get more educated about disability issues and to become advocates for change. Here are a few ways to get involved:  

-    Visit Disability Advocates of Kent County online to find out more.
-    Attend the July 26 Americans with Disabilities Act 22nd anniversary celebration at Rosa Parks Circle. There will be live music and ice cream treats! More information is found on their home page.
-    Donate to DAKC.
-    Volunteer with DAKC.
-    Like DAKC on Facebook.
-    Follow @AdvocateAbility on Twitter.

Source: Dave Bulkowski, Executive Director at Disability Advocates, and Tyler Nickerson, DAKC Community Organizer

Writer: Heidi Stukkie, Do Good Editor

Photos provided by Disability Advocates.





Mentor a child and make a difference

Marshall Booker, Jr.’s father always told him, “You can be part of the problem, or you can be part of the solution.”

Booker took this advice to heart and for more than 10 years has volunteered as a “big brother” with the D.A. Blodgett - St. John’s Big Brothers Big Sisters program. He’s been a mentor to a few different pre-teen boys and has stayed connected with them as they got older.

“If you talk to them, you can pull them up,” says Booker.

The local Big Brothers Big Sisters program began in 1965 as part of a national program that pairs adult volunteers with children ages 5-17 in a mentoring capacity. Often, these children come from single-parent homes and may be having some challenges in school or at home. Having the guidance of a responsible adult they can trust who is not their parent, relative or teacher can have a life-changing impact on the lives of these young adults.  

Right now, there are approximately 350 children on a waiting list for a mentor in the community-based program. Nearly 70 percent are boys and the average age is between 9-10 years old.

In order to participate as a big brother or big sister, the organization asks for a one-year commitment to the matched child for 1-3 hours per week. Volunteers must be 18 and have transportation. They can be single or married, college students, parents, working adults or retired.

Mentors and the children are both evaluated before they qualify to be matched. Someone from the Big Brothers Big Sisters program will interview the child and child’s family at their home after an application request and an initial phone conversation. Information from their school is received as well.

Program Manager Paul Miller says this helps get a “composite picture of the child” and afterward, the child is placed into the system until a match can be found.

On the mentoring side, volunteers are screened carefully. Interviews take place at their homes also with background and reference checks done afterward. Mentors are able to share any preferences for the match as far as age, sex and race goes. It’s for this reason that matches are not first come, first served. Sometimes it takes a while for a compatible match to happen.

“We want to make successful matches,” says Miller. “That contributes to the long-term success of the program. Our objective is to sustain the match and have a good experience for the child and the volunteer.”

No special skills are needed to become a mentor. The organization provides training on how to handle different situations that may arise and regularly checks in with both the adult and the child to measure progress. The mentors often teach the child social skills and manners, or they assist with homework. Sometimes the pair simply has fun by going to movies, games, restaurants and cultural events. Other times, they hang out at the mentor’s home or volunteer at another nonprofit organization.  

Unlike the community-based program, the agency’s school-based program allows for volunteers as young as 14 years old to get involved. The commitment is also only around nine months instead of a year. These mentors meet with students at their schools and stay on the property helping with homework or hanging out over lunch.

Booker encourages others to take a chance and give the Big Brothers Big Sisters program a try. Many of his friends were hesitant to get involved at first because they didn’t have any experience with kids, but they soon realized what a rewarding experience it is.

“You get more out of it than the kids,” he admits.

If you want to make a difference in a child’s future, here are some ways to get involved:

-    Visit Big Brothers Big Sisters online to find out more.
-    Volunteer to mentor a child.
-    Donate
-    Give tickets to events that mentors can attend with a child.
-    Like D.A. Blodgett – St. John’s on Facebook.

Sources: Paul Miller, Program Manager at Big Brothers Big Sisters, and Marshall Booker, Jr., a mentor in the program

Writer: Heidi Stukkie, Do Good Editor

Photos provided by Big Brothers Big Sisters.

Ending homelessness... one family at a time

When you enter the office of Family Promise of Grand Rapids, you’ll see a frame on the counter containing many different photos of individuals and families. In the corner of the frame, a quote written by a 15-year-old guest reads:  

“Homeless, I am. Hopeless? That I will never be.”

Family Promise provides this kind of hope to more than 500 people in Kent County each year through its temporary and permanent housing, case management, mentoring services and furniture donation programs.
 
In the last few years, many families are finding themselves homeless or struggling to keep their homes for the first time in their lives, and a disturbing trend shows the fastest-growing segment of the homeless population in Kent County -- now making up 50 percent -- is families with children.

Throughout all of Michigan, the number of homeless students counted by the schools has increased by more than 300 percent in the last four years, with almost 2,100 homeless students on record in 2011.

“When people think of the homeless, most people think of a person living under a bridge,” says Family Promise Executive Director Cheryl Schuch. “That’s not usually who we see.”

Schuch says of the families helped by Family Promise’s Interfaith Hospitality Network program, 65 percent are homeless for the first time. More than 70 percent are single moms and nearly 55 percent of the families have children under the age of four. Research has recently discovered that chronic stress in children within this age group can lead to permanent damage, enhancing the likelihood of challenges later in their lives. 
 
A lack of decent jobs and affordable housing options, changes to Michigan’s family assistance programs, marital separations and domestic violence are the most common reasons people seek the assistance of Family Promise.

While there are various shelters around town, most don’t have the capacity to keep families together in times of crisis. That’s where Family Promise is different.

“Our program allows families to stay together,” Schuch says. “This is a core critical piece to maintain strength.”

Through its Interfaith Hospitality Network (IHN) program, the organization works with several different host sites that take turns housing five families at a time at their facilities each night for a week. Most of the current host sites are churches, but Family Promise welcomes all faiths and is open to partnering with any organization that can provide proper housing for the families or volunteers to help with meals and other services.

During the day, the families are brought back to the Family Promise office where they can talk with staff and volunteers, work on their resumes, look for housing or simply relax in a safe and comforting environment.

Last year, 61 families participated in the IHN program and 93 percent went into independent housing where most still remain today. Schuch says the key to the program is sustainability, so they provide a comprehensive, long-term support system to help the families become self-sufficient and retain hope.

Since the program began in 1997, Family Promise has served more than 800 families, 2,500 individuals and 1,800 kids.

In addition to the IHN program, Family Promise offers a way for families to obtain affordable housing through its Partners in Housing program. Manufactured homes are purchased by the organization and then refurbished for qualified families. After the family demonstrates they’re able to consistently pay the rent and utilities, they can own the home six months after moving in.

A furniture donation program also provides beds, furniture and household items to families in need who are entering new living spaces.   

Volunteers are always appreciated to help with meals, transport furniture and household items, play with children or watch them while their parents look for jobs and housing, resume and budgeting assistance, or simply just supporting the families in whatever way is needed.

“Most of our volunteers talk about what they’re getting, not giving, at the end of their experience,” says Schuch, referring to rewards of volunteering to help the families.    

Family Promise’s goal is to end homelessness, one family at a time. Here are some ways you can help:

- Visit Family Promise online to find out more.
- Donate furniture, household goods and other items on the Wish List or donate to Family Promise financially
- Volunteer in a variety of ways.
- Vote on July 28. Family Promise has been selected as a finalist in Toyota’s 100 Cars for Good campaign. This campaign awards 100 cars in 100 days to nonprofit organizations in need of a new vehicle. Currently, Family Promise lacks a way to transport furniture, household goods, food and personal care items for their guests. They’re hoping to win a Toyota Tundra through this campaign. The only day to vote is July 28 so mark it on your calendar!
- Play golf on September 17 in the 10th Annual Family Promise Golf Outing.
- Like them on Facebook.
- Follow @familypromisegr on Twitter.

Source: Cheryl Schuch, Executive Director at Family Promise

Writer: Heidi Stukkie, Do Good Editor

Photos provided by Family Promise.

Too many animals and not enough homes

Everyone loves cute puppies and kittens, but what happens when there aren’t enough homes for all of them?

The sad truth is that many end up in shelters, or worse, roam free on the streets. In 2011, nearly half of all of the shelter animals taken in were euthanized. Preventing the overpopulation of these unwanted pets in the first place seems like the obvious answer, but many people simply cannot afford to get their pets fixed.

This is why the Community Spay-Neuter Initiative Partnership, otherwise known as C-SNIP, exists. Their goal is to reduce the number of animals euthanized each year due to overpopulation by providing a safe and low-cost spay and neuter alternative.  

Anyone can have their pet fixed at C-SNIP, but the organization gives first priority to low-income clients and encourages those who can afford a regular veterinarian to do so. The fee for a dog to be spayed or neutered is $75 and it’s $35-45 for a cat. These fees are typically less than half of what a veterinarian’s office would charge.

Pet owners can also get low-cost vaccinations and microchipping at the time of surgery, and financial assistance is available to those in need.

“We’ve never turned anyone down due to a lack of affordability,” says Executive Director Pat Schoen.
    
C-SNIP makes it convenient for someone to get a pet fixed. Their Kentwood facility is located on a Rapid bus route and they can provide transportation services if necessary, too. No return visits are required after surgery to remove stitches as they eventually dissolve.  

In partnership with the Humane Society of West Michigan, C-SNIP also offers a monthly vaccination clinic for low-income pet owners to protect pets from dangerous diseases.

C-SNIP employs professionally trained veterinarians, veterinary technicians and assistants to perform the surgeries and give vaccines. The office operates with full and part-time staff and volunteers. They don’t offer rescue or adoption services, but instead work closely with other animal welfare agencies in the area.

On an average day, up to 80 dogs and cats are spayed or neutered at the clinic. That amounts to 12,000 per year and, since C-SNIP opened its facility in 2006, they’ve fixed more than 88,000 animals.
 
Since C-SNIP does not receive any government funding, they rely on grants from various organizations and private donations to keep their fees affordable. Schoen says they also hold two major fundraisers each year to raise money. The annual Bow Wow & Beers event takes place each February and a golf outing happens every fall. This year, a new event based on the PBS series, Antique Roadshow, will be held on September 13 at Blue Door Antiques.
 
Schoen hopes the community will continue to reduce the population of unwanted animals.

“There are too many dogs and cats and not enough homes,” she says.

Here are some ways you can help C-SNIP with its mission:

-    Visit C-SNIP online to find out more about them.
-    Donate financially to C-SNIP or donate items on their wish list.
-    Volunteer at C-SNIP and help with everything from assisting with pet intake to laundry, surgical instrument cleaning, answering phones, event staffing and more.
-    Play in the C-SNIP Golf Classic on September 14. (More information is on the home page.)
-    Like them on Facebook.
-    Get your pets spayed or neutered and ask your family, friends and neighbors to do the same.

Source: Pat Schoen, Executive Director at C-SNIP

Writer: Heidi Stukkie, Do Good Editor

Photos provided by C-SNIP.

Women helping women

What began in 1979 as a group of women gathering together to socialize and drink wine has evolved into a nonprofit foundation that provides statewide financial support for quality childcare and early childhood education.

The Women's Caring Program (WCP) believes every child deserves a chance to be successful in life, regardless of income. When children fail to get good, quality care prior to kindergarten, they often trail behind their classmates and many don’t ever catch up. This academic disadvantage can impact the rest of their lives.

WCP’s ChildCare Commitment program helps low-income working families cover part of the cost of licensed childcare and early education expenses. In order to qualify, recipients cannot receive assistance through any other source, including government assistance. At least one parent or guardian also has to be working full time or going to college full time, or both. Mostly single moms benefit from the program but there are some two-parent families who qualify.

The program is geared toward the working poor -- those who make too much to qualify for government assistance, but not enough to afford quality care for their children.

“We used to call it falling through the cracks,” says Maureen McNulty Saxton, a Women’s Caring Program board member. “The cracks are now such potholes.”

The ChildCare Commitment program pays 40 percent of the annual childcare and early education costs for one child under the age of five. The maximum reimbursement for one year is $2,544 and participants have to reapply each year.

With the annual cost for childcare in Michigan averaging $6,400, having 40 percent covered can make a dramatic difference in a family’s budget.

The WCP’s ChildCare Commitment program provides disadvantaged children an opportunity to get on the right path early in life so they have the tools necessary to succeed later on. So far, more than 1,000 families have benefitted from the financial assistance.

McNulty Saxton says the program “takes us back to our roots of women helping women.”

To honor and celebrate this tradition, WCP hosts a series of summer garden parties throughout the state called Twilight Gatherings. The Grand Rapids women’s Twilight Gathering is on August 22 from 5:30 p.m. - 8 p.m. at the home of Marge Byington Potter. Tickets are $75 for this elegant night of food, wine and friendship.

To get more involved with the Women's Caring Program, here are some ideas:
-    Visit Women’s Caring Program online to find out more about the organization.
-    RSVP for the August 22 Twilight Gathering via email or by registering online.
-    Make a donation to support the care and early education of a child.
-    Volunteer your time.
-    Like them on Facebook.
-    Follow @wcprogram on Twitter.

Source: Maureen McNulty Saxton, Women’s Caring Program Board Member and one of the co-hostesses of the Grand Rapids Twilight Gathering

Writer: Heidi Stukkie, Do Good Editor

Photos provided by the Women’s Caring Program.

Grand Rapids Community Media Center -- one of the best kept secrets in Grand Rapids

Are you member of the Grand Rapids Community Media Center yet? If not, perhaps you’re not quite sure what they do or why it would make sense to be involved. You’re not alone.
 
“We’re one of the best kept secrets in Grand Rapids, but that’s not something you want to be,” says Linda Gellasch, director of operations and finance at the Grand Rapids Community Media Center (GRCMC).

She says people are aware of certain programs and projects, but there is not an awareness of the Community Media Center as a whole and this nonprofit, membership-based organization hopes to change that.

One step toward this goal is the recent hiring in January of a development director, a position GRCMC has not had for a very long time. Gellasch says the new director, Carol Shirey, is “getting her feet wet quickly” in an organization that is “somewhat cumbersome to get your mind around at times.”

The GRCMC collection of different media programs and projects contains WYCE Radio, two GRTV cable access channels, the new Rapidian hyper local citizen journalism website, IT and web development services for nonprofits, the historic Wealthy Theatre and educational services, including MoLLIE -- the Mobile Learning Lab for Information Education.
 
Even though each area has different funding methods, GRCMC operates financially as a collective organization with one budget, sharing expenses for items such as administration, facilities, utilities and more. Gellasch says this method is much less expensive than if you had to run a radio station or a theatre by itself.

She also adds the reason for this cooperative model of shared expenses and resources is that some areas bring in more money than others. For example, WYCE Radio is nearly supported by donations, but The Rapidian and Wealthy Theatre are not yet self-supporting so they make use of CMC general fund monies.
 
When you become a member of GRCMC, you get access to all services such as the ability to book venues like Wealthy Theatre and satellite spaces; using venue services, production equipment and facilities; receiving members-only ticket discounts and pre-sales; becoming a programmer on WYCE; and getting discounts on media and technology classes. You’ll also receive member communications and obtain voting rights on bylaws and to select board members.
 
GRCMC offers something for everyone -- whether you like music, reading, writing, movies, live events or if you’d like to get involved with television or radio. Nonprofit organizations can benefit from the many services as well, and at costs much lower than what they would normally pay.
   
“We see ourselves as having a bunch of tools for the community and we’re here to teach you how to use them,” says Gellasch.
 
Support your community by supporting the Grand Rapids Community Media Center. There are many ways you can help:

- Find out more about the Community Media Center online.
- Become a member. Memberships range from $12 for a basic membership to $72 for a nonprofit organization membership.
- Donate to the Community Media Center.
- Volunteer in a number of different ways.
- Sign up for GRCMC newsletters.
- Listen to WYCE at 88.1 FM or online and support its sponsors.
- Watch GRTV on Comcast cable channel 25 and Livewire on channel 24.
- Read The Rapidian, support its sponsors and become a citizen journalist.   
- Attend events at the Wealthy Theatre.

- Like on Facebook:
  GRCMC
  WYCE
  GRTV
  Wealthy Theatre
  The Rapidian
  Education Services

- Follow on Twitter:
  @GRCMC
  @WYCERadio
  @GRTVaccess
  @WealthyTheatre
  @TheRapidian  
  @CatalystRadioGR

Sources: Linda Gellasch, Director of Operations and Finance at the Grand Rapids Community Media Center, and Carol Shirey, Development Director

Writer: Heidi Stukkie, Do Good Editor (and, in full disclosure, also an intern with WYCE’s Catalyst Radio show)

The power of art is changing lives, one child at a time

One of Stephanie Schlatter’s favorite quotes is by theologian Saint Augustine and reads, “The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page.”

If true, then globe-trotting Schlatter would be considered an avid “reader” of the world.
 
The first international trip for this former hairdresser was to the Grand Canal in Venice -- a place that not only triggered tears of joy, but a love for travel that eventually inspired a new career involving it and art.

After noticing poverty in subsequent trips to India, Thailand, Mexico, Nepal and other places, she founded Art Aid for Tesfa in 2006 to bring art to the children of Ethopia. If art programs in America are the first to get cut, Schlatter figured these kids didn’t have a chance. She personally believes art is more important than math and that colorful art helps children survive in a sometimes difficult world.

“I got involved because I believed in the power of art,” Schlatter says. 
   
In a place where less than half of the children are enrolled in schools, with girls attending even less, schools don’t start until age seven in Ethiopia. Art Aid for Tesfa teaches art to children ages four, five and six, while at the same time helps fund their early childhood education. The organization is a division of the Tesfa Foundation, which just recently became a part of Ethiopia Reads. They currently operate eight schools, with more planned, and also work with some government schools as well.

Ethiopia wasn’t Schlatter’s first choice initially, but “somebody knew somebody who knew somebody” and now six years and many trips later, she has grown to love the place and its people. There are many challenges though.
 
“You have to be really flexible to work in the developing world,” Schlatter says. “You can’t get too attached to any one idea.”

The country has progressed quite a bit from when Schlatter first started going there in 2006 and she says an influx of adoptions has made a vast difference.

“When people adopt from there, they also adopt Ethiopia,” she says, referring to the desire for adoptive parents to give back to the country.

While she is grateful for the recent addition of wireless Internet in her hotel there, Schlatter -- with a disclaimer that she’s not an expert in economics -- adds, “Things are improving for tourists and the wealthy, but the poor seem to be getting poorer.”
 
Despite the challenges, it’s the “joyful, beautiful, well-behaved kids” that inspire her to keep going back. She says the kids in the schools she’s involved in play so quietly, even during the breaks, and they understand the importance of education and value it. 
 
“There is something so pure about a child whose never had a Game Boy and who makes their own toys out of trash,” says Schlatter.

One way Schlatter helps the children of Ethiopia is with a lively annual fundraiser here in Grand Rapids. Now in its sixth year, the event will be held this year on Nov. 9 at the Betty Van Andel Opera Center. Local African rhythm band Badenya performs at the event, interactive art demonstrations happen throughout the night and the Black Star Farms winery will sell bottles of wine with art from Ethopian children on the labels. These are only a few of the fun activities expected at this informal event where everyone is welcome.

After traveling to Ethiopia for six years, Schlatter says, “It’s hard to be at peace there without falling apart.”

She’s now learned how to protect herself emotionally from the suffering she witnesses. At first, Schlatter admits it was overwhelming and she wanted to help everyone. Now she realizes you can only help a few people at a time. And, that, she is certainly doing.

You don’t have to hop on a plane to Ethiopia to support this altruistic artist, but teachers are always needed there if you do want to go. Here are some ways you can help Stephanie Schlatter and Art Aid for Tesfa right here in West Michigan:

-    Visit Stephanie Schlatter Art or Aid Aid for Tesfa to find out more.

-    Sign up for the newsletter.

-    Donate money toward the education of an Ethiopian child. (Art Aid is already underwritten.)

-    Plan on attending the fundraiser on Nov. 9 at the Betty Van Andel Opera Center. Information will be on the website a few months before the event.

-    Volunteers are needed in many ways for the fundraiser, especially outgoing artists willing to donate their talents. Please contact Stephanie Schlatter if you’re interested in volunteering for this event or for anything else. Art framers are always needed, but there are many other ways to get involved as well.

-    Buy the art of Ethiopian children or Stephanie Schlatter’s art.

-    Like Stephanie Schlatter Art on Facebook.

-    Like Art Aid for Tesfa on Facebook.

-    Follow @sschlatt on Twitter.

-    And if you want to know why Stephanie Schlatter does what she does, here’s a good story to explain why.

Source: Stephanie Schlatter, founder of Art Aid for Tesfa

Writer: Heidi Stukkie, Do Good Editor

Photos provided by Stephanie Schlatter Art.

The combination of art, design and fashion supports wounded veteran heroes

Even if you’re anti-war, you should still support our troops. At least that’s what Michael Hyacinthe, the creator of the Fashion Has Heart organization, hopes you’ll do.

“Someone volunteered on behalf of you,” he says, sharing the reason why he believes we have the freedoms we do here in the United States.

About four years ago, Hyacinthe was living in Colorado and volunteering with the Veterans and Military Families for Obama presidential campaign. He spoke with a lot of veterans during this time and began to understand their needs better. A former Navy Seabee for eight years, Hyacinthe says this helped him realize that “vets need to help each other out.”

A few years later, his wife Sara’s cousin, Corporal DeBoer, was killed in combat in the Helmand Province of Afghanistan. While he and his wife’s family were grieving, the conversations he had a few years earlier kept coming back to Hyacinthe. It was then that he came up with the idea for Fashion Has Heart.

“It was time for me, as a vet, to do something,” says Hyacinthe.

The unfortunate family death occurred around the time of ArtPrize and that’s how art ended up playing a part in the organization. Hyacinthe decided that the combination of art, design and fashion would be a good, non-partisan way to support wounded veterans.

The first design project, called the Corporal Hoffman Series, was inspired by Marine Corporal Josh Hoffman, a wounded veteran now paralyzed from the neck down after being hit by a bullet during combat in Iraq. One of his dreams, Hyacinthe learned, was to design a T-shirt.

During the week of June 18, five wounded veteran heroes -- one from each military branch -- were partnered with five designers to collaborate in a visual way to show the soldiers’ stories. These designs will transfer to T-shirts, handbags and military boots.

A special exhibit of the story-inspired designs will be on display during ArtPrize this fall where the public can purchase T-shirts and handbags featuring 15 different designs, three from each veteran. This merchandise is being printed by Threadless in Chicago and the veterans had the chance to visit the headquarters on June 20 and meet the owners.
 
On June 21, the five heroes worked with designers from the Bates Footwear design team at the Wolverine World Wide headquarters in Rockford. A limited edition of Bates military boots will be created using the veterans’ designs as well.

The wounded heroes involved with Fashion Has Heart’s Corporal Hoffman Series Design Project include Marine Corporal Josh Hoffman and Air Force Tech Sergeant Israel Del Toro, Army Specialist Danielle Green-Byrd, Coast Guard Electrician’s Mate Third Class Michael Bell, Marine Corporal Combat Engineer Chris Wiers and Navy HN Darrell Butler.

The design partners are Chuck Anderson, Priscilla Wilson, Seth Herman, Phil Jones and Tyler Way.

For the next design project, yet to be named, Hyacinthe would like to get more people in the community involved and also acquire more partners. He says he is grateful for all of the collaboration, sponsorship and event partners who helped out for the Corporal Hoffman Series Design Project.
 
Hyacinthe hopes that all people in the U.S., regardless of political affiliation or views on war, “start understanding what the soldiers sacrifice on behalf of them.”

Here are a few ways you can support the Fashion Has Heart organization and wounded veterans:

-    Visit Fashion Has Heart online to learn more about them.

-    Donate by clicking on the Donate link on the site. You’ll be redirected to PayPal.

-    Visit the Corporal Hoffman Series Design Project during ArtPrize (Sept. 19 through Oct. 7) at 138 East Fulton Street.

-    Like Fashion Has Heart on Facebook.

-    Follow @supportfhh on Twitter.

-    Thank a veteran for their service and let them know you appreciate what they’ve done.

Source: Michael Hyacinthe, CEO of Fashion Has Heart

Writer: Heidi Stukkie, Do Good Editor

Career development program offers hope and empowerment

Instead of simply handing out money, a local organization provides hope and life-changing opportunities to people living with poverty through its career development program.

The West Michigan Center for Arts and Technology -- better known as WMCAT -- offers an 11-month program that trains and supports low income or unemployed adults for careers in the medical coding, medical billing or pharmacy technician fields.

The most unusual aspect is that these courses, which are estimated to cost roughly $13,000 per person, are free to those who qualify financially and demonstrate a commitment to the program.

“It’s a free program and that’s what sets it apart,” says Amy Knape, WMCAT Development Coordinator. “We want to help people who may not be able to succeed in a traditional program.”

The Adult Career Training program is not government funded but instead supported through donations by foundations, corporations and individuals.   

The program began seven years ago when WMCAT opened and it is the first replication of a proven model developed by Bill Strickland at the Pittsburg-based Manchester Bidwell Corporation.

Since 2005, 109 adults have graduated from the program with nearly 75 percent employed in West Michigan’s thriving healthcare industry. Compared to other similar programs around the country, this placement rate is high due in part to strong relationships with members of the healthcare community, and many are on the WMCAT advisory board.

In July, 19 more students will graduate after completing a six-week, hands-on externship at Spectrum Health, St. Mary’s Healthcare or a local pharmacy, depending on their area of study. Class sizes are intentionally kept small to offer more personalized training and to avoid “flooding the market” with qualified talent.

The first step for people wishing to enter WMCAT’s Adult Career Training program is to attend an informational session. After an application has been filled out, each person must go through a criminal background check and get pre-tested to determine math and reading skills.

Applicants are then screened for success through experiential-based interviews. The staff at WMCAT realizes that life can be challenging for those living in poverty, so they look at what kind of support system each person has in place and what possible barriers exist that may prevent them from graduating. Questions are asked about how the person will get to class, pay their bills and handle child care as well as what their motivation is for taking the course.
 
“It’s a complicated approach to a complicated situation,” Development Director Louise “Punky” Edison says about the process.

In addition to professional health care training, participants are also taught personal development skills such as how to work with the public, create a resume and use standard office software.

WMCAT’s students are well prepared to succeed in the healthcare industry by the time they graduate from this empowering and life-changing program. For many, confidence and hope are restored and, as one student recently told Edison, the training made her “feel powerful again."

A statement on WMCAT’s website reads, “Making a difference in a community is never a challenge. It’s a reward.” If you would like to reward WMCAT’s efforts for making a difference in our community, here are some ways you can:

-    Visit WMCAT online to find out more about the adult programs as well as programs for high school students.
-    Donate cash or in-kind goods and services to WMCAT.
-    Visit the international fundraising site, See Your Impact, and click “like.” A $5 donation will be made to WMCAT’s youth program when you do.
-    Like them on Facebook.

Sources: Louise “Punky” Edison, WMCAT Development Director, and Amy Knape, Development Coordinator

Writer: Heidi Stukkie, Do Good Editor

Photos provided by WMCAT.
 

Grassroots organization promotes a bicycle-friendly community

The Greater Grand Rapids Bicycle Coalition (GGRBC) is cruising forward on its strategic priorities after receiving grants from the Frey Foundation and the Grand Rapids Community Foundation, along with donations from a successful Founding Sponsors campaign.  

GGRBC, a grassroots, community-based coalition created during the planning of the 2009 Grand Rapids Bike Summit, provides a centralized organization that advocates for a safe and healthy bicycling community.

Since it began, GGRBC has hosted two Bike Summits; produced a map showing street lanes, singletrack routes and bicycle trails in Greater Grand Rapids; sponsored the first regional bicycle traffic count; initiated a youth bicycle safety education program; and launched a bicycle-friendly business program and the May 14-18 Active Commute Week.

Recently, GGRBC received a $45,000 grant from the Frey Foundation that will be paid over three years. The Grand Rapids Community Foundation also gave a $10,000 one-year grant and encouraged the organization to reapply again next year.

Marcia Rapp, VP of Programs at the Grand Rapids Community Foundation -- an organization committed to the idea of a bicycle-friendly city -- says she is impressed with GGRBC’s level of advocacy and their ability to increase bike lanes and gain supporters.

Rapp says, “GGRBC is likely close to reaching a ‘tipping point’ where people will say, ‘of course we need to be a more bike-friendly region’ rather than ‘why do we need bike lanes?’”

She adds that that as more people use non-motorized methods for commuting to work and elsewhere, “Our air will be cleaner, our people will be healthier and our region more sustainable.”

The Interim Director of GGRBC, Tom Tilma, says that in addition to the recent Frey and Community Foundation grants, the organization has raised more than $42,000 since January as part of its Founding Sponsors campaign. Each sponsor pledges a three-year financial commitment and receives permanent recognition and lifetime membership in the coalition. A list of all of the 2012 donors is on GGRBC’s website.

The monies from the grants and campaign donations will go toward the implementation of the coalition’s advocacy and education priorities as well as start-up operation costs. The organization is also evaluating staffing needs and looking at options for establishing an office.

An advocacy project in the works called “100 by 2014: Bike Lanes Now!” proposes adding bike lanes to 100 miles of streets in metro Grand Rapids by 2014. Progress toward that goal is being made and, after several months of engagement with City of Grand Rapids officials, GGRBC is excited to learn funding for 25-30 miles of bike lanes has been added to the City’s proposed budget for the next fiscal year starting July 1.

GGRBC also educates children on how to bike safely. Recently, 1,431 future bicycle commuters currently in the fourth, fifth and sixth grades participated in a bicycle safety program.

Tilma, who averages nearly 50 miles of bicycle commuting per week, and the coalition want to create a “a thriving, growing bike culture” in Greater Grand Rapids. He says GGRBC is always looking for volunteers to help with its advocacy and educational programs to promote cycling as a part of daily life.

If you’d like to help GGRBC make Greater Grand Rapids a more bicycle-friendly community, here are some ways you can get involved:

-    Visit GGRBC online to find out more about the organization.
-    Become a member.
-    Donate to GGRBC.
-    Volunteer your time and skills.
-    Help advocate for a bicycle-friendly community.
-    Sign up to receive their newsletter.
-    Like GGRBC on Facebook.
-    Follow @bikegrandrapids on Twitter.

Sources: Tom Tilma, Interim Director of the Greater Grand Rapids Bicycle Coalition, and Marcia Rapp, Vice President Programs at the Grand Rapids Community Foundation

Writer: Heidi Stukkie, Do Good Editor

Photos provided by the Greater Grand Rapids Bicycle Coalition.
 

Local organization prevents health and safety hazards in our neighborhoods

Imagine discovering your beautiful one-year-old daughter has permanent brain damage because of lead poisoning.

Or imagine spending the night in the emergency room watching your son struggle to breathe from an asthma attack caused by pests or mold in your home.

Now imagine losing loved ones in a fire because you didn’t have a working smoke detector to warn of the danger.

These are real and serious health and safety hazards that can be prevented. The number one reason these situations still occur is because of a lack of money. Considering one in four families in Kent County live in poverty, our community has some work to do to ensure everyone can live a safe and healthy life.

That’s where the Healthy Homes Coalition of West Michigan comes in. This nonprofit organization with a staff of five and not nearly enough volunteers tirelessly educates and helps low-income people so they are able to live in healthy homes free of environmental hazards.

Executive Director Paul Haan says they offer “low cost, common sense solutions.” He acknowledges there are companies who offer the same services they do, but “the problem is that people often can’t afford it.” Many of the services at the Healthy Homes Coalition are free to those who qualify.

The organization focuses on families with pregnant women and children under the age of six. Haan says the brains and lungs of children are still developing until they reach this age and many preventable environmental factors cause dangerous health issues.  

The Healthy Homes Coalition offers the following programs to the community:
-    Visual inspections for lead paint, mold and moisture
-    Radon testing
-    Installation of smoke and carbon monoxide detectors
-    Pest management by offering simple lifestyle changes and home repairs to prevent and eliminate mice, rats and cockroaches, which have been shown to aggravate asthma and allergies
-    Educational programs on how to prevent lead poisoning and other environmental hazards
-    Family mentoring
-    Advocacy  

Volunteers are always needed to help with these programs and in other ways. Your talents as a handyperson, writer, photographer, graphic designer, accountant or any number of other skills are needed. No matter what you’re capable of, the waiting list at the Healthy Homes Coalition is long and they will find some way for you to get involved.

“Everyone deserves to live in a healthy home” is the motto the organization operates by. Haan reminds us that the person who needs help may be your next-door neighbor or a family member. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a single mother living in an impoverished neighborhood; it could be the married woman who served your lunch at the local café who needs help.

“Poverty’s not just out there behind closed doors; it’s everywhere in the community,” Haan says. “Neighbors have to help neighbors.”

If you’d like to help the Healthy Homes Coalition of West Michigan prevent avoidable health and safety hazards in our community, here are some ways to get involved:

-    Visit the Healthy Homes Coalition of West Michigan online to find out more about the organization.
-    Volunteer your time and skills.
-    Donate to the Healthy Homes Coalition.
-    Like the Healthy Homes Coalition on Facebook.

Sources: Paul Haan, Executive Director of the Healthy Homes Coalition of West Michigan, and Besty Quinlan, Volunteer Outreach Coordinator

Writer: Heidi Stukkie, Do Good Editor

Photos provided by the Healthy Homes Coalition of West Michigan.
 

Volunteers support the North Country National Scenic Trail

America’s longest scenic trail traverses through the western part of Michigan and thanks to hundreds of dedicated volunteers, it’s well maintained.

The North Country National Scenic Trail spans across seven states -- from New York to Pennsylvania, and through Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota and North Dakota. When completed, it will encompass 4,600 miles and pass through 10 national forests and more than 150 public lands.

Based in Lowell, Mich., the North Country Trail Association (NCTA) partners with the National Park Service to develop, maintain and promote the scenic trail. They rely on volunteer chapters throughout the seven states to maintain specific sections.

The NCTA’s Western Michigan Chapter is one of the association’s largest chapters, with more than 250 volunteers. The area of the trail they “adopted” runs from Grand Rapids north to the southern part of the Huron-Manistee National Forest, covering both Kent and Newaygo counties.

Paul Haan, trail manager for the local chapter, says the trail is set in areas designed to be interesting to hikers and often located near bluffs, waterfalls, rivers and lakes. With natural surface trails 18-24” wide and NCTA signs and blue blaze guide markers along the way, there is a sense of consistency throughout the entire trail.

“The experience of the North Country trails is the same, but the terrain changes,” says Haan.

Haan began volunteering with NCTA in the late 1990s when, as a frequent hiker, he saw a need to get involved. People don’t always realize that the maintenance of the trails “are not your government tax dollars at work, but volunteers at work,” he says.

The Western Michigan Chapter is always looking for more volunteers, but Haan stresses they must be “willing to learn and follow instructions.” There are specific ways things need to be done, standards to follow and safety precautions.

People of any age or physical condition can volunteer, with a parent or guardian present for anyone younger than 16. Most of the volunteer work on the trail is done in the spring and fall because Haan says the group has found that “once the AC goes on inside, volunteers drop off outside.”

When people call or email to volunteer, they’ll be told where the chapter will be on the trail and when. All new volunteers go through “tailgate training” when they first arrive. Volunteers can stay for as long or as little as they would like, but if they say they will be there, the organization counts on people to honor that commitment, as they need to know how many tools to bring and how to plan the day’s work.

Sometimes people camp out overnight and work for two days, but Haan adds, “There’s plenty of goofing off in there, too.”

Upcoming volunteer opportunities are the Mowing and More days when the trail areas are mowed and repairs are done on certain structures. Haan says the chapter uses “lawnmowers on steroids” to cut back the trails so people don’t get covered in wet grass or ticks while hiking.

Volunteers are always needed for non-trail activities, too, such as website updates, newsletter creation, membership administration and event staffing.

In addition to maintaining the trail, members of the Western Michigan Chapter participate in planned hikes and various social events throughout the year.  

Haan encourages people to be mindful and respectful while using the trail and, while out there hiking, give some thought to the volunteers putting in efforts to make it better.
 
If you want to find out more about the North Country Trail Association and its Western Michigan Chapter to volunteer or hike the scenic trail, here are some resources to get you started:   

- Visit the North Country Trail Association online.
- Become a member and get product discounts, plus a subscription to the quarterly magazine, the North Star.
- Volunteer with the Western Michigan Chapter.
- Buy a map or guide and hike the North Country Trail. (Note: members get 30% off.)
- Like North Country Trail Association on Facebook.
- Like the West Michigan Chapter on Facebook.

Source: Paul Haan, Trail Manager for the NCTA’s Western Michigan Chapter

Writer: Heidi Stukkie, Do Good Editor

Photos taken by Paul Haan and Doug Boulee were provided by the Western Michigan Chapter of the North Country Trail Association.

Communication through art

Artists Creating Together (ACT) is dedicated to connecting people with disabilities with art. With a recent name change and a move to a new facility, they’re now better prepared to embrace the future.

The organization formerly called Very Special Arts changed its name in March 2011 to Artists Creating Together because the name wasn’t advancing what ACT believes.

“The word ‘special’ has a negative connotation and didn’t reflect our belief in an inclusive community that recognizes the potential of everyone,” says Executive Director Michele Suchovsky. “We believe everyone is special.”

Shortly after the name change, the organization moved to its new location at Monroe Avenue and Leonard Street. This facility is more accessible with no stairs, plenty of parking and lots of natural light.

ACT serves more than 6,000 children, youths and adults per year. Its art classes are open to people ages 2-65 and anyone in the community can participate, not just those with disabilities. Siblings of those with a special need are encouraged to come along as well.  

“We’re open and inclusive to everyone,” Suchovsky says.

Attendees range from those with minor or no disabilities, to those with severe learning disabilities and with severe multiple impairments -- both cognitive and physical. There are support systems in place so everyone may participate.

ACT believes the role of art is to share a view of the world from an individual perspective and people with disabilities offer such a unique perspective.

“Art is such a wonderfully equalizing way to communicate,” says Suchovsky. “It’s a way to shine and everyone can do it.”

The response for the classes is overwhelmingly positive and participants say it’s a place where they can be themselves, express themselves and “no one looks at you funny.”

Summer classes, which start this week, take place in their new facility. During the school year, classes are held in area schools and in three local hospitals: Metropolitan, Mary Free Bed and the Spectrum Continuing Care Facility.

Often, ACT partners with arts organizations such as Meijer Gardens, Children’s Museum, Civic Theatre and Grand Rapids Ballet Company and holds classes in their facilities. Suchovsky says the goal is to “help people with disabilities access the wonderful creative community we have here.”

ACT also selects three artists to participate in ArtPrize each year through a program called the Legacy Trust Award Collection. Anyone can enter this contest, following the rules of ArtPrize. A public vote takes place at a reception displaying the artwork of all entrants. The top three artists with the most votes are then sponsored as ArtPrize artists and get to display their work at the Amway Grand Plaza during the international competition. Winners this year are Leanne VandenBos, Lane Cooper and David Chupp.

Funding for ACT mostly comes from community support, including two annual fundraisers per year: a luncheon held in the spring and an art auction held in the fall. The date for this fall’s art auction is November 15, held at the Goei Center.

Class fees pay for 20 percent of the operating budget. Scholarships are available to participants based on financial need. The Autism Society of West Michigan also offers a scholarship for people with autism 16 years or older.

“We have a policy that we don’t turn anyone away,” says Suchovsky.

Volunteers are always needed at ACT, as well as cash or in-kind donations such as art supplies. More than 550 people volunteer for this nonprofit organization each year.  

There are a number of ways you can get involved with Artists Creating Together. Here are a few suggestions:

-    Visit Artists Creating Together online to find out more.
-    Donate cash or art supplies to ACT.
-    Volunteer for ACT.
-    Sign up for a summer class at ACT.
-    Attend the annual art auction fundraiser on November 15. More information coming soon.
-    Like ACT on Facebook.

Source: Michele Suchovsky, Executive Director at Artists Creating Together, along with Program Directors Katie Timmermans and Becky Althaus.
Writer: Heidi Stukkie, Do Good Editor

Photographs provided by Artists Creating Together.  

Center offers "bunny slippers and bubble wrap" to members of the LGBT community

The idea of coming out as a lesbian prior to her senior year at Grand Valley State University (GVSU) was scary and nerve-racking for Whitney Pavlica. She was afraid of what people would think and especially concerned about the reaction from her family.

That changed after she visited the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) Resource Center on GVSU’s Allendale campus. Like many others before her, Director Colette Seguin Beighley welcomed her, let her know she was not alone and gave her permission to be true to herself.

When people enter the LGBT Resource Center for the first time, “We put bunny slippers and bubble wrap on them,” says Seguin Beighley, acknowledging that it’s hard for many people to make that first step.

“We want to create an inclusive environment that’s welcoming to all students,” she says. “The Center is a safety net.”

The LGBT Resource Center's mission is to educate, support and empower students to lead authentic lives, to challenge gender and sexuality stereotypes, and to work for social justice.

Seguin Beighley says the Center helps parents as much as students. More parents have been involved this year than in the past, wanting to learn how to better support their kids and be reassured of their safety on campus. As the mother of a son who’s gay, she admits parents often don’t know what to do when a child comes out.

“They don’t teach parents how to do this,” says Seguin Beighley.

The LGBT Resource Center sponsors events and offers a variety of resources and programs for LGBT students, their families, GVSU faculty and staff, and members of the community. Movie nights, support groups and a monthly conference are examples of a few.  

Each April, the Center hosts Lavender Graduation, a special ceremony to celebrate and highlight the achievements of LGBT students and their allies.

A library within the Center serves as a resource for LGBT books and entertainment and a place to study.

One of the major programs facilitated by the LGBT Resource Center is Change U: Training for Social Justice. This semester-long class is open to anyone in the community and because of a grant from the Arcus Foundation, it’s free. GVSU students can also take the class for credit.  

Seguin Beighley says, “The purpose of Change U is to empower students to work on social justice issues by developing a critical analysis of intersecting systems of oppression.”

“When one community is oppressed, we all suffer,” she adds.

The grant from the Arcus Foundation also went toward sponsoring the documentary film “A People’s History of the LGBTQ Community in Grand Rapids,” which premiered last November at GVSU’s Loosemore Auditorium. 
 
Pavlica’s coming out experience was positive and she’s received lots of good support from family and friends. Not all students are this lucky, and that’s why it’s important that Seguin Beighley and her staff at the LGBT Resource Center are there to support and offer comfort when needed.

“The center helped ground me and make me realize I’m not alone,” says Pavlica. “It’s such a great place for resources and for meeting people you can talk to in a safe environment.”  

GVSU’s LGBT Resource Center is a valuable asset not only to the LGBT community, but to West Michigan as well. Here are some ways you can give “bunny slippers and bubble wrap” back to them:

- Learn more about the LGBT Resource Center at Grand Valley State University.
- Donate to the LGBT Resource Center to financially support the endowment, scholarships or the action fund.
- Donate to the West Shore AWARE Scholarship Fund for GVSU LGBT students.
- Enroll in the Change U: Training for Social Justice class that begins next January.
- Attend a weekly meeting of Out 'N' About, GVSU’s LGBTQIA Cultural Organization.
- If you are a GVSU faculty or staff member, consider becoming involved with Allies & Advocates.
- Like the LGBT Resource Center on Facebook.
- Follow @gvsulgbtcenter on Twitter.

Source: Colette Seguin Beighley, Director at GVSU’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Resource Center, and Whitney Pavlica, a GVSU senior in the Creative Writing program.

Writer: Heidi Stukkie, Do Good Editor

Photos provided by the LGBT Resource Center.

Philanthropy and Pizza

Imagine a high school student having to decide where to spend $45,000. That’s a big responsibility for a teenager, but with the Grand Rapids Community Foundation to guide them, these students handle the challenge quite well. And during monthly meetings complete with pizza, they also have a lot of fun.
 
The Community Foundation’s Youth Grant Committee (YGC) is made up of high school students from the greater Grand Rapids area who volunteer to serve the community. The students find out more about local youth issues, interview and visit nonprofit organizations, review grant requests and make recommendations to the Community Foundation’s Board of Trustees. In the process, they learn about leadership, philanthropy and responsibility.

More than 200 teenagers have volunteered with the YGC program since it began in 1994. The current committee is comprised of 32 students, with one who is homeschooled and the rest attending 20 different high schools in the area. Most students get involved their freshmen year and stay with the committee until they graduate.

Roberta King, VP of PR & Marketing at the Community Foundation says, “It’s often the most meaningful and important thing they do in high school,” adding that the students don’t usually learn about the grant process anywhere else.

“When these kids have job or college interviews, they get asked about this committee way more than any other thing they’ve done. It’s different.”

The YGC gets approximately $45,000 each year to divide among the grant applications it reviews. The Community Foundation staff may offer advice, but the students are free to divide the money between whichever youth programs they believe will have the most impact.

The grant money comes from income generated by an endowment established in 1991 with $1 million in matching funds from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. The current value of the Youth Fund is nearly $1.8 million.  
   
Since it began, the YGC has awarded more than $1 million in grants to 227 nonprofit organizations. This year, students reviewed 50 grant proposals with requests totaling more than $195,000. After researching each one, sharing their opinions and coming to an agreement, 11 of these proposals were brought to the Community Foundation’s Board of Trustees. Grants totaling $44,884 were later presented at a celebration dinner on May 16 to the following organizations:

- Baxter Community Center, Inc.
- Calvin College
- City of Grand Rapids
- Comprehensive Therapy Center
- Grand Rapids Track Club GRPS
- Youth Program
- Grand Valley State University
- Hispanic Center of Western Michigan
- R.E.A.A.L.
- Specialized Language
- Development Center
- VSA Arts of Michigan - Grand Rapids
- Worldwide Christian Schools

While it may seem like all work and no play, YGC member Anneke Lehmann thinks it’s a lot of fun. Lehmann, 15, says she enjoys meeting kids from different schools and learning about nonprofit organizations. She’s learned how to review grant proposals and budgets and knows that YGC will look good on future college applications.

The committee also spends time volunteering for past grant recipients. This year, the students handed out United Way volunteer bracelets one day at ArtPrize and made sack suppers for impoverished kids at Kids' Food Basket another day.

Lehmann says “it’s really cool” to be able to make a difference and would recommend YGC to anyone.

“You learn so much about the community and you get to be a part of the community, too.”

Here’s how you can support the Grand Rapids Community Foundations Youth Grant Committee:
- Learn more about the Youth Grant Committee.
- Encourage someone to join. High school students interested in volunteering on the Youth Grant Committee can fill out an application online. New members are selected in August. 
- Donate to the Youth Fund endowment through the Grand Rapids Community Foundation.
- Like the Grand Rapids Community Foundation on Facebook.
- Follow @GRCommFound on Twitter.

Sources:
Roberta King, A.P.R., Vice President, PR & Marketing at Grand Rapids Community Foundation
Anneke Lehmann, Youth Grant Committee member

Writer: Heidi Stukkie, Do Good Editor

Photos provided by Grand Rapids Community Foundation
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