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GR Makers offers a gym for your mind



Sergio Troiani

Casey DuBois

Casey DuBois

Stacey Hess

Gary Hammerlund

The GR Makers use both space and people to foster innovation and creativity for its members in the local co-working community. Rapid Growth intern John Wiegand explores the unique connections forged there between creators and their crafts.
The word "space" is used in conversations a lot these days. People and businesses talk about their new collaborative space or the creative space that they hope to move into. They talk about the cool gadgets and tech that fill a space that they've seen. The cool factor of the workspace seems to be to synonymous with innovation and progress, the more hip, the better. But that leaves out the most crucial element, the people. In contrast, the GR Makers, a local co-working group, strives to focus on the people that fill their walls rather than just the space.
Nestled in a small outbuilding at 401 Hall St. NW, the GR Makers have defined themselves as an atmosphere focused on community collaboration from the start. The organization was born from a group of software enthusiasts who saw a real opportunity in merging their skill set with creating hard products.
"Everyone has that sort of hands-on approach to being able to interact with their world and be able to create. It fulfilled a lot of people to take that [their passion] to the next step," says Josh Yuhas, one of the founding members of the Makers organization.
There is a sense of community and a spirit of collaboration among the Makers' members that is lacking elsewhere in the professional world. That spirit has encouraged the group's expansion from eight to 90 members over a three-year period. On any given night it is likely you'll see a computer programmer consulting with a carpenter or watch a web designer, engineer and knitter chat amiably over a beer about a joint project. The Makers hold free social meet-ups each Wednesday evening and offer members a variety of levels of access to the space, based on pricing, much like a gym. In fact, the Makers say their space is "a bit like a gym for your mind."
"What I find very interesting is how diverse the Makers are, racially, industry and gender," says Felip Ballesteros, the Communications and Marketing Director at GR Current, an entrepreneurial and startup incubator firm. "They are doing a very good job at attracting people from across different spectrums that you don't see in different organizations. They do it very naturally, very organically. You have masters of one craft interact with a different craft and help each other to solve challenges and come up with something new. That's innovation."
Groups like the GR Makers are typically thought of as resources for people in the technology and software sphere to give a physical dimension to their product. However, GR Makers invites all comers with a passion for their craft.
"It's kind of a strange fit for me to be here just because it seems like there are so many tech people. But they need everyone in every niche," says Amy DeMaagd, a self-proclaimed metals and fabrication geek. "The community brings me here."
The exposure to other trades and commitment to the community among fellow Makers leads to strong bonds. These bonds encourage members to help and inspire their fellow Makers to develop their projects into a reality.
"When I first came to the GR Makers, basically what I had was a napkin drawing of what I wanted to do. I came and saw the space and met a bunch of the people," says Sergio Troiani, the creator of KLOQE, an all-aluminum iPhone case. "From there I was able to meet a few guys that had done manufacturing, product development and industrial design, and they all put their input in and offered to help find manufacturers."
The Makers harbor a true collaborative mentality. If one member has a question about where to get a specific tool or how to complete their project, they can easily access the GR Makers network and another member will assist them.
"The neat thing about the maker movement is that everyone is very sharing. They'll jump on board with whatever anyone is doing at any moment," says Yuhas. "We work with whoever wants to work with us and we'll spend time really trying to help them see their project to fruition.
The Maker's eagerness to share also extends beyond their walls. They host a variety of courses and seminars for both members inside and outside of the Maker community, ranging from an introduction to 3D printing, to the details of home brewing. With their expanding member base and knowledge pool coupled with growing tool collection, the Makers plan to expand their community outreach and educational programs to include classes that focus on job training for careers requiring skilled labor.
The GR Makers are located in the Roosevelt Park neighborhood on the southwest side of the city. According to a study by the Community Research Institute in 2010, 63.5% of people in Roosevelt Park do not have a high school diploma, the highest rate in the city of Grand Rapids.
"I was so excited when I heard we were trying to get funding to offer classes at the Makers Space for our neighborhood and for all ages," Robin Bowles, a GR Maker whose kids attend the school in the neighborhood. "There is a huge need."
With thoughts pointed toward the future, the GR Makers hope to create a culture focused on learning and collaboration.
"Yes, there is high unemployment rate; yes, there is a lack of formalized education," says Yuhas. "But if we can begin the process of creating a culture that creates a culture of learning and teaching, then that is how we can begin to uplift the community along with our members as well."
The GR Makers continue to demonstrate that they are more than their building and tools. They are an engaging group of savvy individuals that are eager to share their skills with other likeminded creators. They also harbor a deep desire to help foster development throughout the community and grow with it.
"Most people focus on the space, but the space is just a place for the community to land, says Yuhas. "We just facilitate the community to grow into the next thing. Whatever they want to do, wherever the community is flowing is where we will go."

John Wiegand is an intern at Rapid Growth Media.
Photography by Adam Bird
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