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Neighbors helping neighbors on the Westside

Nestled amidst the polish halls, homes, and churches of Grand Rapids' lower Westside stands Steepletown Neighborhood Services, a beacon of hope and help for those still needing their GED and other services. 
Housed in a former convent at 671 Davis NW, Steepletown provides free GED assistance to students 16-24 and this is one of their most popular programs. It offers open enrollment year-round, not just July through June like other organizations. It also attempts to eliminate the barriers to education some students face. As of April 1, drop-in childcare will be available for the first time to those in the program. 

Steepletown relies heavily on volunteers for the GED program's one-on-one mentoring and group tutoring. They offer weekly orientations to anyone interested in volunteering and they could always use more help.

"We have a need for tutors in all subjects, but really our greatest need is for volunteers to identify with the student first, to engage with them," says Education Coordinator Melanie Straub. 

According to Straub, that connection keeps students interested and encourages them to ask questions and attend additional workshops and seminars.  

The 200 or so currently enrolled students work with a youth advocate to set up a schedule to achieve their GED and attend tutoring sessions from 9-12 a.m. or 4-6 p.m. 

"We graduate about 60 kids per year, with two graduation ceremonies," says Assistant Director Sandy Stuckhardt. "Kids progress at their own level and after graduation are encouraged to join one of our other programs, the West Side Garage Store or the Senior Lawn Care Program."

These other programs teach students leadership and job skills training, and they assist with career counseling post GED. 

Originally formed as a community resource by three neighboring Catholic churches -- St. James, St. Mary, and the Basilica of Saint Adalbert -- Steepletown promotes a "neighbor helping neighbor live with dignity and hope" mission. 

With tax day looming on April 15, many are also taking advantage of the Kent County Tax Credit Coalition (KCTCC) VITA Program available at Steepletown. Certified volunteers prepare basic tax returns on a first-come, first-served basis beginning at 5:30 p.m. on Wednesdays. For those who have waited to file and are still in need, there are only three Wednesdays left before April 15. On average, the program assists around 200 people per tax season, although this season, the numbers are down slightly due to lack of volunteers.

Believing that a neighborhood is only as vibrant as the people who live there, Steepletown is committed to providing support services as diverse as the community in which it sits. If you'd like to get involved, here are some ways you can: 
- To find out more information about Steepletown's many services, visit their website
- If you're interested in volunteering and making a connection with students, call 616-451-4215 ext. 111 or email Melanie Straub.
- Donate to the organization. 
Sources: Sandy Stuckhardt, Assistant Director Steepletown Neighborhood Services, and Melanie Straub, Education Coordinator
Writer: Terri Spaulding, Do Good Contributor
Photos courtesy of Steepletown Neighborhood Services.

Standing out at GRCC

When Eirann Betka decided to return to college, she found little activity or support for the gay and lesbian community at Grand Rapids Community College (GRCC). She made it her personal mission to change that and now, she's the president of StandOut, GRCC's Gay-Straight Alliance student organization. 
Prior to Betka getting involved, the group was not very active and she says she wanted to "energize it and get it bigger." Since then, StandOut has been meeting every Monday at 1:00 p.m. in the Student Center's Farside Room with around 10-15 people attending each week. They also attend conferences and are currently planning activities for a Pride Week.
If you have noticed the abundance of buttons around the GRCC campus, it's most likely because of the button maker StandOut members use regularly. Once a month, they host button-making parties where guests cut out images and words from magazines and make them into buttons. Betka says the purpose is to make a stand with the buttons, but the events also "build camaraderie."
Betka and other members from StandOut also recently attended the Midwest Bisexual Lesbian Gay Transgender Ally College Conference (MBLGTACC) in Lansing this past February. The conference is the largest LGBTA college conference in the nation. Speakers shared ways to strengthen college organizations, network more efficiently, and create change. 
"I got fired up!" Betka says. 
She was still very much 'fired up' when she attended GRCC's Feb. 13 Diversity Lecture Series featuring journalist and gay rights activist LZ Granderson. At the well-attended event, Granderson spoke about what it means to be gay and living in Grand Rapids. He encouraged everyone to stand up to bullying and for equal rights, while sharing personal stories about his life.
Members of the GRCC Board of Trustees were also in attendance at the event and afterward, Board Trustee Richard Ryskamp was somewhat critical of the event and commented that if someone speaks on gay issues again at GRCC, that person should be someone "who has tried being gay but now regrets that path or is trying to walk a new path." 
Not only did Granderson publicly question Ryskamp's understanding of sexual orientation in response, but Betka challenged him on his assumption as well. Last week, she met with Ryskamp for more than two hours and left with "an agreement to disagree."

She says the two broke down his statements "word for word" and shared what the comments meant to each other. Betka says their candid, yet respectful conversation went extremely well, and he challenged the way she perceived her own community. 
"I respected how much he challenged me and I know I also challenged him," she says.
StandOut's president appreciated that she could have that type of conversation with Ryskamp and admits it humbled her and aggravated her at the same time.
"My intention is to cause change, whether this college -- or Michigan -- is ready for it or not," Betka says.
And that change may very well begin with GRCC's first ever Pride Week April 8-12. The StandOut group is collaborating with other student organizations on campus (including minority groups) as well as the GRCC Library, the Red Project, and the LGBT Network. Pride Week will feature an open mic night, an art show, and more, with additional information announced soon.  
GRCC's StandOut group wants to promote equality for all. If you agree with that idea and want to get involved, here are some ways you can:
- Like StandOut, the GRCC Gay-Straight Alliance, on Facebook
- Attend one of the Monday meetings in the Farside Room within GRCC's Student Center. StandOut meets weekly at 1 p.m.
- Participate in Pride Week at the GRCC campus April 8-12. More information will be posted on the group's Facebook page soon. 
Sources: Eirann Betka, president of StandOut, GRCC's Gay-Straight Alliance student organization 
Writer: Heidi Stukkie, Do Good Editor
Images provided by StandOut.

AmeriCorps gets it done

If you look around, you'll see them everywhere. AmeriCorps members cleaning parks and rivers; preventing and responding to disaster; teaching, tutoring, and mentoring everyone from school-children to college students to refugees; keeping owners in their homes, counseling the homeless, or building new housing; helping families gain financial stability and providing employment assistance; finding quality healthcare for the uninsured; and mobilizing a substantial number of diverse community volunteers to help them -- all of this in West Michigan, and all of these projects being just a subset of a much longer list.
"I don't think most people recognize the scope of the AmeriCorps program. AmeriCorps members are everywhere! They are critical to helping agencies like the Literacy Center of West Michigan serve more people in thoughtful ways," says Shay Kraley, family literacy director at the Literacy Center of West Michigan.

AmeriCorps is a national program, commonly described as the "domestic Peace Corps." Individuals, known as 'members', commit to a specific term -- usually one or two years -- and are housed in nonprofit organizations, schools, or other agencies. Over 1,000 of these members are serving in Michigan right now. AmeriCorps programs focus on human needs, education, environment, public safety, health, disaster preparedness, foreclosure prevention, and homelessness.
AmeriCorps also addresses critical issues for the members who serve. Members receive a small living stipend and, upon successful completion of their service, an education award applicable towards higher education or to pay student loans. Their experiences also create a pathway to employment by providing individuals with opportunities to gain valuable job skills and contribute in their own community.

"In my view, AmeriCorps service is a two-way street. Members give to the program and their host site organization; meanwhile, their host site and the program gives to them," says Rachel Diskin of the Community Economic Development Association of Michigan.

Research has shown that after one year of AmeriCorps, members are more likely to stay in the community they served, pursue careers in the nonprofit and public sector, and continue a lifetime of volunteerism. "Many of the members are unfamiliar with the schools or the neighborhoods we serve, so (their service) really broadens their view of the community in which they live," say Kraley.

As a result of these benefits, recent years have seen a record-breaking number of applications for AmeriCorps positions -- more than 580,000 applied in 2011 for just 82,000 AmeriCorps positions. Although recent sequestration will likely shrink the program in the near future, overall, the impact and sheer manpower of AmeriCorps members will remain worthwhile -- and right under our noses.

Here's how you can get involved:
 - For more information about AmeriCorps or to learn more about specific programs, visit www.michigan.gov/mcsc.
 - Apply for a Michigan's AmeriCorps position here.
Sources: Michigan Community Service Commission, Rachel Diskin of the Community Economic Development Association; Shay Kraley, Family Literacy Director at the Literacy Center of West Michigan
Writer: J. Rae Young, Do Good Contributor

Promoting a thriving film and video community in West Michigan

Thanks in part to the State of Michigan's strong financial incentives for in-state film production, more producers and production companies are turning to West Michigan for their film and video needs. With up to 42 percent in incentives and rebates, the area is economically appealing and also equally as attractive with its many unique locations.
The West Michigan Film Video Alliance (WMFVA) makes it easy for anyone to find professional film and video crew members here with its peer-reviewed online database. The database is called Starmap, which stands for Search for Talent and Resources in Michigan Area Productions, and it allows visitors to search by name, keyword, category, star rating, location, or professional affiliation. A link to Starmap can be found on the West Michigan Film Office website and the Michigan Film Office also directs people to it.
Not only does WMFVA support the film industry and its members, but the corporate/commercial video industry as well. The organization began in 2005 to support and encourage a successful film and video production community in West Michigan and with nearly 170 members and well-attended monthly events, they're making good progress with this goal. 
"We definitely want to promote a thriving film and video community here in West Michigan," says Chair Glen Okonoski. "As a professional organization, we give our members the opportunity to network with each other, learn more about their craft, and show off their work."
Every fourth Wednesday of each month, WMFVA sponsors an event called 4Wall at Wealthy Theatre. These monthly events rotate between networking events, training sessions or workshops, or nights where film and video professionals can show off recent work. Some nights, they will show an assortment of demos from various people and other times, they will highlight one organization's work. The 4Wall events start at 7 p.m. and are free to members and $5 for non-members.
WMFVA is financially supported by its memberships, which range from student, individual, and premier. Members receive free access to 12 events per year and the annual membership party, as well as job listings and other perks.

The membership fees collected allow WMFVA to support local film festivals and awards ceremonies, such as the WKTV-sponsored Eclipse Awards on April 19. For the second year, WMFVA is the judging sponsor for this event that honors the best regional works in film, video, sound, and television production.
In addition to the Starmap database, WMFVA offers a valuable resource with its listserv online discussion forum. People can post comments and questions and get responses right away. 
Membership is not required for Starmap or the discussion forum, but members do get star ratings with their database listing to indicate their level of expertise. A panel meets six times a year to review this information. 

The main advantage of membership is to show your support for the film and video industry in West Michigan and Okonoski says he would like to see the WMFVA membership base grow this year. 
They're also looking for volunteers interested in serving on the board as well as speakers for upcoming training events or workshops. 
If you would like to get involved with the West Michigan Film Video Alliance, here are some ways you can:
- Visit WMFVA to find out more about the organization. (A new website is currently being developed.) 
- Search for film and video talent and production crews on its Starmap online database
- Like WMFVA on Facebook
Source: Glen Okonoski, Chair of the West Michigan Film Video Alliance
Writer: Heidi Stukkie, Do Good Editor
Image provided by the West Michigan Film Video Alliance. 

Sowing hope for women around the world

Roughly 1.5 billion women in the world live on less than a few dollars per day. When Mary Dailey Brown traveled internationally for her former job, she personally witnessed many women who were overworked, underpaid, and who had little respect or honor in their communities. 
"Women are the largest, most repressed group in the world," says Brown. 
This awareness eventually led her, her husband Doug Brown, and many helpful friends to start an organization that provides hope for these women.
SowHope, an international nonprofit founded seven years ago, was created to inspire women around the world by providing wellness, educational, and economic opportunities. Its name comes from a quote by St. Francis of Assisi: “Where there is despair, let me sow hope.”
Since 2006, SowHope has positively impacted the lives of more than 33,000 impoverished women in nine different countries within Africa and Asia. And last December, they raised their one-millionth dollar, which is a milestone Brown is proud to share.
"Helping women is the most effective way to combat poverty," she says, and admits she didn't realize this when she first started the organization.
Brown now believes if you help a child, the impact may be limited to them; if you help women, they will then help others and that's how to go about changing nations.
The way the organization works is that they find and partner with individuals and organizations already on the ground helping women, or as Brown puts it, "local leaders with local solutions to solve local problems."
These local leaders are asked how could they do what they do better and what dreams they have. The next question asks what could be done with more resources. If the answer is measurable and realistic, SowHope helps them financially and in other ways. All they ask is that the local leaders keep track of where the money goes and the number of women helped. Sometimes training is needed for reporting the information, and SowHope provides that as well. 
SowHope focuses on helping women through three program areas: wellness, education, and economic.  

When it comes to wellness, the organization supports projects that provide clean water, maternal care, and the prevention and treatment of HIV/AIDs. They also back programs that offer counseling for and help to prevent abuse, rape, and sex trafficking.
To advance women educationally, SowHope funds literacy, vocational, and technical training programs. They also assist women economically through micro loans and small business training.
In order to support these programs that help women, SowHope relies on donations. Nearly 98 percent of their funding comes from individual donations, with the remaining amount contributed by foundations and corporations. 

SowHope has six volunteer working teams to help it operate -- administration, finance, fund development, personnel, program, and public relations. A description of what each team does can be found on the organization's website if you're interested in volunteering. 
The last few years have been busy for SowHope as they continue to support women around the world. Right now, they're in nine countries, but Brown expects to expand that to 12 countries soon. 

"We have helped more women in the last two years than in the five years before that," she says.

If you want to support women around the world by giving them hope, here are some ways to get involved with this international nonprofit: 

- Visit SowHope online to find out more about the organization. 
- Volunteer your time and skills to one of the SowHope working teams. 
- Donate to SowHope. 
- Like SowHope on Facebook
- Follow @SowHopeOrg on Twitter. 
Source: Mary Dailey Brown, President and CEO of SowHope. 
Writer: Heidi Stukkie, Do Good Editor
Images provided by SowHope. 

Stop human trafficking by starting in your neighborhood

Until The Manasseh Project created a buzz about human sex trafficking with their 2012 ArtPrize exhibit, many believed human trafficking only happened in someone else's neighborhood. The reality is that it can happen anywhere, even on your street.
The Manasseh Project, an outreach ministry of Wedgwood Christian Services, is dedicated to ending the sexual exploitation of young men and women in West Michigan. They acknowledge that ending human slavery involves more than creating awareness; it requires eliminating the root causes that lead to it -- runaway youth, poverty, and abuse.
While statistics published around the world about human trafficking help generate awareness, in Founder Andy Soper's opinion that also puts numbers to something that is difficult to quantify.

"To end human slavery, we have to change the culture of how we buy and consume," he says.

On Feb. 28, Congress passed the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA) designed to help the more than 20 million men, women, and children victimized by human trafficking in the U.S. and worldwide. Here in West Michigan, there are nearly 2400 human trafficking victims.

Two and a half years ago, Soper and his wife Marcy found themselves ill-equipped to address the needs of a child they knew after she fell victim to sex trafficking in Grand Rapids. Last October, he started the first shelter, which is already making a difference for victims.

Although middle class suburban white girls are often the face of trafficking in the movies and in the media, they represent only 25-30 percent of all victims with the majority being poor minorities.

While monetary donations help to provide safety and services for these victims, it doesn't stop the problem from happening. Soper believes one way to make a difference is to watch your own neighborhood.

"Ask yourself if a kid three blocks over is at risk," he says. "Reduce the risk of this happening in your neighborhood by engaging with kids."

Every summer, Soper buys a large tub of popsicles and word about the free treats quickly spreads around the block. This gives him and his wife a good opportunity to engage with the neighborhood kids. Soper often questions parents, too, when he notices their children are roaming around unsupervised, or are spending large amounts of time in his backyard. He also frequently offers to bring kids along on family trips to the library and gives working parents the option to drop off their children at his home during the day in hopes of getting them off the street. 

"What starts as a heroic approach to leadership, where we think we are going to do this alone, is really not possible," says Soper. "The Manasseh Project has worked hard to build partnerships with other groups that address homelessness and runaway youth. Prevention is 95 percent of this work, if not more."

Through community education and collaboration, The Manasseh Project not only provides support for victims of human trafficking, it empowers the people of West Michigan to end modern day slavery. 

"Being a hero does not mean kicking in a door and saving a girl," Soper says. "It means being vulnerable, and if you open yourself up, that is where change happens. We can open as many houses as we want, but we cannot change slavery unless we change our hearts."

If you want to do your part to end human trafficking, here is how you can get involved: 
- Visit The Manasseh Project online to find out more. http://www.manassehproject.org
- Learn more about trafficking in West Michigan. 
- Report a suspected instance of human trafficking. 
- Donate to The Manasseh Project. 
- Like The Manasseh Project on Facebook
Source: Andy Soper, Founder of The Manasseh Project
Writer: Terri Spaulding, Do Good Contributor

Images Courtesy of The Manasseh Project.

Jazz students offered the chance to play at GRandJazzFest

Jazz students who want to perform in front of a large audience now have their chance. Auditioning jam sessions begin March 14 and those who think they have talent are encouraged to try out for the opportunity to play at this year's GRandJazzFest. 
Last August, West Michigan's first jazz festival celebrated its inaugural year with high attendance and beautiful weather. With that success under its belt, GRandJazzFest will be held again this summer and this time, it's happening over a two-day period on Aug. 17 and 18.
Steve Hilger, a local jazz musician whose band The Steve Hilger Jazz Quintet played at last year's festival, is excited that it's two days this year because "it demonstrates that there is a jazz community in Grand Rapids."

"It's fun to participate and exciting to be in on the ground level," he adds.
Hilger is also on GRandJazzFest's artist selection committee this year along with fellow musician Steve Talaga and West Michigan Jazz Society board member Eddie Tadlock. This committee and Founder Audrey Sundstrom wanted to have a way for young and/or unknown jazz musicians to participate in the festival and that's how the idea of the student set came about.

"One of our goals in year two of the festival is to increase the educational aspect -- to broaden awareness of jazz as a great American art form to diverse audiences and to provide a platform to celebrate up-and-coming jazz talent," says Sundstrom.

Students high school age and up who are studying jazz are invited to audition at Noto's Old World Italian Dining between 7-10 p.m. every other Thursday night beginning March 14. There is no fee to audition, and parents are asked to accompany anyone under 18.
Hilger, Talaga, and Randy Marsh or Evan Hyde will already be there performing as the TrioJazz band and they will play the first set. They will provide the drum set, keyboard, and amplifiers for students to use, but auditioning students are asked to bring their own guitar, bass, or horn. Student jazz singers are also invited to try out.
From now until the end of June, students are asked to attend the auditioning jam sessions as much as possible. They don't have to show up every other Thursday, but at least enough for Hilger and the other musicians to get to know them. The setting will be informal, so there is no need to sign up ahead of time. After the students play, Hilger will add their contact information to a list for the final selection.
"We're looking for the top student talent from the region to showcase at GRandJazzFest," says Hilger.
Around 5-10 students will be selected from those who've auditioned to perform in any or all of the 6-8 songs played on Aug. 18. This group of musicians, along with members of TrioJazz if needed, will kick off day two of GRandJazzFest at noon and also have a chance to perform solo during this time slot.
Hilger says the auditioning jam sessions are a good way for students to do more improvisational playing and "get over the fear of failure, which every musician has."
To find out more about GRandJazzFest or to audition as a student to play in this year's lineup, here is some information to get you started: 
- Visit GRandJazzFest online to find out more about this free, two-day jazz festival at Rosa Parks Circle Aug. 17 and 18. 
- Audition with TrioJazz at Noto’s Old World Italian Dining at 6600 28th St. SE. The auditions take place every other Thursday night starting at 7 p.m., with the first audition happening on March 14. 
- Contact Steve Hilger with any questions via email or at 616.458.3600. 
- Consider becoming a sponsor of this year’s GRandJazzFest. 
- Become a GRandJazzFest volunteer. 
- Like GRandJazzFest on Facebook
- Follow @GRandJazzFest on Twitter. 
Source: Audrey Sundstrom, Founder of GRandJazzFest, and Steve Hilger, jazz musician and one of the festival's artist selection committee members. 
Writer: Heidi Stukkie, Do Good Editor

Images provided by GRandJazzFest.  

YMCA's Camp Manitou-Lin includes all children

For a child with a disability, going to a summer camp at the same time as a brother, sister, or friend hasn't always been a possibility -- if he or she is able to go at all. But now, thanks to a grant from the National Inclusion Project, YMCA's Camp Manitou-Lin is better equipped to give all children the opportunity to attend camp when and with whomever they want, and they can participate in nearly every activity while there.
The National Inclusion Project was co-founded by entertainer Clay Aiken to help bridge the gap between children with disabilities and those without by creating recreational programs and training to make after school programs, summer camps, and classroom activities inclusive for everyone. Its Let's ALL Play program gives special needs children the same experience as other children in recreational activities.
Greg Dodd, the executive director of Camp Manitou-Lin, says he heard about the project from another YMCA camp in North Carolina where the National Inclusion Project is based. This year is the second year the camp has been awarded a grant from the organization and last year's $10,000 grant allowed them to fund additional summer staffing positions and receive inclusion training. 
Dodd says partnering with the National Inclusion Project last year to make the camp more inclusive included a five-hour staff training session that "let it hit home" how important inclusion is. He adds that the training was not just about how to deal with the children with special needs, but how to teach the other children ways to include them.  

"The training was an eye opening experience for the staff," says Dodd. 

During the training, the camp's staff learned more about the different disabilities they may encounter and also how to improve collaboration with other organizations in the community.
This year, Camp Manitou-Lin received a grant for $8,000 and they plan on using the funds for additional staffing and inclusion training again. 
Celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, Camp Manitou-Lin offers day, overnight, horse camps, and school group camps throughout the year, annually serving around 7,000 children from ages 4-17. Its 10 weeks of summer camps start mid June and run through August. More than 2,000 children visit then, with around 8-10 percent having some sort of disability, from mild to major.  
Last year, the camp had children with disabilities stay for its overnight camps and prior to then, Dodd says they looked at all activities and modified them so everyone could participate. "How do we set up games so everyone can play?" was the question asked and the staff came up with answers for every activity.
Their goal was to give the children with disabilities the opportunity be involved in the same way as everyone else and, at the same time, encourage the other children to interact with these children the way they would any other child. Some of the repeat campers questioned why activities were changed, so the staff took that opportunity to educate them about inclusion.   
Camp Manitou-Lin is not yet 100 percent accessible but Dodd says they are working on that. He wants to take the camp to the next level and make sure every child can attend and be included in everything.  
To help with the specific needs of the children with disabilities, the camp gets assistance from volunteer para pros and students from local colleges and universities. Dodd says they are always looking for more volunteers -- for a day, week, or longer -- and those who are interested will receive full training.  
"They just need a kind heart and a willingness to work with kids," he says. 
The camp also offers scholarships to children who cannot afford to attend the camp, so any donations are always appreciated. 
If you want to find out more about YMCA's Camp Manitou-Lin, they are having a family fun date on March 24 and here are some other ways you can involved: 
- Visit YMCA's Camp Manitou-Lin online to find out more. http://www.grymca.org/camp
- Volunteer your time. Contact the camp at (888) 909-2267 if you are interested.  
- Donate so a child who can't afford it can attend camp. 
- Like the GRYMCA on Facebook.
Source: Greg Dodd, Executive Director at YMCA's Camp Manitou-Lin. 
Writer: Heidi Stukkie, Do Good Editor
Images provided by Camp Manitou-Lin. 

Gilda's Club Grand Rapids: helping people get their smiles back

On the other side of the bright red door, hope, help, and smiles wait. Whether people seek education, social interaction, personal growth, or just a safe place to recoup, they are sure to find a community of support at Gilda's Club Grand Rapids.
As the organization gets ready to launch its third annual 10-day LaughFest -- a festival celebrating laughter for the health of it -- many in the community think cancer support when they think of Gilda's Club. Although it originally opened in 2001 to serve individuals diagnosed with cancer and their loved ones, it has now evolved into an all-inclusive grief support haven for adults and children.
"Grief is grief, whether it is cancer related or not," says Wendy Wigger, VP of community relations and program development at Gilda's Club. "Our grief support programs focus on social and emotional support for children, teens, and adults, and include those facing cancer, an injury-related death, or loss of a loved one for any reason."
Emotional healthcare is at the core of the Gilda's Club approach. Recognizing a need in our community to support and respect the unique way children deal with grief, they began the Children's Grief Program in 2008 for kids, ages 3-18. It offers free support to teens and younger children grieving the loss of a loved one. 
Research shows that children are more likely to develop physical and psychological problems later in life if they do not receive support to help them understand their grief. Gilda's Club acts as a safe haven where children can let go of their emotions and have fun doing it, while being supported by others who understand. All of the grief groups are facilitated by a professional with a master's degree.
In an effort to raise additional funds for the Children's Grief Program, the Wege Foundation is offering to match all donations received -- from $5 - $50,000 -- through the end of March. Give a "High Five" donation of $5 and Wege Foundation will match it by donating another $5. The goal is to raise $100,000 to benefit children.
Gilda's Club, while affiliated with Gilda's Worldwide, is independently operated by a local board of directors. This nonprofit is supported 100 percent through charitable gifts, which all stay in West Michigan, and sustained by volunteers always ready to help people find their smiles again. Gilda's Club is a member-based organization, with no charge for membership or any activities. 
Wigger believes that no matter what grief situation people are facing, in time "most everyone has the ability to move forward, to gain back their smile, and not let a single diagnosis or event define their life."

The Gilda's Club motto clearly defines its cooperative spirit -- "In this together... Learn. Share. Laugh." If you want to learn, share, or laugh with the organization or get involved in other ways, here's how you can:
- Visit Gilda’s Club Grand Rapids online to find out more. 
- Donate to "High Five" to benefit the Children’s Grief Program. 
- Volunteer with Gilda’s Club. 
- Support Gilda’s Club in other ways.  
- Visit LaughFest online for more information. 
- Like Gilda’s Club on Facebook. 
Source: Wendy Wigger, VP of Community Relations and Program Development at Gilda's Club Grand Rapids.  
Writer: Terri Spaulding, Do Good Contributor
Images courtesy of Gilda's Club Grand Rapids.

Volunteers help new moms bloom

Imagine the joy of having a baby. After many months of anticipation, parents are excited and relieved to finally see their child. Friends and relatives visit the hospital and home and celebrate the birth. The baby gets held. Photos are taken. People are smiling, and it's generally a cheerful time.

Now imagine a short time later when the mother is home alone with her child. She may start to feel overly tired, overwhelmed by the responsibilities, or simply not confident enough on how to be a mom. In some cases, that mom may experience a perinatal mood disorder (PMD) such as postpartum depression. PMD affects one out of seven new moms and even some dads.
Sara Binkley-Tow, the co-founder and executive director of MomsBloom, understands PMD first hand as she experienced it after her children were born. She says she felt anxious, behaved in an obsessive-compulsive way, and was having intrusive thoughts. 
At the time, Binkley-Tow wondered if this was normal until she learned more about PMD. She says new mothers often "feel like we can do it all and we should do it all" and that creates stress.
Five years ago, this mother of two co-founded an organization to provide free physical and emotional support to new mothers. MomsBloom relies on around 40 active volunteers to be able to offer this type of care to nearly 250 families each year.
As part of the Flourishing Families program, the carefully-screened volunteers take care of babies so mothers can rest, help with household chores, provide nurturing and reassuring emotional support, and offer assistance in a variety of other ways. When necessary, they’ll connect women with resources in the community for additional help.
After going through a background check and the initial training, most volunteers average 2-6 hours a week. Binkley-Tow says they’re all "passionate about moms and babies" and most say they get more out of it than the families. Usually, the volunteer will work with the same family for 2-3 months and sometimes even longer.

By providing nonjudgmental social support, volunteers at MomsBloom are able to alleviate or prevent PMDs and help a mother bond with her child. If PMD is left untreated, it can change the life of the child and the family forever.
"Children are sponges and they take everything in," says Binkley-Tow.
Since MomsBloom began, they've helped more than 700 families "bloom" after giving birth. To celebrate five years of providing this support to new mothers (and a few dads), they’re having a "BloomBash" at the Richard App Gallery on March 7. The event is open to moms and dads, and more information about tickets can be found online. Binkley-Tow says they're currently seeking more sponsors and silent auction items if you'd like to get involved.
If you're a new parent who could use some additional support, or if you'd like to volunteer with the organization or attend BloomBash, here is some information to get you started:
- Visit MomsBloom online to find out more. 
- The BloomBash celebration is on March 7 at the Richard App Gallery in East Hills. Tickets are $35 or $60 for a couple and available online or by sending a check to PO Box 522, Cannonsburg, MI 49317.
- Volunteer your time. 
- Watch a short video about MomsBloom on the NBC Nightly News site. 
- Like them on Facebook
Source: Sara Binkley-Tow, Co-Founder and Executive Director at MomsBloom, Inc. 
Writer: Heidi Stukkie, Do Good Editor

Images provided by MomsBloom. 

The Grand Rapids Community Foundation plans to award more than $1 million in scholarships this year

It's that time of year when students and their parents start wondering how to pay for college in the fall. Tuition is not cheap. Short of winning the lottery, many students get loans and end up leaving college with a mountain of debt. 
Scholarship awards may be the perfect solution to this problem. And since the Grand Rapids Community Foundation (GRCF) manages more than 70 scholarship funds, they are the perfect place to start. Filling out the general application on their website will give students the chance to be eligible for most of their available scholarships, with some scholarships requiring a separate application.  
In 2012, GRCF awarded 574 scholarships totaling $844,000. This year, they expect to award more than $1 million in scholarships.  
Most of the scholarships range from $500 to $5000, with the average award being $1500. The Fred & Lena Meijer scholarship program that GRCF administers awards 100 Meijer team members or their children $2500, with two of those lucky recipients receiving $10,000 instead. 
Most of the scholarships are only available to Kent County residents, with a few open to those living outside the county or even the state, such as the Meijer scholarships, which are open to Meijer team members and their children in Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, and Kentucky.
The student's chosen college or university does not have to be in Kent County, but a majority -- 82 percent -- of GRCF's scholarships were used by students who attended a Michigan college or university.
Ruth Bishop, education program officer and scholarship administrator, wants people to know these scholarships are not only for high school seniors. In fact, 60 percent of the scholarships awarded last year went to those already attending a college or a university.   
To qualify for a scholarship, the applicant must first fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and they will need their most recent educational transcript.
Bishop says many students are intimidated or discouraged when they see the application, but she assures them "it's not difficult." As part of the application, students are asked to write an essay of their aspirations and educational goals so that the volunteer members of the selection committees will know who they are.
"Take the time to do it; it's worth it," she says.
Also, while financial need is one of the deciding factors for which students get an award, it's not the only factor. 
"We take a look at their financial needs, but also their academic standing, how involved they are in the community, and what leadership skills they have exhibited," says Bishop. 
A full list of available scholarships can be found online and the deadline for the general application is April 1. The selection committees review the applications in the spring and the board finalizes their recommendations in June. 

For at least 50 years, GRCF has been awarding scholarships and, so far, more than $9.5 million in scholarships have been awarded. 
Last year, they reviewed 1877 applications for the 574 scholarships given, and of all the applications submitted, 635 were for the Fred & Lena Meijer scholarship program. 
With tuition costs rising, scholarships make a significant impact in making education more affordable. To apply for or donate to the Community Foundation's scholarship program, here is the information you'll need:
- Visit the Grand Rapids Community Foundation to find out more about what they do. 
- You can also show your support for the Community Foundation by engaging with them on Facebook and Twitter.  

Source: Ruth Bishop, Education Program Officer at the Grand Rapids Community Foundation
Writer: Heidi Stukkie, Do Good Editor

Logo provided by the Grand Rapids Community Foundation.

A safe and welcoming home for the LGBT community

Where in Grand Rapids can lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people go that's safe, confidential, and welcoming?

As many already know, the answer to that question is the Lesbian and Gay Community Network in Eastown.

The Network began 25 years ago as a way for the LGBT community to come together, be more visible, and work toward the advancement of equal rights. In their 3,000 square foot community center on Atlas Avenue, they provide LGBT people and their allies a welcoming place to hang out where they won't be judged.

"We are a very safe spot," says Christina Wade, the Network's office manager. "Everything in here is confidential and what's said here, stays here."

The mission of the organization is to "support people of all sexual orientations and gender identities regardless of ethnic background, race, religious affiliation, ability, socio-economic status, political affiliation, and age."

The Network offers groups, resources, referrals, and a newsletter for people thinking about "coming out," those who already have, and their families. Their facility houses computers and a library full of books, DVDs, and other materials as well.

Network groups that meet regularly include the Men's Social Group, Women's Social Group, Youth Group PLUS (People Like Us), Transgender Social Group, ACT (Allies Coming Together), Network Coupon Clippers Group, and the SWEAT (Support with Weight, Exercise, and Togetherness) Group.

The ACT Group is especially helpful for parents or family members of someone in the LGBT community. It's a place for them to share stories, gain a better understanding, and learn how to support their loved ones.

There is no cost to join any of the groups, however, if people want to join the Network as a paid member, they will receive a copy of the Network News each month. This publication includes articles, notifications, and resources in the community. The cost of membership is $39 per year, or $20 for students and veterans.

On April 27, the Network will be having a fundraiser at their location called, "The Network Presents Renaissance and Ruckus." The event is open to the LGBT community and its allies and will feature art to purchase, a silent auction, a DJ and live music, and beer, wine, and food. Their neighbor, the Red Project, will also be offering free HIV testing that night. The Network is seeking donations of artwork, silent auction items, or beer and wine for the event if you're able to give.

Wade is currently the only paid person at the Network. The board and everyone else involved are all volunteers dedicated to supporting this resource for the LGBT community. They could always use additional help, so contact them if you have some extra time.

Since not everyone knows about the Network, Wade hopes people will let others know about them, especially telling younger people who may be struggling with their identity or being accepted. She says no one gets judged when they're there.

If you want to become involved with the Lesbian and Gay Community Network, here are some ways you can:

- Visit the Network online to find out more.
- Attend their "The Network Presents Renaissance and Ruckus" event on April 27 from 7-11 p.m. (More information will be posted on their website soon.) They are currently seeking donations of beer, wine, artwork, or silent auction items for this event. Allies in the community are also invited to attend.
- Become a member and receive the monthly Network News. Contact them for more information at 616-458-3511 or via email. 
- Join one of the many groups at the Network.
- Volunteer your time at the Network.
- Donate financially to the Network.
- Like the Network on Facebook. 

Source: Christina Wade, Office Manager at the Lesbian and Gay Community Network
Writer: Heidi Stukkie, Do Good Editor

Images provided by the Lesbian and Gay Community Network. 

Families affected by Autism empowered through networking and knowledge

Information about Autism can be found everywhere, but sometimes it’s overwhelming and that’s one of the reasons why Hope Network’s Center for Autism has started monthly networking and educational events called Family Rounds.

Clinical Neuropsychologist and Director of Children's Services Dr. Mohan Krishnan says it’s helpful for families to share what they’ve learned with each other and develop relationships.

“There’s a lot of info but families often feel isolated,” he says.
The idea for these monthly Family Rounds came from two of the fathers involved with the Center. They approached Krishnan and a partnership soon developed. Hope Network had already been doing a monthly lecture series called Grand Rounds that was geared toward the professionals who work with people with Autism, but there wasn’t anything for the families.
“We want this to be a networking and knowledge hub to empower families,” Krishnan says.
The first Family Rounds event took place in January at the Hope Network Education Center on 36th Street and about 25 people attended. Krishnan expects more attendees at the next event on Feb. 27 when someone from Network 180 will talk about accessing public mental health services.
Future events will cover Indian Trails camp, legal issues, continuing education, housing options, social development, and more. A calendar with the monthly topics can be found online. A one-hour lecture will be followed by time for networking and refreshments and all lectures will be posted on YouTube afterward for parents who cannot make it.  All events are free and open to the public.  
Hope Network’s Center for Autism is now in its third year and treats around 200 adults and children in Grand Rapids per year. One of their focuses is to work with an underserved population of children who are typically not being diagnosed or treated because of a lack of insurance or other reasons.

Krishnan wants people to realize the financial value of early diagnosis and intervention. He says the average cost to the state without any intervention is around $3.5 million, and with intervention, that goes down to around $600,000. The added expenses without intervention are for services such as disability, healthcare, and special education.
A common treatment option called Early Intensive Behavioral Intervention (EIBI) involves high intensity one-on-one care. It usually takes 10-30 hours a week and can be expensive, but Krishnan says it produces shocking results. 
“Kids can go from not talking to having an average I.Q.,” he says. 
With early diagnosis and treatment, the cost to the state decreases but more importantly, people with Autism can benefit their communities in many ways. Krishnan says children with Autism disproportionately turn toward careers in the areas of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). The Center for Autism wants to empower them so they are able to get these jobs someday and possibly make a positive impact. 
“Our dream is to make a difference from needing group homes when they grow up to needing graduate schools,” says Krishnan. 
The Family Rounds will create a central place where families can network, learn from each other, and gather information. 
“We want people talking about Autism,” Krishnan says. “We don’t want people or family members to feel like they have to be silent anymore.” 
To find out more about Family Rounds and the Hope Network Center for Autism, here are some links to get you started: 
- Visit the Hope Network Family Rounds page online to find out more about the upcoming events. 
- Visit Hope Network’s Center for Autism online. 
- Like Hope Network’s Center for Autism on Facebook
- Follow @HopeNetworkNews on Twitter. 
Source: Mohan Krishnan, PhD, Director of Children's Services and Clinical Neuropsychologist at Hope Network
Writer: Heidi Stukkie, Do Good Editor
Image provided by Hope Network.

The World Affairs Council brings a global perspective to a local community

As the executive director of the World Affairs Council of Western Michigan, Dixie Anderson meets many current and former presidents, ambassadors, foreign dignitaries, and more, but the highlight of her 18-year career with the organization was being able to meet Arch Bishop Desmond Tutu when he visited Grand Rapids 10 years ago. 
“It was such an honor,” she says. “He radiates peace and energy.”
Continually hosting impressive speakers such as this, the World Affairs Council of Western Michigan is a non-partisan, non-advocacy, nonprofit educational organization that currently has 50 member companies and more than 1,200 members. They are one of more than 100 Councils nationwide that focus on sharing information and creating dialogue surrounding U.S. foreign policy issues.
The local Council began in 1949 when two men, Edgar Orr and Douglas Hillman, thought West Michigan was becoming too isolationist. The original volunteers and meeting attendees were an elite group of people but now, decades later, the World Affairs Council of Western Michigan has expanded their reach to a broad and diverse group of people, from students to retirees and everyone in between. 
Best known for its sponsorship of the award-winning Great Decisions Foreign Policy Discussion Series that began in the 1960s, the Council brings in think tank members, top policy makers, foreign diplomats, analysts from the CIA and the FBI, and more to speak every February and March. Around 250 people attend each of these events. 
Each year, the Foreign Policy Association (FPA) in New York City selects eight prominent foreign policy issues. Member organizations get the chance to vote on a range of topics and after the eight issues are finalized, the individual Councils choose speakers who can best share relevant insights.  
Anderson gets suggestions from other Councils, but after doing this for 18 years, she says she has "quite a rolodex of speakers."

The Great Decisions Foreign Policy Discussion Series is held every Monday evening at 6:00 p.m in February and March at the Performing Arts Center at Aquinas College. New this year, an additional session has been added on Tuesday mornings featuring the four March speakers. This one-hour series starts at 11:00 a.m. at the Gillette Auditorium in the Fifth Third Bank Building downtown and is geared more toward business people.
The events are open to everyone. Council members and some students pay $10 and non-members pay $15 per event. 
Students attending participating colleges and universities get in free as many offer credit through their political science or international departments. Currently, there are approximately 250 students involved and the Council provides a textbook for them to use, as well as posting the discussions on YouTube the next day. 
One Discussion Series speaker that Anderson is particularly excited about is Reza Marashi of the National Iranian American Council. Marashi is only 31, yet Anderson says he has a "sophisticated and nuanced view on the Iranian and U.S. relationship." He visited last fall and "blew everyone away" and now he's one of the first speakers they've had visit twice in the same year. He will be speaking March 4 and 5.  
The World Affairs Council wants to promote critical thinking and discussion on foreign policy. Anderson says people often question why they are bringing in certain people, but if she hears from both the left and the right, she knows she's doing her job well. 
When they brought former President George W. Bush here, Anderson received a lot of flack but says, "We accomplished our goal because everyone was talking about the Iraq war."
The Council hosts 30-40 events per year altogether, including webcasts and teleconferences. Each fall, they hold an anniversary dinner with a distinguished keynote speaker, and in May, they host a WorldQuest™ international trivia contest. 
A complete schedule of events can be found online and soon, a new website will be launched. If foreign policy issues interest you, here are some ways to get involved:
- Visit the World Affairs Council of Western Michigan online to find out more. 
- Find out more about the Great Decisions Discussion Series and download a brochure. 
- Watch this short video to find out more about the organization and see some of the former speakers. 
- Contact the organization if you'd like to donate or volunteer. 
- Like them on Facebook.
Source: Dixie Anderson, Executive Director of the World Affairs Council of Western Michigan
Writer: Heidi Stukkie, Do Good Editor
Photo: Myanmar River Taxi Rower, copyright and photo credit to Jerry Redfern.

Building bridges toward a brighter future

Next time you’re thinking about hiring someone for snow removal, lawn care, deck building, remodeling, or any other type of home project, consider contacting Building Bridges Professional Services. 
Not only will you receive professional services at reduced or competitive rates, but you’ll also give at-risk young adults an opportunity to earn money and gain valuable work, leadership, and cultural experiences. 

Building Bridges began in 2007 as a way to address youth violence and unemployment in the inner city by paying young adults to cut the grass at vacant and foreclosed homes. 

Now six years later, this program operated by Bethany Christian Services and Urban Family Ministries has grown to offer year-round, professional services to the community. 

Building Bridges provides work opportunities to low-income young adults, ages 16-24, with barriers to employment. The youth employed by Building Bridges may have previous criminal charges, be involved in the foster care system, come from a refugee family, or have difficulties finding a job for other reasons.

The Youth Services Department Manager at Bethany Christian Services, Justin Beene, also acts as the Program Director at Building Bridges. He says the program is "a hand up, not a hand out" and they encourage positive work habits. If an employee is late three times, for example, they are let go.  

The professional services Building Bridges offers include everything from snow removal to grass cutting, trimming, fall and spring cleanup, gutter cleaning, power washing, and more. They have recently added two licensed builders and a landscape architect, so now they can also provide remodeling, deck building, and landscaping services. 

Basically, if you have something inside or outside your home or business that needs to get done, ask them to give you a free estimate on the project. They prefer seasonal work, but can do one-time projects as well. 

Each project is managed by a site supervisor who will make sure the work gets done correctly. The company is also fully insured. Located within the Home Repair Services building on South Division, they primarily serve the southeast side of town, but they can perform work anywhere in Grand Rapids.    

In addition to earning money, youth also learn important personal and professional life experience. Once a week, the employees are invited to join in "enrichment activities" where they learn money management skills, interviewing and resume building techniques, anger management, and more. They visit colleges and local businesses and receive educational support as well.
On average, Building Bridges employs around eight youths during the summer months and four who work throughout the year. They each start out at minimum wage and get paid more with experience. 
"We believe work is an avenue to building character and transferrable skills," Beene says. 

The Building Bridges employees volunteer in the community as part of the program and also actively participate in the company by doing such tasks as creating the logo and marketing activities. The goal, Beene says, is "to mentor kids to take ownership in the company."

Building Bridges initially received grants from various organizations to start the program, and now about 50 percent of their funding comes from the fees they receive for services. They maintain many large contracts, including one for the Kent County Senior Millage that provides free lawn care to low-income seniors. 

The employees take pride in the work they do and don’t want people to hire them out of sympathy.  

"Hire us because we do an excellent job at a decent price," says Beene. 

If you'd like to help young adults build bridges toward a brighter future, here's how you can get involved: 

- Visit Building Bridges online to find out more. 
- Request an estimate to have work done around your house or business by filling out this form or by calling 616.574.7940. 
- To volunteer your time as a speaker or a mentor, or to donate hand tools and landscaping equipment, email Building Bridges.  
- Like them on Facebook
Source: Justin Beene, Youth Services Department Manager at Bethany Christian Services and also the Program Director at Building Bridges. 
Writer: Heidi Stukkie, Do Good Editor

Images provided by Building Bridges. 
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