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Sixteen heartfelt ways to help Grand Rapids this holiday season

Tommy and Anna help you decide.

The team at Rapid Growth, including Publisher Tommy Allen and Managing Editor Anna Gustafson, put on their thinking Santa hats and crafted this list of volunteer and donation opportunities with organizations that are making our city a better, more equal place. We like to call it our "Sweet 16 at the end of 2015."
We’re incredibly fortunate to live in a city where so many people give countless hours to helping their fellow Grand Rapidians, whether it's through making our environment better, ensuring neighbors have food to eat and a place to sleep, keeping housing affordable — and so much more. This holiday season, there are numerous ways to give back to our community and continue to build on the amazing work that's being done in our neighborhoods. So, whether you want to make a donation in a loved one's name as a present, help fight hunger among hundreds of our neighbors, give gifts to families in need, and much more, there are plenty of opportunities for you to make sure Grand Rapidians stay safe, healthy and happy during these winter days.

To help, the team at Rapid Growth, including Publisher Tommy Allen and Managing Editor Anna Gustafson, put on their thinking Santa hats and crafted this list of volunteer and donation opportunities with organizations that are making our city a better, more equitable place. Our Sweet 16 suggestions are, of course, just a drop in the bucket when it comes to organizations that are making profound change in our community, and we’d love to hear about other groups or events you’re donating to, or volunteering with, this holiday season in the comments section below.


1.  Lend a hand, financially or figuratively, to Heart of West Michigan United Way, which works to help Kent County children and adults on a personal and systemic level through everything from after-school programs and support for foster children to food pantries and financial literacy classes. The group is always looking for volunteers, including drivers who are needed to deliver presents as part of the Santa Claus Girls program this Saturday, December 19. To become a driver, call 616-957-7342/7343 or email drivers@santaclausgirls.org.

Or, to make sure our neighbors in need are able to get plenty to eat, as well as gifts, this holiday season, you can sign up for the United Way’s Adopt-a-Family program, which provides donations of food, clothing and presents to local families who have at least one child. To find out more about adopting a family, go here. For more information about volunteering in general, you can go here.

2. Make sure Grand Rapidians have a winter coat to stay warm this season. Keep GR Warm is an initiative founded by local residents who want to make sure no one in our city goes without a warm coat. Drop off your coats to donate at Guiding Light Mission, located at 255 Division Ave. South. Find out more by going here.

Friends of Grand Rapids Parks3. Love having snowball fights in our city parks before heading home for a hot cup of hot chocolate? Consider donating to, or volunteering with, The Friends of Grand Rapids Parks, an independent, citizen-led, nonprofit group that identifies specific park projects, mobilizes folks, and generates funding to protect, enhance and expand the city’s public green spaces. Right now, The Friends of Grand Rapids Parks is looking for volunteers and sponsors for the annual WinterWest, a three-day winter festival that celebrates all things winter in West Michigan. To find out more about volunteering for WinterWest, and for the organization in general, you can go here.

Well House4. Give the gift of safe, affordable housing to your neighbors by donating to or volunteering with Well House, a group that purchases vacant, boarded-up houses in Grand Rapids and brings them back to life to provide housing to our homeless neighbors. Not only are they helping the homeless and breathing life into dilapidated houses, they also hire their tenants to rehabilitate the homes. To learn more about donating, please go here.

In addition to financial donations, Well House is is looking for the following items: good snow shovels, salt for shoveling, snow blowers, shower curtains, curtain liners, area rugs, and pots and pans. To donate these items, contact Well House’s Jean Olds by emailing jean@wellhousegr.org or call 616-245-3910. (Shoveling Snow Angels are welcome, too. See dakc.us for more info on their new program.) 

If you’d rather volunteer with Well House, the organization is holding its next volunteer orientation on February 6, from 11am-12:30pm. Well House would appreciate it if you called ahead of time to sign up. For more information, please go here.

5. What better way to celebrate Christmas than to welcome strangers searching for a much-needed place to rest? As we wrote about last week, refugees fleeing unimaginable violence and persecution have been welcomed with open arms to Grand Rapids and West Michigan for decades. A number of groups around the area are looking for volunteers and/or financial donations to help them continue to provide for hundreds of refugees, including Bethany Christian Services, the West Michigan Refugee Education & Cultural Center, and Lutheran Social Services. Click on each of the groups’ names to find out more.

6. What do you love about Grand Rapids? Its community involvement? The emphasis on the environment? The artists and social justice advocates? Whatever it is, there’s a pretty good chance that the Grand Rapids Community Foundation is somehow involved. The foundation is a huge champion of our city, giving out millions of dollars in grants to an eclectic array of groups doing incredible work across Grand Rapids, from education to health and the environment. They’ve helped financially struggling students go to college, empowered workers to make a living wage, revitalized neighborhoods with affordable housing, supported local businesses that hire members of our community, and so much more. You can read more about the foundation here, and you can donate by going here.

7. The Grand Rapids Red Project has, for more than a decade and a half, given the gift of health to people across the city. Dedicated to improving health, reducing risk and preventing HIV, the nonprofit works to make sure people stay healthy — or have access to health services if they’re not. The group is now looking for financial donations, which will help the organization do everything from provide overdose rescue kits for community members to free condom distribution and services to people in their mobile health unit.

If you’re interested in donating, or just finding out more about the Grand Rapids Red Project, you can stop by the group’s office at 401 Hall St. SE, where you’ll get a free tour and find out where your money would go. You can also visit the organization’s website to lend your financial hand.

If you don’t have money to give but would still like to support the Red Project, you can give the gift of time and volunteer. The next volunteer orientation is January 6 — just make sure to apply to become a volunteer on the website beforehand.

Michele's Rescue8. Help Grand Rapids’ animals have a happy holiday this year: Michele’s Rescue, a no-kill rescue group that takes in animals from across the country, is looking for foster or adoption families for their adorable pups and cats. Plus, they’re always looking for donations of kitty litter, as well as volunteers. To donate, you can go here, and to learn about fostering and volunteering, please go here.

Autism Support of Kent County9. While Autism Support of Kent County has already held their holiday party, attended by more than 150 children, their families and Santa, their spirit of giving continues year-round. The group holds monthly family activities for anyone affected by autism in their families — and they’re always looking for volunteers for these events. If you’re interested in volunteering, please call 616-752-8577.

Additionally, the organization is 100 percent donation funded, and financial gifts are always welcome to help the organization that provides funding for things like music therapy in classrooms, special art programs, sports opportunities, informational speakers for parents, community-based activities for low-income students with autism, and more. To donate, please visit the group’s website here.

10. You can show some love to the Early Learning Neighborhood Collaborative, an initiative funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation that aims to completely transform the current reality of vulnerable children in Grand Rapids. ELNC has designed, and is currently implementing, a preschool program that aims to provide, expand and sustain the capacity of high quality early care and education programs in our city. You can donate by going here.

11. To promote health care parity in the Grand Rapids African American community, the Grand Rapids African American Health Institute, a nonprofit, works through advocacy, education and research to ensure that all residents have access to excellent health care.

The institute does everything from improve health care for African American mothers, fathers and babies through its Strong Beginnings program to assisting men in raising healthy children with its Strong Fathers. To help with its work, the nonprofit is seeking volunteers in numerous areas; to learn more, fill out this short form here. Or, if you’d rather support the group through funding, you can donate online here or call 616-331-5831.

12. If anyone know the power that even the smallest gift can provide, it is the hundreds of people facing homelessness in Grand Rapids. Dégagé Ministries works with about 400 to 500 homeless individuals each day, including providing food, hot showers, prescription co-pays, a mailing address, and an overnight shelter for women. Additionally, the nonprofit helps individuals with securing housing, jobs, sobriety, health, and more.

To provide these services, Dégagé relies on the support of more than 1,200 volunteers each year. To find out how you can help as a volunteer, please go here or call Liz Warners at 616-454-1661, ext. 226. The group also is seeking donations of a variety items, including blankets and clothing; you can see a complete list of what’s needed here. You can also donate directly to the organization on their website. And for those of you who’d like something a little sweet to give as a gift, as well as support Dégagé, you can buy some pretty delicious looking cookies here.

13. Our Sisters is combating human trafficking in Grand Rapids by aiming to open a healing center and residence for victims by the summer of 2018, and they’re looking for support from the community now. To find out more about how you can help, call 616-448-8810 or email vps@oursisters.org. You can also attend Our Sisters meetings, which you can learn about here.

Feeding America West Michigan14. Each year, Feeding America West Michigan distributes millions of pounds of food (26.5 million in 2014, for example) to more than 490,000 people in West Michigan. The group receives edible surplus food from such donors as farmers, manufacturers, and retailers, which they go on to give to more than 1,100 area organizations. Currently, the group is looking for volunteers to help sort food in their warehouse, which is located in Comstock Park. To learn more, you can go here.

15. One in five children in Michigan experiences hunger, but Kids Food Basket is changing that with its Sack Supper program, an initiative that ensures about 7,000 local children receive nutritious evening meals that their parents often cannot afford. To become one of the hundreds of people who volunteer each week day, go here, or to find out other ways you can support the organization, including through financial donations, please go here.

16.  Each day, Mel Trotter Ministries serves more than 300 local individuals and families through a variety of programs, including through their food pantries, homeless shelters, medical clinics, and more. Much of this work is possible because of thousands of volunteers; to apply to be a volunteer, you can go to the organization’s website. If you’d rather give a financial gift, please go here.
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