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The Hispanic Center serves, educates and advocates

When Martha Gonzalez-Cortez started with Hispanic Center of Western Michigan in 1999, there was a rat living in the basement and the organization had about 30 days of funding left.

Fast forward 13 years, and the Center has gone from a staff of less than five people to more than 30 employees, and from an operating budget of $300,000 to a $2 million dollar budget that’s comfortably in the black.

In 2007, they moved into their current Gold LEED-certified building on the corner of Grandville and Hall. The historic building used to be an old fire station and, thankfully, there are no rats.  

The Hispanic Center has been serving, educating and advocating for the Hispanic community and others in West Michigan since 1978. With roughly 400,000 Hispanics living in Michigan, the West Michigan area has the second largest population in the state, the largest Cuban and Guatemalan populations statewide and the most migrant farm workers.
 
The Hispanic Center does not serve all of the Hispanics in West Michigan, only those who need them the most. They work with around 10,000 people per year and their clients are mainly those who don’t have a support network here in West Michigan, those in crisis and the working poor.

“Our goal is not to serve all Latinos, only the most vulnerable,” says Gonzalez-Cortez. “The Latinos with stable jobs and generations of families here don’t engage us.”

She adds that the Center doesn’t pretend to speak for all Hispanics, or serve all, because they don’t. They focus on those who truly need their services and the goal is always to promote self-sufficiency.

The organization’s family support services area helps with emergency housing assistance, domestic violence problems, mental health challenges, wage concerns, civil rights issues and they also act as an information and referral resource in the community.  

Gonzalez-Cortez says their core value is to be an “organization that unwaveringly believes in the power of culture to promote positive social change.”

The Hispanic Center also encourages “the upward mobility of all.” They lay the groundwork for this through the Center’s educational services, providing people of all ages with language skills, computer training, GED support and assistance in finding a job.

In addition to the family support services and the education and employment services, the Hispanic Center advocates for “the human dignity of all” by tackling unpopular causes such as immigration rights, migrant farm worker issues and the challenges associated with gang members and prison inmates. 
   
To promote a strong community in the future, the Hispanic Center has a popular youth program that tutors, mentors and supports Hispanic young adults from ages 13 to 21.

The organization is also behind such popular cultural events as the Hispanic Festival, the Latin Extravaganza, the Dia de los Muertos Celebration and more.

The Hispanic Center’s El Centro Translations serves individuals and organizations through Spanish classes, interpretations and translations in several different languages as well.

For nearly 35 years, the Hispanic Center has been providing social services to Hispanics in the West Michigan area, educating people of all ages and advocating on behalf of those who need it the most.

The easiest way to support them is by attending the Hispanic Festival September 7 and 8 -- you get to eat delicious ethnic food and enjoy culturally enriching entertainment while helping them raise the money needed to continue serving the community. Here are some other ways to get involved:

-    Visit the Hispanic Center of Western Michigan online to find out more.
-    Volunteer at the Hispanic Center. (You don’t have to know Spanish to volunteer.)
-    Donate financially or donate goods on the Center’s wish list.
-    Attend the Hispanic Festival September 7-8 at Calder Plaza.
-    Contact El Centro Translations at the Hispanic Center for Spanish classes or if you need something translated into a number of different languages.
-    Like them on Facebook.

Source: Martha Gonzalez-Cortes, Chief Executive Officer at the Hispanic Center for Western Michigan

Writer: Heidi Stukkie, Do Good Editor

Photos provided by Hispanic Center for Western Michigan.

Making Grand Rapids friendlier

Josh Leffingwell wanted to make Grand Rapids a friendlier place to live. He figured the best way to do that would be to bring together the people who were already doing good with the people who wanted to do good and help them develop relationships.

Leffingwell and friend, Tyler Doornbos, created Friendly Corps to convert this idea into an official organization. They then started talking to like-minded friends, who then talked to their friends. A group of people met for the first time in February and the Salon Urbanist Meetups have been happening monthly ever since.

The purpose of the group and the meetings is to organize, implement and advocate for projects in the areas of transportation, urban improvement, city planning, the arts and business and community development. In other words, the goal is to make our city friendlier in every possible way.  

“What’s wrong with Grand Rapids and how can we fix it?” Leffingwell says it’s this type of question that inspires most of the group’s conversations.

Friendly Corps’ Salon meetups occur on the second Thursday of each month at Bill Kirk’s Open Source Studio on South Division Avenue. Topics are announced through the Salon Urbanist Meetup’s group page on Facebook. Even though it’s a closed group, anyone who lives in West Michigan and knows at least one other member gets approved. The reason the group is closed is because any one of the nearly 200 members can post ideas, articles and topic suggestions -- sometimes spurring lively discussions.

Each meeting averages a little more than an hour and around 20-30 people of all ages, races and professions attend. Usually, representatives from local government offices and nonprofit organizations show up and developers and designers often frequent the meetings as well.

On the Salon Urbanist Meetup Facebook group page, it says, “Tell us projects you want to do, let us know if you need help and let us know if you need volunteers.”

That’s generally how the group operates. Leffingwell says he and Doornbos are “just the facilitators” of the meetups and everyone is equally involved. Anyone can present an idea to be discussed.

During the first meeting back in February, the group met to discuss ways to get bike corrals installed around downtown and last month, one was installed on Jefferson Avenue near Fulton Street. The group considers this to be progress and hopes several more will be installed soon.

Organizations such as the Friends of Grand Rapids Parks, WMEAC and the Greater Grand Rapids Bicycle Coalition have presented at the Salon gatherings.

Recently, Lynee Wells from Williams and Works gave a presentation about the Build a Better Block initiative that’s expected to demonstrate a possible transformation of State Street next May. Friendly Corps is partnering with Wells on this project and the desired goal is to inspire developers and building owners to make permanent changes to the neighborhood as a result of the campaign.

A newly launched Friendly Corps project called Friendly Code shares the goal of making Grand Rapids a better place, but with the focus being online. Friendly Code, initiated by web developer Jonathan Pichot, is part of more than a dozen self-organized Code for America Brigades around the country. These “brigades” are independent groups of volunteer developers, designers and interested citizens who create and implement civic applications.

Friendly Code will have its first developer “hack night” on August 28 and has decided to focus its efforts on relaunching the Viget.org site. Viget is a wiki, a collaborative website that allows user-generated content, that was initially created in 2007 by local developers Michael Greene, Paul Wittenbraker and George Wietor as an online place for Grand Rapids residents to share information about local people, places, things and more.

The Friendly Code group is looking for interested developers and designers who want to work and can commit to seeing a project to completion.

“We don’t want people only interested in suggesting something," says Pichot. "We need people who will contribute and own what they've built.”

That summarizes the overall concept of Friendly Corps. The group is interested in people who are willing to “get their hands dirty” in working toward making Grand Rapids a friendlier place to live. The organization is not an official nonprofit, there are no dues and no one gets paid, unless you count the donations Leffingwell gets when he supplies the group with pizza and beer.

If you want to get involved, here’s all of the information you need:

-    Visit Friendly Corps online to find out more.
-    Join the Salon Urbanist Meetup Group on Facebook.
-    Like Friendly Corps on Facebook.
-    Follow @friendlycorps on Twitter.
-    Like Friendly Code on Facebook.
-    Find out more about the Friendly Code Developer Hack Night on August 28.
-    Sign up for the Friendly Code newsletter.

Source: Josh Leffingwell of Friendly Corps and Jonathan Pichot of Friendly Code.

Writer: Heidi Stukkie, Do Good Editor

Photos credits go to Josh Leffingwell for the photo of the bike corral; Alissa Lane for the photos of Josh Leffingwell, the neighborhood block party and the Salon meeting; and Craig Hickerson for the photo of Jonathan Pichot.  

Eat local for 10 weeks

Next time you’re going to the grocery store or out to eat, think about how you can eat local. When your dollars stay in our community, it makes a big difference.

To demonstrate just how big of a difference it can make, Local First has a challenge for you. They’re asking you to shift $10 of your weekly food purchases to local food for 10 weeks.

That seems simple enough. And if 1,000 people do this, it will generate $100,000 for our local economy.

As part of its 5th annual Eat Local Challenge, Local First created the 10x10 Pledge campaign where individuals commit to spending $10 each week on local food for 10 weeks, beginning on August 28.

“Ten dollars is a drop in the bucket,” says Seth Galligan, Local First communications coordinator. “No one will have to make a substantial lifestyle change to meet this challenge.”

There are many ways to spend your weekly $10 for the 10x10 Pledge. Eating at a local restaurant is probably the easiest way for many. Shopping at a local grocery store instead of a national chain is another way. Buying locally made food products is something simple that can be done no matter where you shop and if you’re not sure if a product is made locally, look at the label or ask the store’s employees.

For every national restaurant, store or food product, we have a comparable local choice.

“We have alternatives,” Galligan says. “Just drive your car to a different parking lot.”

Registration to take the 10x10 Pledge is now open and colorful graphic icons can be downloaded to post on social media sites. People are encouraged to share their commitment with family and friends and engage in conversations about their experiences eating local food. A Facebook group called “The 10x10 Pledgers” has been created to promote this type of dialogue, and Twitter users are asked to use the hashtag #10x10 in their tweets about the pledge. 
 
Once you sign up for the 10x10 Pledge, you’ll receive a weekly email that’s sponsored by a local food business. The email will share information about eating locally, community workshop events, recipes and more.

The Eat Local Challenge culminates in Fork Fest, Local First’s annual fundraiser. Fork Fest happens on Thursday, October 18 from 5-9 p.m. at the Romence Gardens Greenhouse. For $25, you can sample products from more than 35 local food vendors while listening to the Fauxgrass Quartet.

Organizers at Local First realize it’s not practical to ask everyone to buy local 100 percent of the time, but the goal with this campaign is to create more awareness about the local food community. Galligan reminds us that we vote with our dollars and when we spend money locally, local businesses will stay and contribute to our economy.

Local First and its presenting sponsor, Valley City Linen, have a goal to get at least 1,000 people to commit to the 10x10 Pledge, which will in turn put $100,000 back into our local food system.

“It’s a positive change that everyone can make and every dollar will be beneficial to our community,” says Galligan.

Since our Rapid Growth Media readers already overwhelmingly support the local food community, the 10x10 Pledge will be a simple commitment, but be sure to sign up online and be counted. And if you still haven’t signed up by August 28, don’t worry, you can sign up any time during the 10 weeks. Encourage your family and friends to join you in the 10x10 Pledge, too. Here’s all of the information you’ll need:  

-    Visit the Local First 10x10 Pledge event page to find out more information.
-    Take the 10x10 Pledge to spend $10 a week for 10 weeks from August 28 through October 30.
-    Ask your family and friends to take the pledge as well.
-    Plan on attending the Local First Fork Fest event on Thursday, October 18 from 5-9 p.m. at the Romence Gardens Greenhouse.
-    Become a part of the 10x10 Pledgers group on Facebook.
-    Like Local First of West Michigan on Facebook.
-    Follow @LocalFirst on Twitter and when talking about the 10x10 Pledge, be sure to use the hashtag #10x10.
-    Visit Valley City Linen, the presenting sponsor, online to find out more about them.

Source: Seth Galligan, Local First Communications Coordinator

Writer: Heidi Stukkie, Do Good Editor

Images provided by Local First.

Improving lives through literacy

Literacy is not simply having the ability to read, but being able to correctly understand and use the English language at age appropriate levels.

In Grand Rapids, nearly 22 percent of adults read below a ninth grade level. This type of low literacy deeply impacts employment opportunities, income levels and parenting abilities.

For nearly 25 years, the Literacy Center of West Michigan has been working to change the lives of individuals by improving their reading and language skills. They offer one-on-one tutoring, community-based training to groups and schools, and customized workplace training for employers. In the last year, they have served approximately 1,500 people in West Michigan.

“We’re leading the effort to improve literacy,” says the organization’s Public Relations Specialist, Tatum Rucker. “That’s always been the goal.”

When people contact them, the first thing the Literacy Center does is identify what the learner’s goal is, whether that’s improving reading and writing skills or improving their English language skills.

People come to the Center for a variety of reasons. Sometimes they have a learning disability or they dropped out of high school. In other cases, visitors are recent immigrants or they never learned to speak, read or write the English language.

The Literacy Center relies on more than 300 volunteers to help with its one-on-one, personalized tutoring program. This program is open to anyone and for as long as needed.

“We’ll stick with them as long as we can and we have a tutor to work with them,” says Rucker.

The Center offers English as a Second Language (ESL) classes that can be customized for employers, community-based or for individuals. Individual classes run 6-8 weeks and cost $25. The Customized Workplace English program is typically tailored to offer on-site, specific ESL training in the employer’s industry and allows employees to be able to communicate more effectively at work. Spectrum Health, Butterball Farms and Bookings.com are a few of the employers who have offered this training to their employees.  

Training is also provided at the Literacy Center to prepare individuals for the National Career Readiness Certificate. After a person passes this testing, they receive a certificate that lets employers know they have obtained a certain level of math, reading and writing skills and are employable.

In addition to these programs, the Literacy Center partners with the Heart of West Michigan United Way’s Schools of Hope Reading Program. While the United Way provides the tutoring for students, the Literacy Center provides tutoring and instruction to the parents to help with English language, reading and writing skills. They give parents the tools needed to support their child’s academic success. This program currently serves seven elementary schools and is expanding to more. It also recently won a Governor’s Service Award.

The Literacy Center’s programs are funded through federal and local grants, corporate sponsors and individual donations.

Volunteers are always needed for the adult tutoring program to teach reading, writing and grammar skills. Before any tutoring begins, goals are established with everyone involved and a curriculum is developed. The location and times for the tutoring are flexible once the tutor and learner are matched, and the Literacy Center asks for a commitment of 3-4 hours per week.

“It takes that long to see some actual progress with an adult learner,” says Rucker.

The Literacy Center contextualizes the tutoring to fit in with their every day life. If they want to learn how to read to their children, they teach them that. Or if they want to learn how to do certain activities at work, they develop a way to train them on that as well.  

“We try to make it practical for that person’s goals and life,” says President and CEO Susan Ledy.

Last year, the Literacy Center launched the Community Literacy Initiative, which is a coalition of more than 80 agencies who play a part of solving illiteracy.

“We wanted to take a leadership role in figuring out how we all fit into the puzzle of improving literacy,” says Ledy. “It gives a greater awareness to the community that there is this organized initiative.”

The upcoming Community Literacy Summit to be held on September 19 is designed to bring the group back together again to celebrate the work that has been done so far and to develop a plan for the future. More than 200 community leaders, teachers, agencies and parents are expected to attend. The registration deadline for this all-day event at Grand Valley State University’s Eberhard Center is September 9.

Following the Community Literacy Summit, the Literacy Center plans to launch an online community literacy directory listing of all of the organizations involved with literacy. The aim is for it to be a valuable resource for tutoring programs, class listings, volunteer opportunities and more.

Other fall Literacy Center events include the Books for Bedtime book drive, which kicks off September 20 at the Grand Rapids Children’s Museum.

The annual fundraiser Wine & Words is a casual, fun event with wine, food and games. This year, it will be held at the home of Mark Peters on October 11.  

The Literacy Center of West Michigan is committed to helping people reach their full potential through language and reading skills. Here are some ways you can support them in making sure everyone has this opportunity:
Sources: Susan K. Ledy, M.A., President and CEO of the Literacy Center of West Michigan and Tatum Rucker, M.A., Public Relations Specialist
Writer: Heidi Stukkie, Do Good Editor

Photos provided by the Literacy Center of West Michigan.
 

Retail program helps change lives through the power of work

If you shop at a Goodwill Industries of Greater Grand Rapids retail store, your money is going toward helping our community. Specifically, that money may be helping your friend or neighbor get a job.

With 18 retail stores in Grand Rapids, there are plenty of locations to choose from. Plus, the two new Blue boutique stores offer trendy clothing and items, and are designed to offer more of an upscale experience to customers. Most everything in the stores comes from donations dropped off at one of the drop off locations.

Goodwill offers a comprehensive job training program through its Hartley on Grand Career Center that exists because of the retail stores. The stores provide 65 percent of the funding Goodwill Industries of Greater Grand Rapids needs to operate. The rest of the operating budget comes from grants and private donations.

“Donations are essentially our fuel,” says Jill Wallace, Chief Marketing & Communications Officer at Goodwill Industries of Greater Grand Rapids.

Last year, 3,000 people were served last year at the Career Center and just under 1,000 people were placed into jobs as a result. Altogether, more than 10,000 people have been assisted at the Hartley on Grand facility.

The Career Center is a walk-in place where people can visit to get advice, help with their resumes, job searching assistance, mock interview role playing and more. They have computers onsite and no appointment is needed.

They also have 20 different job training programs geared toward what is needed and in demand in the local community. Currently, programs in hospitality and nursing are popular choices, as are the Youth to Employment and Veterans Services job training programs. Training typically lasts 6-8 weeks. There is no fee to those participating because of the income generated through the retail stores.

To access the job training program, people meet first with a case manager who will assess their skill base and needs and find out what they are looking for.

Goodwill often works with people with barriers to employment, whether that may be a physical or mental disability, a veteran returning from duty, someone with a criminal record or any another issue that may make it difficult for them to find a job.  

The job training program is comprehensive and teaches participants not only specific job skills, but how to sustain a job by learning how to handle conflict, take direction and more.

Goodwill has worked hard to garner the trust of local employers so they will continue to hire those who have completed the job training program.  

“We have years of building relationships with employers,” says Wallace. “We show them how comprehensive our programs are and how the individuals sustain and retain employment.”

The program’s goal is to get people in the community to become self sufficient and if they can be gainfully employed, this is often the first step in that direction.

Wallace says they “want people to be proud of who they are and the decisions they make.”  

Volunteers are needed in a variety of ways at Goodwill Industries of Greater Grand Rapids. They can help at one of the retail locations or at the Career Center teaching a class, showing someone how to write a resume, doing mock interviews and more.

Goodwill Industries of Greater Grand Rapids is “changing lives and communities through the power of work.” Here are some ways you can give back and support them on their mission:

-    Visit Goodwill Industries of Greater Grand Rapids online to learn more about them.
-    Shop at a local Goodwill store or online.
-    Shop at a Blue boutique location for “trendy merchandise in a hip, eclectic setting.”
-    Volunteer your time and skills in a variety of ways.
-    Donate materials to a Goodwill location.
-    Make a financial contribution.
-    Like Goodwill Industries of Greater Grand Rapids on Facebook.
-    Follow @goodwillgr on Twitter.

Source: Jill Wallace, Chief Marketing & Communications Officer at Goodwill Industries of Greater Grand Rapids
Writer: Heidi Stukkie, Do Good Editor

Images provided by Goodwill Industries of Greater Grand Rapids.  

Eating healthier and supporting Michigan farmers

Anyone who’s been to the grocery store recently knows how expensive food can be and, usually, the healthier the food, the more it costs.

So how do you encourage low-income families getting federal food assistance to eat more fruits and vegetables? You start by doubling their money.

Double Up Food Bucks is a program of the Fair Food Network (FFN) offering participants in the government’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) a way to double their money at farmers markets around West Michigan. Instead of spending only $20 on fresh, locally grown fruits and vegetables, they can now buy $40 worth.

“Whatever you spend on a Bridge card, you’ll receive double up to $20 per day,” says Double Up Food Bucks Program Director Rachel Chadderdon Bair.

FFN, an organization based in Ann Arbor, began the Double Up Food Bucks program in 2009 with a small pilot program in Detroit. Now available in 70 markets across the state, the goal of the program is to provide an incentive to encourage low-income families to eat healthier, while at the same time, support local agriculture.

Considering nearly one in five families in Michigan receive public food assistance, the program has the opportunity to affect the eating habits of a substantial number of residents.  

In 2011, the Double Up Food Bucks program led to a 190 percent increase of SNAP purchases at farmers markets throughout Michigan with $1 million dollars redeemed in 40,000 visits. Statewide, there were 11,000 SNAP benefit recipients who shopped at farmers markets for the first time, with 3,011 of those new visitors living in West Michigan. Chadderdon Bair has also heard traffic is up this year, so she expects these numbers to increase even more for 2012.

“Customers are excited to try a variety of new things,” she says.

The way the Double Up Food Bucks program works is when a SNAP recipient pays for food at a participating farmers market, a matching dollar amount up to $20 per day is given to the vendor at the time of purchase. The program “doubles the money flowing through the market” says Chadderdon Bair, and that’s why the vendors support it as well.
 
The Double Up Food Bucks program is currently offered at farmers markets throughout the state, including 16 locations in West Michigan.

FFN receives no state funding for the project and instead relies on 40 private companies and community foundations throughout the state to help pay for the program. Grand Rapids Community Foundation is the largest local funding partner.

The organization works in partnership with the Department of Human Services and The Food & Nutrition Coalition of the Kent County Essential Needs Task Force.  

This Friday, August 10, the Fair Food Network will celebrate the success of the Double Up Food Bucks program at the Fulton Street Farmers Market. FFN representatives, including president and CEO Dr. Oran Hesterman, will be there from 10:00 a.m. - 3:00 p.m. to greet people and answer any questions. From 12:30 - 1:30 p.m., Molly Clauhs will host a “Taste of Double Up Food Bucks” cooking demonstration using fresh, in-season food from the market. Clauhs is owner of The Silver Spork, a Grand Rapids-based gourmet food truck, and the co-owner of Grand Rapids’ Cooking School.

“The hope for the event is to connect with some funders and community partners,” says Chadderdon Bair.

The Fair Food Network’s Double Up Food Bucks program offers healthy food for Michigan families and supports Michigan farmers. If you’d like to help them continue, here are some ways you can get involved:

-    Visit Fair Food Network online to find out more about them.
-    Stop by the Fulton Street Farmers Market and say hello this Friday from 10:00 a.m. - 3:00 p.m. 
-    Volunteer at the event on Friday by contacting Liz Kohn
-    Shop at your local farmers markets and volunteer your time. 
-    Like Fair Food Network on Facebook.  
-    Follow @FairFoodNetwork on Twitter.

Sources: Rachel Chadderdon Bair, Double Up Food Bucks Program Director at Fair Food Network and Liz Kohn, Outreach and Volunteer Coordinator
Writer: Heidi Stukkie, Do Good Editor

Photos provided by the Fair Food Network.

Grand Rapids GiveCamp offers free technical solutions to nonprofit organizations

Throw 80 or so tech professionals in a room for a full weekend, include nonprofit organizations seeking help with websites and other technical issues, add in unlimited food and beverages, and what do you get?

You get a whole lot done, that’s what.

Grand Rapids GiveCamp is a weekend-long event that pairs volunteer technology professionals with nonprofit organizations seeking technical solutions. Together, over the course of an active weekend, they strategize, design, develop and code, producing impressive results in a short amount of time.  

Now in its fourth year, GiveCamp takes place October 26-28 in The Factory, the collaborative workspace at 38 West Fulton Street. Organizers for this year’s event are currently seeking volunteers, nonprofit organizations and sponsors. The deadline for nonprofits to apply is September 1.

During GiveCamp weekend, teams of five or six individuals with a variety of skills work together with a nonprofit organization to create a dynamic, content management system driven website, upgrade an old site, consult on social media and marketing strategies, offer database assistance or provide other technical solutions as requested.

If the nonprofit organizations had to pay for these services, the estimated cost would be between $10,000 and $30,000 per project.  

Co-directing the event this year are J. Tower, a software consultant with Falafel Software, and Ross Hunter, a software craftsman with Mutually Human.

“Nonprofits have tight budgets and technology is a very expensive thing to pay for,” says Tower, explaining the reason for the event. “There are so many amazing nonprofits in West Michigan. We often give them money, but there’s a huge difference between spending dollars and spending your time. Getting to know the people is so much more meaningful.”

After the September 1 deadline, organizers select which of the nonprofit projects to work on in October. Projects are selected based on what will have the most impact for the organization and the community, and what can realistically be accomplished in a weekend with the number of anticipated volunteers.
 
“We want to make sure the projects are successful,” Tower says.

He admits it’s difficult to predict how many volunteers will show up, so they try to be conservative with commitments. Organizations are sometimes placed on a waiting list until more people volunteer for the event.

In 2011, 43 nonprofits applied and 13 projects were selected. Volunteers worked with organizations such as the American Red Cross, the Literacy Center of West Michigan, Garfield Park Neighborhood Association and Catherine’s Health Center, to name a few.
 
Catherine’s Health Center Development Director Janet Zahn had a great experience with the volunteers and “can’t say enough good about GiveCamp.”

“In the course of a weekend, they built us a whole new website,” she says.

Volunteers converted the old, static Catherine’s Health Care website into a re-designed interactive site by adding new features such as online forms and a way to donate. Zahn says her organization has applied for help again this year as they hope to optimize their website for mobile devices and streamline the home page a bit.
   
Once a GiveCamp project is selected, a volunteer project liaison will connect with the organization to determine exactly what needs to be done and set goals and expectations. Teams are then set up based on skills matching the project.  

As much planning as possible is done ahead of the October weekend so the teams don’t have to waste time on Friday night getting into groups or asking questions.

Jonathan Pichot, a web developer with Rapid Development Group, has volunteered in the past and will donate his skills again this year. He says the Friday that GiveCamp starts is the most exciting and many people work late into the night.

“Sometimes we can be a little ambitious at first,” he admits. “Sunday is usually the most stressful day because you’re finishing details and realizing that you were too ambitious on Friday.”  

Volunteers are needed for just about everything, from project management to programming, database administration, design, marketing, writing, running errands, helping with clean up and more. People can volunteer for any amount of time they wish throughout the weekend as well.

Sponsors and donations are also needed for meals, snacks, swag, parking spaces and general operating expenses for the event.

GiveCamp offers a rewarding way for technical professionals to give back to the nonprofit organizations in our community. Here are some ways to get involved:

-    Visit Grand Rapids GiveCamp online to find out more about the event.
-    Fill out an application for your nonprofit organization.
-    Volunteer your skills for the weekend.
-    Become a sponsor of the event or donate goods and services such as food, parking spaces and more.
-    Like Grand Rapids GiveCamp on Facebook.
-    Follow @GRGiveCamp on Twitter.

Sources: J. Tower, Co-Director of the 2012 Grand Rapids GiveCamp event and Jonathan Pichot, Grand Rapids GiveCamp volunteer

Writer: Heidi Stukkie, Do Good Editor

Photographs taken by Adam Bird.

Changes to the city's urban core begin with conversations and empowerment

Joe Jones has high aspirations for Grand Rapids and believes changes in the city’s urban core can make a world of difference in growing a vibrant community. He knows all too well that we have a lot of work to do yet, but he’s ready for the challenge and has already made a strong start in the right direction.  

Last year, Jones was tapped to be the Interim President and Chief Executive Officer of the Grand Rapids Urban League after Reverend Dr. Walter M. Brame retired. In July, he began going through the process to become National Urban League certified and make the position permanent. Once Jones completes training and passes an interview process, he hopes to finalize the transition by fall.

As an African American male who grew up in Detroit, Jones says he was fortunate to be surrounded by positive role models. In 2000, he started a strategic communication company called E.E. Milestone + Associates that provides assistance to organizations with a desire to communicate more effectively with communities of color. And now he’s ready to guide the Grand Rapids Urban League into its 70th year with the goal of empowering people in the city’s urban core.

The Urban League provides African Americans and other people living in the urban core employment opportunities, housing assistance, educational initiatives, youth mentoring and healthy lifestyle programs.

“People have historically come here for a myriad of needs,” says Jones. “We are the ‘go to’ agency for the urban core.”

In the past, the Urban League has focused on helping African Americans, but with the “roller coaster economy,” Jones sees people in his office from all ethnic backgrounds.

“We don’t turn anyone away,” he says.

The National Urban League in New York City -- “the mother ship” as Jones calls it -- has been operating for 102 years and has nearly 150 affiliate offices around the country.

Jones describes the Urban League as a “civil rights organization with the philosophy that anyone can experience civil rights and social justice by way of economic empowerment.”

One of the main ways to achieve economic empowerment is through employment. That’s why the Urban League focuses on providing comprehensive employment assessments, counseling, training and placement opportunities to its customers.

“We offer an employment training program on steroids,” says Jones.

The organization is working with some local employers now, but Jones hopes to “cast the net out further to attract more employers.” Specifically, the focus is on corporations that may be more receptive to hiring people with a criminal record.

“There are a number of applicants who have skill sets but because of the ‘Scarlett letter’ of a felony, the door is shut in their face for employment opportunities,” Jones says.

His goal is to walk alongside CEOs and HR personnel to help them understand the urban culture, offer solutions and provide value-added partnerships.

“Everyone knows the problems [of the urban population], but how many people are working diligently to address these problems?” asks Jones.

The Urban League is trying different ways to solve the problems within the urban core. They work with customers to assess their employability. They counsel them, and they expect them to be accountable. At the same time, they ask employers to provide a livable wage to employees.

Overall, the approach is a holistic one with the rationale that if people are working and making a decent wage, they are able to contribute to local businesses, ensuring a positive economic effect for the entire community. Jones believes that when the city’s core is healthy, this spreads to the outlying areas making the whole region attractive to new businesses and industries, which then in turn creates more jobs.

Jones admits his organization often doesn’t have all of the answers or understand everything, but listening is the first step. When people come into the Grand Rapids Urban League, they receive two things: a dose of hope, and dignity. That’s always the starting point.  

“Everyone needs affirmation, no matter what stage of life,” Jones says.

Going forward, Jones and his staff at the Urban League know there is a lot of work to do when it comes to addressing the urban core problems, but they’re willing to make the effort. They hope to play an important part in transforming Grand Rapids into a thriving model city someday.

In order to grow economically as well as culturally, Jones also believes we have to get to a place in our community where we’re not afraid to have conversations about race and class. It may be difficult to make the necessary changes, but the Urban League is focused on finding solutions and being a part of the process.

“The most effective measure of growing in our community is when we step out of our comfort zones,” says Jones. “We’re not asking folks to step out of comfort zones by themselves -- we’ll step out with you.”

The goal of the Grand Rapids Urban League is to empower communities by changing lives. If you believe our city will become greater with a stronger urban core and want to get involved, here’s how you can:

-    Visit the Grand Rapids Urban League online to find out more about them.
-    Become a member or a volunteer.
-    Donate to the Urban League or become an investor.
-    Become an ally of the Urban League and help them achieve a more vibrant and cohesive urban core.
-    The Urban League is seeking companies willing to partner with them and provide employment opportunities. If you own a company, contact them, or ask your employer to do so.
-    Like the Grand Rapids Urban League on Facebook.

Source: Joe Jones, Interim President and CEO of the Grand Rapids Urban League

Writer: Heidi Stukkie, Do Good Editor

Photos provided by the Grand Rapids Urban League.

Autism Support of Kent County offers resources and support to local families

One out of every 88 children is born with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and the likelihood is four times greater for boys. Currently, there are more than 400 people in Kent County living with some form of this complex developmental disability.

Autism Support of Kent County, Inc. (ASK) serves people with ASD and their families by providing information and resources, hosting family events and by funding music therapy, camp attendance and school outings.

ASD is caused by a neurological disorder that affects a person’s social interaction and communication skills, as well as their sensory system. It’s usually diagnosed before a child reaches the age of two.

Those with ASD typically have difficulty communicating with others, especially in social situations. Emotional outbursts are common and they may act extremely sensitive to light, sound and touch.

There is currently no cure for ASD, however, various treatments have been shown to reduce some of the challenges associated with the disability. Since the range of ASD varies from mild to severe, treatment approaches tend to be highly individualized.

Each year, ASK spends approximately $10,000 underwriting music therapy for children who are enrolled in one of Kent County’s 55 Autism classrooms. Licensed music therapists from the Franciscan Life Process Center in Lowell visit once a month to get the students interested in music while encouraging communication. Studies show that individuals with ASD respond favorably to music, making this type of therapy a helpful treatment option.    

“If a child can be engaged in music, that often helps with behaviors and communication,” says ASK Board Secretary Celia Andrus.

Andrus knows first hand what living with someone with ASD is like. Her own son, Josh, was diagnosed as a child after it became clear he wasn’t behaving the way other kids his age were. Andrus remembers that he would cry for hours and he never spoke or pointed at anything.  

“Back then, I didn’t even know what autism was,” she admits.

Josh, who is now 26, functions on the severe end of the Autism spectrum. He is nonverbal and experiences difficulty with his fine motor skills, meaning that his brain tells him one thing, but his body does another.

Andrus says there’s often the misconception that people who don’t speak, don’t understand, but in reality, they do. In 2004, Josh participated in a class in Austin, Texas, where he was taught how to use a letter board to communicate. It was then that Andrus discovered her son knew how to read and spell words. Many ASD therapy programs now use iPads as a tool to promote better communication skills.   

In addition to funding the music therapy program, ASK provides another $10,000 each year for Indian Trails Camp scholarships. This summer camp is a place where individuals with disabilities such as ASD can go to have fun while getting the one-on-one attention they need.  

ASK also provides assistance to disadvantaged students enrolled in one of the Autism classes. Each child gets up to $100 a year to use toward classroom community outings such as movies, lunch and more.

ASK is one of several local resources for people with ASD in Kent County and their services are free. They rely on donations from the community to fund their programs and events.

The organization operates inexpensively with an all-volunteer board and no office. They recently hired Pam Liggett to serve as executive director in the first permanent paid position since ASK began in 1973.

Every year, ASK hosts a walk, a Whitecaps baseball game and a golf outing to raise money. The eighth annual Golf Classic takes place on Monday, August 6, and there are still openings for individuals and foursomes. More information can be found below.

Monies raised from these events help pay for an annual holiday party, an Easter egg hunt and other fun activities throughout the year. These events offer families with Autistic children a comfortable environment where they don’t have to worry how their child will behave.

“If a child throws a screaming fit, we don’t judge,” says Andrus. “We’ve all been there.”

Autism Support of Kent County is making a difference in the lives of individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Here are some ways you can help them continue their efforts:

-    Visit Autism Support of Kent County online to find out more about them.
-    Attend the eighth annual Golf Classic on Monday, August 6 at the Highlands Golf Club on 2515 Leonard NW. Registration begins at 11:30 a.m. with a shotgun start at 1:00 p.m. The event concludes with a 5:30 p.m. dinner, including awards and prizes. The cost is $95 per player or $360 for a foursome.
-    Donate to ASK.
-    Subscribe to their newsletter through a button on the home page of the website.
-    Volunteer for an event or attend a board meeting.
-    Like them on Facebook.

Source: Celia Andrus, Board Secretary for Autism Support of Kent County.

Writer: Heidi Stukkie, Do Good Editor

Photos provided by Autism Support of Kent County.


Symphony music for all tastes and all ages

Symphony music can be heard everywhere -- in movies, television shows, videogames and more. Evette Pittman says people often don’t make the connection.

“Try to see a movie without the music,” she adds. “It’s not the same.”

Pittman is the Director of Development Events & Community Engagement at the Grand Rapids Symphony. That’s a long title, but basically, her main role with the organization is to get more people of all ages interested in listening to symphony music.

She’s currently planning a new event for November 30 that’s geared toward the “next generation,” or those under the age of 40. Details are still being planned, but Pittman says to expect something different, with somewhat of “a 'Rock of Ages' feel to it.”

The Grand Rapids Symphony is currently celebrating its 82nd season with the next one kicking off in September. With strong community support behind it, the Symphony is recognized as one of the leading regional orchestras in the U.S. and can even brag about receiving a 2007 Grammy Award nomination. They have produced 12 musical CDs as well, with the most recent one in 2010 distributed internationally.

More than 170,000 people attend one or several of the approximately 400 symphony performances each year. Educational and community service programs allow students, senior citizens and people with disabilities to account for nearly half of the total attendees.

Each year, Music Director David Lockington and Associate Conductor John Varineau lead the Symphony orchestra in presenting nine different concert series. These include:
-    Richard and Helen DeVos Classical Series
-    Fox Motors Pops Series
-    SymphonicBoom
-    Crowe Horwath Rising Stars Series
-    Edward Jones Coffee Classics
-    Sacred Dimensions
-    PNC Lollipop Series
-    DTE Energy Foundation Family Series
-    D&W Fresh Market Picnic Pops at Cannonsburg Ski Area

The Symphony presents its “Symphony with Soul” concert to celebrate diversity within the community every year as well. The concert will be held this year on February 16 with a well-known guest musician soon to be announced. Proceeds from this event help support the Mosaic Scholar program, which offers private lessons, instrument rentals, concert tickets and more to African-American and Hispanic students between the ages of 11 and 18. This is part of a scholarship program initially created in 2006 with a grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

“So many kids can’t even dream,” Pittman says in reference to schools cutting art and music programs. The Mosaic Scholar program offers students a chance to learn from professional musicians and provides opportunities they may not have otherwise.

The Symphony’s educational programs give more than 77,000 students and adults the chance to experience music, including the popular free concerts to third and fifth grade children.

Marketing Manager Jacalyn Wood says the Grand Rapids Symphony performs a wide variety of concerts every season in order to be relevant. The goal is to offer something for everyone, no matter what age or musical tastes.

“We want to be a part of the community, educationally and inspirationally,” she says.

Tickets for each performance can be purchased at the Grand Rapids Symphony office or through Ticketmaster and are sold individually, as a package of discounted tickets or in blocks for groups. The prices vary depending on the event.  

Not everyone realizes the Grand Rapids Symphony is a nonprofit organization that relies on donors and sponsors to present the concerts and events that they do.

“Ticket sales only account for 33 percent of the operating budget,” says Wood, adding that donations and sponsorships pay for everything else.

With a staff of only around 30 people, the Symphony also depends on nearly 500 volunteers each year to help with concerts, events and in the office.

“Volunteers are the backbone of what we do,” says Pittman. “They’re almost family.”

For its upcoming 83rd season, the Grand Rapids Symphony will continue to provide entertainment for the whole family and people of all ages with a variety of exciting new concerts. The complete schedule can be found online, but if you’re unsure of where to start, Pittman encourages people to call or stop by the office and ask the staff. They are trained to be able to guide you in finding out what might suit you best.

Grand Rapids is fortunate to have a leading orchestra here in our town. Let's help them celebrate another 82 seasons.

Here are some ways to support the Grand Rapids Symphony:

-    Visit the Grand Rapids Symphony online to find out about upcoming concerts and to learn more about them.
-    Visit their office at 300 Ottawa Ave. NW, Suite 100, or call 616.454.9451, Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. - 5 p.m.
-    Attend one of the many concerts and encourage your friends to join you. The upcoming schedule can be found online.
-    Volunteer at a concert, event or in the office.
-    Donate to the Grand Rapids Symphony.
-    Become a sponsor.
-    Like the Symphony on Facebook.
-    Follow @GRSymphony on Twitter.


Sources: Evette Pittman, Director of Development Events & Community Engagement, Grand Rapids Symphony, and Jacalyn Wood, Marketing Manager

Writer: Heidi Stukkie, Do Good Editor

Photos provided by the Grand Rapids Symphony.

Growing an herbalist

When you visit Lisa Rose Starner’s home, it’s almost certain you’ll eat something out of her yard. She may casually pick a part of a plant while walking along and hand it to you.

“Try this,” she’ll say.

You agree and take a bite, not really knowing what to expect. And you do it only because you know you can trust Starner’s in-depth knowledge of all plants growing anywhere near her West side home.

Starner and her husband Seth, their two children, Jacob and Emma, and a friendly Golden Retriever rescue dog named Rosie live on just under an acre in a house that was once owned by Seth’s grandparents.

Shortly after moving into the house in 2002, Starner tore up the front yard and planted what she calls a “gypsy garden.” This urban garden is abundant with herbs, vegetables and fruits that go right from the yard to the dinner table or into a cup of tea.

“This land is an experiment I’m watching,” Starner says.

For many years, Starner has been a local food advocate, or “locavore,” eating food grown locally by others as well as growing food for her own family on her urban farm.

“I would rather buy locally and conventionally than organically and commercially,” she says. “The land around us means a lot to me.”

Starner is also an herbalist, practicing what she’s learned about Western Herbalism through various classes and teachers. She shares this knowledge by hosting classes that teach others how to forage, garden, cook with whole foods and use local plants and herbs for natural remedies. In addition, Starner runs an herbal Community Supported Agriculture program and offers individual consultations to those seeking to improve their health.

Starner truly enjoys teaching people how to grow gardens and forage.

“This is the way I know to create change,” she says.

She realizes that “not everyone’s going to till up their yard” and some may have to run to the health store to get their food and herbs. She also knows that “people aren’t totally comfortable jumping in the woods and eating plants.” But that doesn’t mean she won’t try encouraging them.

Starner believes it’s easier to change an individual than the whole system -- that’s a task that overwhelms her. 
 
As if she is not busy enough as an herbalist, consultant and urban farmer, Starner is also writing a book about the growing food movement in Grand Rapids. Last April, the History Press contacted her, unsolicited, and asked if she would tell the story about how the people in our community are growing their own food and opening local food markets and restaurants. The publishing company found Starner through her social media and blogging, and she admits being very surprised by their offer.

“They felt I was the perfect person to write it,” she says. “I agreed.”

So far, she’s interviewed farmers, community leaders and others who are intentionally promoting positive changes in how we get our food. The book’s working title is "Built from Scratch," and it’s expected to publish later this year.

Starner wants to continue her studies in herbalism, but she’s finding she’s running out of local teachers. It’s for this reason that she wants to travel to Ometepe, Nicaragua in November for clinical herbalism training with Natural Doctors International at their donation-based clinic. While there, she will get firsthand experience working with the physicians, herbalists and natural doctors.

The cost of the three-week training is $2,700. Starner is going no matter what, but recently a friend suggested that she ask the community for their financial support. She’s now set up an Indiegogo page where people can contribute toward her training as a way to say thank you for what she does for Grand Rapids.   

By advancing her training in Nicaragua, Starner wants to share this knowledge with our community and continue to give everyone ideas on how to live healthier.

Starner believes the natural world is magical. We can all learn from her appreciation of the land and what it grows. Here's how you can support Starner so she can continue to teach our community about eating local and using herbs to heal.

-    Donate to help fund the trip to Nicaragua for clinical training with Natural Doctors International.
-    Attend one of Lisa Rose Starner’s classes.
-    Schedule an individual consultation.
-    Follow the Burdock & Rose Tumblr.
-    Follow the Built from Scratch B-Roll Tumblr to get updates on the book.
-    Like her Burdock & Rose Page on Facebook
-    Follow @lisarosestarner on Twitter.

Source: Lisa Rose Starner

Writer: Heidi Stukkie, Do Good Editor

Photos provided by Lisa Rose Starner and Heidi Stukkie.



Healthcare volunteers needed to support the community

Imagine having to decide between buying food and paying bills or having that nagging health care problem explored. In many situations, the basic necessities win this battle and what may start out as an easily-treated, minor health care problem turns into something more.

This is often the reality for many people who are uninsured or underinsured. A $100 doctor visit doesn’t fit in the budget so, instead of getting the care they need, they go without.

Catherine’s Health Center, a nonprofit medical clinic that began in 1996, offers free or low-cost health care to uninsured or underserved individuals in northeast Grand Rapids. Nearly 85 percent of their patients are employed, but still cannot afford insurance or adequate health care.

“We feel everyone has a right to health care,” says Volunteer Coordinator Kelsey Carriere.

To be able to provide this valuable community service, they rely on medical professionals to donate their time and skills. Carriere says her organization is currently operating at only two-thirds of its capacity and needs more skilled volunteers. The center is designed to serve a maximum of 15,000 patients per year and with the economy in the state it’s in, more and more people are turning to Catherine’s Health Care for their medical needs.

Anyone with professional medical training is encouraged to apply to become a volunteer. The clinic works with college students, retired professionals and everyone in between. Primary care professionals (MD, DO, PA, NP), physical therapists, occupational therapists, dietitians, clinical social workers, optometrists, massage therapists, pharmacists, health educators and others are needed now more than ever.

Catherine’s accommodates flexible time commitments and offers malpractice insurance coverage to its volunteers. They want to make it as easy and rewarding as possible for people to donate their time. The clinic could not operate without the generous help of the healthcare community, and even as little as 4-6 volunteer hours a month are appreciated.  

An application can be found online and once Carriere receives it, she’ll contact the applicant for an interview. If the match seems like a good fit, she’ll verify credentials and run a background check. Once accepted, the volunteer attends an orientation process and then is assigned to work with a member of the team.

Oftentimes, volunteers have the opportunity to help in an area they don’t normally work in during their regular job, allowing them to gain new skills. Carriere says it’s typically a mutually beneficial experience for both the volunteer and the clinic.

“The relationship needs to be a partnership between both parties to be effective,” she says.
 
In January 2011, Catherine’s Health Center opened a new facility at Leonard and Lafayette. The space is modern and welcoming, and it reflects their commitment to providing quality care in a dignified manner.

Catherine’s Health Center’s dedicated volunteers make a difference in the lives of so many. If you’re a healthcare professional, please consider getting involved. And even if you’re not, there are other ways you can show your support for this organization so everyone can have access to quality healthcare. Here are some ideas:

-    Visit Catherine’s Health Center online to find out more about them.
-    Volunteer. If you are a medical professional, your skills are greatly needed. If not, there are still a number of other ways to get involved.
-    Donate financially. Catherine’s Health Center is privately funded and any amount donated is appreciated.
-    Sign up for their newsletter.
-    Like them on Facebook.

Source: Kelsey Carriere, Volunteer Coordinator at Catherine’s Health Center

Writer: Heidi Stukkie, Do Good Editor

Photos provided by Catherine’s Health Center.  

American Red Cross -- always there in times of need

In a perfect world, no one would ever need the emergency services of the American Red Cross. Unfortunately, accidents and disasters happen each day and it’s comforting to know someone will be there to help.

Cheryl Bremer, chief executive officer for American Red Cross of West Michigan, says, “During people’s darkest hour, they will find the Red Cross is there for them.”

She adds that no one ever thinks they will be the one affected by an emergency, but she believes that “at some point in our lives, every person will be touched by the Red Cross.”

Considering the vast assortment of services they offer, she’s probably right.

The Red Cross is well known for their emergency response services and that accounts for 75 percent of the work they do. They also provide training, educational and transportation services, as well as act as a blood bank.  

We typically don’t have large natural disasters here in Michigan, but we do have fires, floods and other emergencies. The Red Cross responds to every house fire and the first thing they do is remove the people involved from the scene -- whether that means giving them a place to rest temporarily inside a nearby vehicle, or by taking them to a local hotel where they can spend a few nights.

Each person is then handed a blanket, a comfort kit containing basic needs items and a stuffed animal.

“It’s amazing how even adults will cling to the stuffed animal,” Bremer says. “When you’re watching your house go up in smoke, you cling to anything.”

The Red Cross reassures its emergency response clients they will have a place to stay, food to eat and emotional support as they begin the first steps to recovery. Debit cards are often given to families to allow them to purchase food, clothing and whatever else they may need, with alcohol and tobacco being the exception.

“A typical disaster costs about $1,000 per family,” says Bremer.

Each year, the Red Cross responds to more than 70,000 disasters nationwide, with the majority of these being house fires. In the West Michigan region, which covers Barry, Ionia, Kent and Montcalm counties, more than 1,100 people affected by 375 disasters have been helped so far this year. The chapter responds on average to two emergencies each day.

With a track record like that, it’s hard to believe that most of the work is done by trained volunteers. The local Red Cross chapter operates with almost 600 active volunteers each week. With this many people involved, the cost to recruit, train and screen each of them makes up a large part of the operating budget.  

In addition to disaster response assistance for clients, the Red Cross also aids emergency personnel by providing food, drinks and other needs. Last summer, during Rodrick Dantzler's murder spree, they were on hand to support the police officers on duty.

The Red Cross provides emergency communication services between military members and their families as well. When a soldier is killed in the line of duty, volunteers inform the survivors. They also relay information about births, injuries and more.

The Preparedness Health Safety Services (PHSS) area focuses on teaching individuals, schools and corporations classes in first aid, CPR, defibrillator use, babysitting, lifeguarding, good hygiene and disaster preparedness. So far in 2012, more than 16,000 people in West Michigan have benefitted from Red Cross training. 
 
And despite having its regional office located next door to Michigan Blood, the Red Cross of West Michigan also holds its own blood drives with a storage facility located in Lansing.

A common misconception is that the American Red Cross receives government funding -- they do not. They rely on monetary contributions by individuals and organizations, yet they are still required by a government mandate to provide emergency services.

Each year, the Hometown Heroes Celebration acts as their signature fundraising event and it gives them a chance to honor individuals and groups who are making a difference in our community.

“We recognize ordinary people in the community doing extraordinary things,” Bremer says.

Anyone can nominate someone in various categories such as Humanitarian of the Year, Lifesaver Award, Spirit of Volunteerism Award and several more. Information can be found on the website describing each category. The deadline to vote is August 30.

The event takes place on April 25 and more information will be shared in the upcoming months. Guests can expect a fun evening of honoring people with food, wine, music and silent and live auctions, so be sure to mark it on your calendar.

Financial sponsorship opportunities are also available if you or your company is interested in showing your support to the Red Cross.

Whether you’re affected by an emergency such as a fire or a flood, require the need for blood or first aid, or have a loved one in the Armed Forces, chances are, you’ll benefit from the services of the American Red Cross at some time in your life. It’s good to know you can count on them, no matter what.
 
“Disasters and emergencies happen regardless of color, class or orientation,” says Bremer. “We are neutral and don’t discriminate against anyone.”

Let’s hope none of us need the emergency services of the Red Cross anytime soon, but here are some ways you can show your support now for when the need is there:

-    Visit the American Red Cross of West Michigan online to find out more.
-    Volunteer. Volunteers are needed in any capacity, whether as emergency responders, office helpers, first aid trainers and more.
-    Donate online or call 1-800-RED-CROSS. You can also text “Red Cross” to 90999 via your mobile phone to donate $10.
-    Give blood. The next blood drive is on Wednesday, August 29 from 11:30 a.m. to 5:15 p.m. at the Grand Rapids Chapter Office, 1050 Fuller Ave. NE, Grand Rapids, MI 49503.
-    Take a class. Get trained in life-saving skills or become an educator and train others.
-    Nominate a Hometown Hero by August 31, 2012. We all know someone who deserves to be honored so here’s our chance. The nomination packet can be found on the home page.
-    Attend the Hometown Heroes event next April 25, 2013. Location and ticket pricing are to be determined, but mark the date on your calendar now.
-    Shop for Red Cross products and first aid kits online.
-    Read their blog.
-    Like them on Facebook.
-    Follow @RedCrossGGR on Twitter.

Sources: Cheryl Bremer, Chief Executive Officer for American Red Cross of West Michigan, and Deanna Berkowitz, Regional Communications Officer

Writer: Heidi Stukkie, Do Good Editor

Photos provided by American Red Cross of West Michigan.



Volunteers feed the hungry with the help of a local food bank

Not everyone that has a job has enough to eat. Food prices are continuing to rise, but salaries are not. Plus, people who have been recently laid off often have to work elsewhere now for less money.

“Just because people are working, doesn’t mean they have enough money to buy food for their family,” says Kenneth Estelle, chief executive officer at the Feeding America West Michigan Food Bank.

With the dry summer we’ve had here in Michigan, food prices will keep going up. Corn and soybean crops have been badly affected by the lack of rain, so products with these items in them will certainly cost more. Dairy will mostly like go up as well as cows don’t produce as much milk when it’s so hot outside, and chickens don’t lay as many eggs either. And, not to mention, the grains fed to the animals now cost more so that increase will also be passed onto the consumer.

People who are unemployed or who are receiving government assistance have it even worse than those who are working yet underemployed. Benefits are getting cut or reduced at the same time food is costing more.

Plain and simple, it’s getting harder for families and individuals to be able to afford to eat. In 2010, nearly 15 percent of households nationwide, or roughly 17 million families, were food insecure, meaning they were concerned about how they would get their next meal.

Each month, the West Michigan Food Bank provides food to almost 800 food pantries in a nine-county region surrounding Grand Rapids, and also to 40 counties throughout the state. These pantries serve as a way for families to get the extra help they need to avoid going hungry.

The West Michigan Food Bank is one of more than 200 organizations belonging to the Feeding America national network of food banks. They pay to be a member, but act as a separate nonprofit organization with their own board and bylaws.

Food is donated to the West Michigan Food Bank by food producers and growers, large retailers with excess or improperly labeled products and trucking companies with undeliverable loads. Walmart and Sam’s Club are two of the biggest contributors to the food bank.

All food that is accepted by the West Michigan Food Bank is inspected. They take this task very seriously. Government and Feeding America inspectors frequently stop by to inspect the food as well.  

“The whole point is to help people and we’re not helping them if we’re making them sick,” says Estelle.
 
Visitors to the local food pantries don’t pay for the food they get. The pantry, shelter or agency pays the West Michigan Food Bank a small handling fee of less than 16 cents per pound of food. These fees support half of the costs to run the food bank. West Michigan Food Bank relies on donations and grants to cover the other operating costs. Ideally, the organization would like to raise enough money to eventually eliminate the agency handling fee.

Nearly 80 percent of the food pantries come to West Michigan Food Bank’s warehouse in Comstock Park to pick up their food. The remaining 20 percent of agencies have the food delivered.

Approximately 25-40 volunteers work in the warehouse each day to prepare the food for pick up and delivery, and 1,740 volunteers helped the organization in 2011. Families, individuals, church groups, schools and corporations arrive daily to assist with packing, repackaging, sorting, loading and delivery.

“There’s no way we could do what we do without volunteers,” Estelle says.

The Feeding America West Michigan Food Bank is making sure no one goes hungry. Please get involved and help them with this goal. Here are some ways:

-    Visit the Feeding America West Michigan Food Bank online to learn more.
-    Volunteer your time and services to the organization.
-    Make a charitable donation of any amount.
-    Find out more about the Million Meal March campaign to raise money and awareness about hunger. A hike on the White Pine Trail on September 29 will kick off a series of events.
-    Like them on Facebook.
-    Follow @feedingwestmich on Twitter.


Source: Kenneth Estelle, Chief Executive Officer at the Feeding America West Michigan Food Bank

Writer: Heidi Stukkie, Do Good Editor

Photos provided by the Feeding America West Michigan Food Bank.





Local refugee program helps people thrive

Loud noises and bright lights fill many summer nights. But if you’re new to this country and don’t know what fireworks are, the experience can be quite frightening. Knowledge can make a big difference in situations like this.

Thrive, an organization started by the South Wyoming Methodist Church in 2011, offers cultural training and assistance to help refugees in West Michigan better understand our culture so they are able to thrive here, and not just survive.

A 2009 United Nations report shows nearly 42 million people around the world either left or were removed from their homes because of conflicts and other dangerous situations. Today, many refugees currently live in camps for 10 years or more, waiting for an opportunity to go back home again. More often than not, they never get the chance.  

Shortly after World War II, a resettlement program was developed in the U.S. to offer a safe, permanent place for these uprooted people to live. Now approximately 40,000 - 70,000 refugees arrive in America each year from such places as Burma, Bhutan and the Congo region of Africa. Michigan receives around 3,000 of these refugees annually, with 600 or so arriving in Grand Rapids.

Official resettlement programs provide many of the basic needs for up to six months after arrival. Thrive fills in the gaps and provides ongoing support after this time period.

Executive Director Jessica Gladden first became interested in working with refugees when she visited South Africa in 1999. She says she kept getting marriage proposals on that trip from male refugees looking for a way out of the country. It made her realize the harsh situations many of the people are in.

Gladden is now a licensed master social worker who’s finishing her Ph.D. She also speaks fluent Swahili -- a skill that often comes in handy when working with the large number of Congolese refugees here.

Thrive helps refugees in West Michigan in three different ways. The first is by offering English as a second language (ESL) classes at its Wyoming office.

A second way of assisting refugees is through Thrive’s Cultural Broker Program. Volunteers partner with refugee families to give them the tools they need to be successful in our community.

“We figure out their biggest needs and find volunteers to match that,” says Gladden.

She tries to match the volunteer’s interests with what the family needs. About 25 people volunteer currently, but they could always use more help.

The Cultural Broker Program provides private tutors to help the families practice English. Volunteers also help with transportation assistance, either by showing the refugees how to use the Rapid busses or by offering rides. Educating the families on proper infant care and good hygiene are other key components, as well as showing them how to shop for food.

Something as simple as handling incoming mail is an area the agency has found refugees frequently need help with, too. They sometimes can’t tell the difference between important government documents and junk mail.  

Gladden says Thrive aims to spend about a year with each family in the Cultural Broker Program and evaluates their progress every six months.

The third focus of Thrive is social justice and advocacy work. They help educate the community to refugee issues and meet with local legislatures, neighborhood associations and police officers.

Thrive initially began with a seed grant from Metro Ministries, but now relies on donations to sustain itself. All of the services offered to refugees are free as most are living with little income.

The organization is hoping to raise money and awareness with its upcoming Barnstormer music festival benefit on August 24 and 25 at the Petersen Barn in Rockford. The all-volunteer, family-friendly event will feature more than 10 bands, a variety of workshops, arts, activities for kids and much more. Suggested donation amounts for tickets are on the website and guests are encouraged to order them ahead of time.

The goal of the Thrive is to help refugees who’ve lost their homes become physically, emotionally and economically self-sufficient so they can learn how to not simply survive here in America, but thrive as valuable members in our community.

“People are all the same, they want the same things,” Gladden says. “When you meet someone who’s different, you may not know what to do, but just say hello.”

Here are some ways you can help Thrive continue to be an active resource for West Michigan’s refugee community:

-    Visit Thrive online to find out more about them.
-    Donate to Thrive through Network for Good.
-    Volunteer in any number of ways. Thrive will match your skills with what is needed.
-    Attend the Barnstormer music festival on August 24-25.
-    Join the Barnstormer event on Facebook and invite your friends.
-    Like Thrive on Facebook.
-    Follow @ThriveRefugee on Twitter.

Source:  Jessica Gladden, Executive Director at Thrive

Writer: Heidi Stukkie, Do Good Editor

Photos provided by Thrive.
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