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UIX: Melanie Beelen, directing Baxter toward shining success

Melanie Beelen

Child Development Center

Wholistic Health Clinic

Mizizi Maji Mentoring

Baxter's Marketplace

Of the 43 years the Baxter Community Center has been of service to its neighborhood, Melanie Beelen has been executive director for the last 18. During that time she has helped meet human needs with the most positive spirit.
Of the 43 years the Baxter Community Center has been of service to its neighborhood, Melanie Beelen has been executive director for the last 18. During that time she has seen growth and prosperity, both in the business sector and in residential relationships.
Squared by Eastern Avenue, Wealthy Street, Fuller Avenue, and Franklin Street, the Baxter Community Center is located at 935 Baxter St. SE, in the eastern central Grand Rapids neighborhood, one of 32 community centers in the city. It’s there Beelen has helped meet human needs with the most positive spirit.
“The passion I have for Baxter comes out of the passion I have for loving a God who makes all things new, which includes me,” Beelen says. “Over the years, I have been given the gift of an amazing and loyal staff and a community of people who share Baxter’s mission, ‘A Christian response to human needs.’“
It was Denny Hoekstra, Beelen says, who, along with the help of Hershell Turner and Gene Proctor, founded the Baxter Community Center in 1971
“Hershell Turner, the first director here, brought passion and vision for racial reconciliation and hope,” Beelen says. “As an artist and professional athlete, he knew how to ‘paint the vision’ to our community and lived it out by weathering the storms of the day in bringing hope to a neighborhood that had been so deeply affected by the flight of many of its Caucasian neighbors. Hershell set the foundation for this place.”
The next ED of the Baxter Community Center was Proctor, who helped the neighborhood’s businesses flourish.
“Gene cultivated our stability and inspired others to invest here; their time, their expertise and their dollars!” Beelen says. “I believe Gene’s 18-year tenure and the fact that I am also in my 18th year as a leader here has created a culture of stability and accountability in our leadership and ability to grow our programs.”
Her educational background includes degrees in psychology and sociology from Calvin College with a degree in special education from Grand Valley State University. Beelen taught special education in Traverse City Public Schools and later mainstream classes at Kelloggsville Christian School before becoming the executive director of Jubilee Jobs, an IRS recognized 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization with program services installed at the Baxter Community Center. 
For nine years, Beelen was ED of Jubilee Jobs, where youths are prepared for life beyond high school through job experience, college awareness, and other intensive activities. It was then that Proctor, the retiring ED of the Baxter Community Center, suggested she apply for his job.
“I laughed at the time, looking down at his feet saying, ‘But Gene, we just don’t wear the same size shoe,’“ Beelen says.
Since becoming ED in 1996, Beelen has built upon the foundation of the community center the original founders laid out.
The Baxter Community Center maintains what have been labeled the “four pillars” of programming. Those include the Child Development Center, the Wholistic Health Clinic, the Mizziz Maji Youth Mentoring Program, and Baxter's Marketplace. These pillars are each charged with addressing the community issues of early childhood education, medical stability, GRPS graduation rates, and food insecurity.

The Baxter Community has been described as “an island of hope,” “a safe place to grow,” and “an institution of trust,” Beelen says, but few superlatives would today be properly used without the hard work she’s put in.
In 2005, Beelen led Baxter’s capital campaign, which expanded the building to include two LEED certified wings—the gymnasium and an expanded Child Development Center, as well as making room for Baxter’s Marketplace. In 1998, she spearheaded the Mizizi Maji Mentoring Program, which empowers youth to realize their full potential in school, at home, and in their community. When the Baxter neighborhood was declared a food desert by the Kent County Health Department, Beelen led the charge to add Baxter’s new Greenhouse Initiative to its Marketplace programming. Baxter’s Child Development Center became one of very few in the country be nationally accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children in 2005. The Child Development Center has not only maintained accreditation, but has expanded to include two new rooms, doubling its enrollment in three years. It has been a key leading partner in the Early Learning Neighborhood Collaborative to advocate for and support efforts to ensure all children, regardless of income, receive high quality early childhood development opportunities.

Genika Horton has been the Marketplace Coordinator at the Baxter Community Center for the last five years. During that time, she's come to know Beelen as a supervisor and fellow staff member of the center, as well as foster a strong friendship and sisterhood with her.

"She has empowered me with the necessary tools and resources to become successful in my position here at Baxter and in the community that we serve," Horton says. "As the director of the Marketplace, my schedule limits my physical interaction with Melanie, however she has consistently continued to show support to her staff offering kind words via cards or emails of encouragement."

Horton also lauds Beelen for making available vital training and leadership programs for the center's staff.

"Having Melanie as the ED in this community—where culture and heritage is still important—has brought a new way of engaging with every walk of life with an unconditional and non judgmental spirit," Horton says. "She has not only been a great all around boss to get along with, but a great leader for Baxter's staff."
Baxter’s Wholistic Health Clinic has also created a true medical home for the neighborhood’s patients, all of whom are uninsured or underinsured.
“People can come feeling safe and knowing they have a doctor who is familiar with them and their families,” Beelen says. “Baxter remains a place that truly responds to the voices of its neighbors.”
The health clinic differs from what some may assume is a “holistic” center. The Baxter clinic focuses on mind, body, and spirit, Beelen says.

“We have counseling along with dental and medical and vision clinics,” she says. “We also have a prayer clinic for those who want to be prayed for and have prayer boxes throughout Baxter where folks can write a prayer request.”
While it may just be one neighborhood in a rapidly growing city, what sets Baxter apart from other Grand Rapids neighborhood centers is the fact that its commitment to action is “organic,” Beelen says. And of it's community center: “We walk the talk,” she says. “We develop leadership and we look at what the needs of the community are and respond to them.”

For more information about Beelen's team and the Baxter Community Center, visit http://baxtercommunitycenter.org/

Matthew Russell is the Project Editor for UIX Grand Rapids. Contact him at matthew@uixgrandrapids.com. 

Photography by Steph Harding 
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