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GRIL U Strengthens Leaders to Transform Communities

Denise Fase wants to help grow a new generation of leaders.

Students work together on building leadership skills.

Students work together on building leadership skills.

Students work together on building leadership skills.

Teaching young adults how to be strong leaders is the key to transforming communities for the better. One area nonprofit has a proven record when it comes to making this happen.

The Grand Rapids Initiative for Leaders (GRIL) is a faith-based organization created by alumni of the DeVos Urban Leadership Initiative (DVULI). They offer programs for both adults and teens.

One of their popular youth programs is the GRIL U Teen Program, which began in 2006 and focuses on personal, organizational, and community growth. From September to May, participants learn how to become more confident and what it means to be a good leader. They learn what is happening in the community and study current social issues affecting how people live. Most importantly, these young adults form strong bonds with other teens in the program who share the same goal of achieving positive change in West Michigan.

GRIL U is a carefully planned, comprehensive program specifically designed to help its participants learn more about themselves, their values, and their purpose in life. This translates into future leaders who know what their strengths are and where they can make the most impact in their communities.  

Participants in this nine-month program spend two hours a week in a training program and another two hours a week within a church ministry organization. A group of around 30 youths is split into eight teams, each with the same curriculum. Each week, they meet at various churches and ministry centers, and then once a month, the entire group comes together at Madison Place.

Churches and ministry centers where the teens meet include Bethany Christian Services Youth Department, Bethany Church in Muskegon, Hope Reformed Church, Madison Square Church, Other Way Ministries, Roosevelt Park Ministries, and Tall Turf Ministries.

Adults who have graduated from GRIL's adult program are invited to recruit teens from their neighborhoods, churches, or elsewhere to join the GRIL U program and they can become facilitators as well.

GRIL U facilitators begin each program by teaching the young adults the foundation of leadership and what it means. Participants then discover how they are uniquely wired as leaders, and Executive Director Denise Fase believes everyone is already a leader.  

"No matter who they are, they are leaders and have influence," she says.

To find out what kind of leader a person is, they use assessments that let the individual know what their learning style is (auditory, visual, or both). They also learn more about their character, gifts, and unique abilities.

Once their leadership style is established, students are asked to create a personal mission statement and develop a life purpose. GRIL U offers the teens a tool to help them understand "what they would die for" so they can clarify what is most important in their lives. Based on this, goals for the next year, five years, and 10 years are established by everyone.

By around this time, the program is in its third or fourth month and transformations are beginning to take shape. Fase says the young adults "begin to see themselves in new ways" and they now have a plan of what they will do at the end of the program.

Next, the groups learn time management and balance skills using Sean Covey's The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens book. They learn how to identify the most important aspects in their lives and how to make sure those areas are attended to first.

"It helps them be able to live out who they say they are," says Fase.

Jevon Willis, GRIL U's program manager, coordinates the cross-cultural leadership component of the program. This diversity training takes place over two Saturdays and guides the teens to better understand racism and the systemic changes still needed in this area. They are first taught some of the racial inequities that exist and then what our culture says about race and the day-to-day impacts. Through activities, videos, and an engaging discussion period, the students learn about the various stereotypes and the individual, cultural, and institutional aspects of diversity and race.

"For some kids, it's finally a chance to put into words what they may have experienced," Fase says.

The final lesson in the GRIL U program is the community capacity building section where students learn more about their role in the community. To do this, they participate in asset mapping, meaning they walk through various neighborhoods to determine what the greatest assets are. Afterward, they learn ways they can be leaders in these neighborhoods.

Social justice plays an important role in the community capacity building section and students are asked to hold silent demonstrations about an issue they care about. The young adults learn about issues such as homelessness, violence, bullying, and more, and then create messages added to signs for their demonstrations.

"People notice when they see young people standing outside with somewhat strong messages about social injustices," says Willis. "People stop, honk, and ask questions."

He adds that this also sends a message to the community that young people do care and their voices have a place.

In order to graduate from the GRIL U program, the teens have to develop a "breakthrough plan." This includes a reflection on what areas of growth they have identified and how they plan to continue growing.

Fase says the GRIL U participants are "not necessarily good students at the beginning," but as they go through the program, they learn to be that way and nearly 90 percent later attend college.

The GRIL organization operates a similar program to GRIL U that takes place in the public school system. The Ambassador Club is basically a less intensive program and much of the faith-based components are missing. Students are able to participate at both Ottawa and Union High Schools and each location has around 30 students involved. The W.K. Kellogg Foundation recently awarded the Ambassador Club initiative a $75,000 three-year grant.  

After completing either of these two life-changing programs –– GRIL U or the Ambassador Club –– these teens have a strong peer support network, they understand accountability as well as themselves, and they make different decisions than they would have otherwise.

"This opens the door for them to lead each other," says Willis. 

Changing communities for the better is complicated work. By learning the tools and skills needed to do it effectively as young adults, GRIL U and Ambassador Club participants gain a focused advantage over their peers and can contribute in meaningful ways as they continue to grow as strong leaders.  

To find out more about GRIL U and the Ambassador Club, visit GRIL online.

As the editor of our Do Good section, Heidi writes about nonprofits, educational initiatives, and people and organizations making West Michigan a better place. She’s also a freelance writer, graphic designer, and marketing consultant who works out of her home while being pestered constantly by her two spoiled dogs. You can find her on Twitter at @HeidiSocial, but be aware that she likes her opinions strong and her humor warped.

Photography by Adam Bird
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