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Foster Kent Kids coalition helps foster homes optimize their family dynamic

Foster Kent Kids is a new coalition formed as an open invitation for the recruitment, education, and support of persons both active and interested in the field of foster care.

In alignment with a five-year contract with Michigan Department of Health and Human Services and the West Michigan Partnership for Children (WMPC), the coalition formed in hopes of opening up the doors to more homes for foster-child placement, and mutually enhancing the experience of the youth and family. The coalition will create a model based on how many foster homes they want to recruit as a community and data on the types of homes needed, and retain current foster homes through means of support groups, trainings, appreciation events for foster parents, and respite care, scheduled throughout the year.

Today in Kent County, there are 500 foster homes and a need to place 900 foster kids.

“We created Kent Foster Kids –– the name itself is an action,” WMPC CEO Kristyn Peck says. “It calls everyone to action to foster youth, and it’s also something that each of the five private agencies in Kent County, that do foster care, can unite around.”

The initiative places the comfort and needs of the foster child on the forefront, which can often be overlooked. A common misconception of being a foster parent is that it creates a clear path toward adoption –– however, Peck says, “Our number one primary goal in foster care is to always reunite children with their parents, and that is in the best interest of the child, if at all possible.” With this in mind, the child’s preferred temperament should be reflected in their foster home, offering a temporary space of support and understanding.

“That is something that we will always have more room to learn and grow and improve, and really making sure that we are not assuming, and making assumptions about a child’s preferences, or choices, but really having that process be led by the child, and asking questions,” says Peck.

Additionally, Peck says they are “...looking at making sure we are recruiting families in the communities that kids are living in so that they don’t have to change schools, for example, looking at recruiting families that reflect the demographics of our kids so that they can maintain their connection to their community, and to their own cultures, then looking at also, how can we better support people who are already fostering children?”

Likewise, Peck notes the importance of checking in with foster parents to ensure that they feel supported. This would involve asking how Foster Kent Kids can open up the floor for their voice to be heard, and incorporating their feedback into programming and policies.

In January 2017, WMPC launched Enhanced Foster Care, a program working towards reducing the amount of residential-placed foster children by further educating and fine-tuning the skills of the caregiver to meet any special needs of the youth, allowing them to instead live in community settings like foster homes. Through Enhanced Foster Care, WMPC and its partners were able to stabilize youth in existing community-based foster placements by providing more clinical supports within the home, preventing placement disruptions, and identify youth in residential settings who could be served in the community-based foster placements with additional clinical and behavioral supports.Through this approach, the program dropped the number of placements in residential settings by 4 percent; however, the need for more foster parents was identified.

The new coalition is made up of five child-placing organizations — Bethany Christian Services, Catholic Charities West Michigan, D.A. Blodgett-St. John’s, Samaritas, and Wellspring Lutheran Services — who are state-registered to recruit and license foster parents.

“By bringing them all together, we can create a better and more comprehensive strategy for foster parent recruitment, so we can look at our community as a whole, figure out what are the needs, and then work with each of those providers,” says Peck. The coalition can then determine each of the providers’ strengths, “So we can really make sure we have a comprehensive, city-wide recruitment strategy.”

Images courtesy of West Michigan Partnership for Children.

How the Great Stories Club uses heroism and empathy to connect underserved youth

The Great Stories Club, a program initiative introduced by the American Library Association (ALA), chose the Grand Rapids Public Library (GRPL) as one of the 100 libraries nationwide as their grant recipient to implement in Grand Rapids. As a result, GRPL is collaborating with Grand Rapids HQ, a drop-in center for youth undergoing unsafe or unstable housing, to provide young individuals the valuable experience of inclusive, open-ended conversations through the Great Stories Club.

The program will facilitate for its youth members engagement in meaningful literature and discussion. Over the span of a year, between September 1, 2018 and August 31, 2019, a variety of books related to the theme of heroism and empathy, including titles such as “Binti” by Nnedi Okorafor and “Maus II: A Survivor’s Tale: And Here My Troubles Began” by Art Spiegelman, will be read and discussed by club participants.

GRPL Youth Services Librarian and Great Stories Club facilitator Mark Jemerson says he hopes participants are able “To make connections between their lives and the lives of the protagonists, and will feel empowered with the knowledge that they can make positive change in their lives, despite hardship.”

For each book, eight to 10 participants will engage in three 45-minute long, socratic-like sessions held at HQ. The first session will be an introduction to the book, during which each participant will receive a free copy. The second will be discussion of participants’ initial thoughts and will include a breakout activity, and the third will conclude with a wrap-up dialogue. All participants will be members of HQ, chosen on a voluntary basis.

HQ drop-in manager Drea McKinney will be partnering with Jemerson throughout the program to ensure the program maintains the space and other resources necessary for successful facilitation.

For initiatives like the Great Stories Program, McKinney explains that vulnerability and openness are a part of what makes HQ a welcoming facility for youth to explore their identity.

“Our sole purpose, one of the main purposes of HQ, is that connection part,” McKinney says. “We just sit down with youth and typically they’re in crisis, so sometimes those conversations can look very service-like, very basic needs … but I mean, day-to-day is different. It just depends on what the youth are able to show, because we meet them where they are.”

One of McKinney’s expectations for the program is “To get the youth involved so they can showcase how incredibly bold and talented they are, which we know; but to showcase that inside of HQ and to the outside community. To increase accessibility.”

Jemerson has high hopes for the program as well.

“There is not a program like this established in Grand Rapids with the support of a national organization, so it will provide an avenue into reading that they would not have had in the past,” says Jemerson. “The support of ALA means that there are people in positions of power who are looking out for [the youth] and their future.”

Images courtesy of the Great Stories Club.

New Rental Assistance Program aims to increase accessibility to affordable housing

In September, it was announced that the City of Grand Rapids and the Grand Rapids Housing Commission established a two-year pilot program for a Rental Assistance Center for households who earn 80 percent or less of the Area Median Income (AMI). In Grand Rapids, the AMI is $55,900 for a four-person household. The Rental Assistance Center will refer such households to available rental properties, and conversely, connect landlords to rent-ready applicants. Candidates considered rent-ready are those who apply through an online portal and meet the screening requirements presented by landlords. Each year, $91,800 will go toward the funding for the program.

The need for this two-year pilot was assessed through the Housing Now! strategy, an effort put forth by the city in hopes of generating viable solutions for affordable housing.

“They had 10 or 11 recommendations that had come out of the committee they had formed,” says Executive Director of the Grand Rapids Housing Commission Carl Sanchez. “One of the things we were getting a lot of complaints from residents about was that landlords were charging application fees, they weren’t being told when they were being denied, and they were keeping the fees; so the city came up with an ordinance. One of the things that came out of this was to find out a way to reduce the amount of money [residents] have to pay for applications.”

These days, Sanchez explains, it is a standard practice for landlords to charge application fees anywhere between $75 to $100, even without the guarantee of securing the housing; in some cases, the fee only guarantees a spot on a waiting list. As a result, removing application fees through the organization’s online portal submissions is only the first step in the monumental issue that is affordable housing. Sanchez says that even with vouchers provided to qualifying candidates for their Section 8 housing, which aids in subsidizing rent cost, obstacles like application fees make it difficult for individuals to find available housing, even once income is no longer a factor.

Another tangible extension of this program is its proactive approach in educating individuals about how to be rent-ready applicants.

“For instance, if they had bad credit or some kind of blemish on their record, because we do three or four different checks, not only will we tell them, but we’ll also refer them to our residence service coordinator,” says Sanchez. Working with this staff member, applicants can explore the reasons behind their low credit score, such as identity theft, or also be referred to credit counseling.

The goal is to correctly assess why the individual is being denied housing, and refer them to the resources they need so that this is no longer an issue.

Lastly, the program will help set up new criteria for screening by landlords, but in a manner that creates more accessibility for a wider range of applicants.

For example, the criteria might allow for an applicant who has a lower credit score but has a history of paying the majority of their bills on time, or it might allow for an applicant who has been evicted before, but not on the basis of multiple behavioral issues.

Overall, Sanchez says the purpose of the program is to learn more about the housing issues residents face within the Grand Rapids community, and how they can move forward with creating more solutions.

“The city’s plan is to expand affordable housing, and it’s really a major problem in this community, so people are having more and more difficulty finding rental units,” Sanchez says.

“We just want to find out what are some of the impediments that folks are having ... Right now, we have anecdotal stories told to us about what kinds of experiences residents were having in the rental market, so we just want to see if we can do something to improve the availability of housing and connecting landlords with tenants.”

Image courtesy of the Grand Rapids Housing Commission.

Gr8 Lks: Time is money in an effort to clean and preserve the Great Lakes

For business owners under oath of their mission statement, the basis of their discipline is derived from the type of future they envision for their community. As this new age of consumers shift, and business owners are encouraged to use their principals and values as the face of their company, entrepreneurs are becoming more comfortable with allowing their cause to be at the forefront of their business model, as opposed to championing marketing that caters to money and consumption alone.

The newly founded Gr8 Lks apparel company based in Muskegon, co-owned by Andrew Mann and Pete Gawkowski, centers its ideals around the environmental well-being and sustainability of the Great Lakes. The clothing is constructed from both organic cotton and recycled materials, and for every consumer’s dollar that is spent, a minute of time is matched dedicated to cleaning up the shore lines and waters of the Great Lakes. Despite being a for-profit company, the partners pride themselves on their incentive to put their money toward a greater cause — one that can be monetized on a visible scale.

“Yes, we’re a for-profit, we are chasing the dollar because we’re chasing a sale, but you’re seeing it in action,” says Mann. “We’re not just telling you we’re donating, you physically see it because our business and our company is built on proving to the consumer that we are following through on our word.”

The idea for Gr8 Lks, Mann says, was a culmination of many things, ranging from his background in retail, and their overall interest in environmental sustainability.

Mann explains that although the Great Lakes are strongly associated with Michigan, one of their long-term goals is to bring awareness to other states such as Minnesota and Wisconsin, and even Canada who, like Michigan, have an identity connected to the Great Lakes, but that is often left out of the conversation.

The number eight within their logo, Mann says, unintentionally represents the eight states connected to the Great Lakes; however, they hope to stretch their efforts beyond that.

Aside from their promise of matching every dollar to every minute, their goal is to continue pushing the agenda of environmental education, and to “bring in a group of people that’s big enough, so that we can make a big dent in this issue,” says Gawkowski.

Though the apparel-brand is still in its early stages, its impact is already evident — the reaping of an idea slowly coming into fruition.

“Last year, if my oldest son would’ve walked past a piece of trash, he probably wouldn’t have thought twice about it but now, if I walk down a street or the beach and he sees a piece of trash, the first thing he says is, ‘Dad can we pick that up?’” says Gawkowski. “I think that little things of just him learning that this could make stuff better in the future is a pretty big thing for me.”

Images courtesy of Gr8 Lks.

Code Camp teaches app-building for a future in entrepreneurship

The demand for technological literacy visibly increases as time goes on; what was once a science fiction novel or a madman’s dream is now the contemporary world growing into its identity. For young kids especially, technology can represent the mystique of creating at their fingertips. Projects like Code Camp, a two-year pilot program hosted by Junior Achievement of the Michigan Great Lakes in collaboration with the Grand Rapids Public Library, work to push this narrative forward.

Funded by a $50,000 grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the 10-week, summer-long program encourages middle and high-school students to design their own applications and learn the business end of how to market their app. Initially, roughly 40 students from the Greater Grand Rapids area signed up for the program. Kids from Hudsonville, Greenville, Grand Rapids Public Schools and even some homeschooled students participated. Half of these students attended weekly sessions held at the Main Library, and the other half attended sessions at the Madison Square Library.

One app recommended books to read, functioning as a mediator between GRPL’s library catalogue and Amazon. Users were able to read a review of a book and retrieve it from the library shelf or order it from Amazon. Another app enabled users to acquire digital copies of books in exchange for viewing advertisements.

At the end of the 10 weeks, the students presented their final applications alongside their marketing plan.

Junior Achievement’s Director of Education Greg Hampshire says that the presentation included items based on the program’s five “rules: “A report on marketing, plans on what they were gonna do to roll it out, sales; how they were going to monetize it, if they could, and that would include how much they were going to charge for advertising.”

Although much of the initial interest garnered from participating individuals was based on the goal of building an app, most of the students in the program learned more about entrepreneurship than anything else.

“Exposing these students to the fundamentals of business, I think is economically empowering,” says Hampshire. “So even if they decide they don’t really like the software development, but they really like starting their own business, or they really like this marketing or sales piece, it’s helping with career exploration for these kids.

It’s helping them build entrepreneurial skills, which, even if you decide to work for somebody else, being a self-starter is invaluable, as well as being creative, and being able to think from a different headspace than someone who just followed a set path to their career.”

Images courtesy of Junior Achievement of the Michigan Great Lakes.

The Diatribe uses poetry as a catalyst for social reform

Throughout the summer, The Diatribe held their first nine-week summer programming for students, leading up to their Youth Poetry Pop-Up Show this past Saturday. More than one-hundred people gathered together at Outside Coffee Co to witness 16 students from the program perform their own pieces.

Over the past few years, The Diatribe, a nonprofit poetry organization integrated within the boroughs of the Grand Rapids community, has worked ceaselessly to use poetry as a vehicular tool, urging social reform forward. During the school year, they reposition traditional English lessons, utilizing history and social studies in order to engage with students in new and creative ways. Through these interactions and other school-related programs, the group of poets hand-selected 30 students from middle to high-school to participate in the nine-week youth program.

Diatribe member Rachel Gleason says the exchange in poetry amongst one another sets the tone for listening — an especially vital tool for character development in younger individuals who are still learning about the world around them. Through their collaboration with the school systems, Gleason notes the sharp change in atmosphere shortly afterwards.

“Everyone gets their chance to speak and be heard and be empowered, but it also sets the tone for the importance of listening to other people’s experiences — because that’s how we learn, that’s how we gain compassion, that’s how we gain empathy, and that’s how we can really learn how to uplift others best,” says Gleason.

“We’ve seen it time and time again, especially in schools with young people, that The Diatribe will come in and we’ll do our programming, whether it’s just an assembly or whether it’s just six to nine weeks of programming, and teachers say their students are different. The atmosphere is different. There’s more unity, there’s less bullying.”

The summer program was held every Thursday from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. at The Boys & Girls Clubs of Grand Rapids Youth Commonwealth at their Paul I Phillips Location. Gleason explains that during each session, the class spent time reading a poem, dissecting its themes, messages, and poetic devices, and practiced writing prompts based on that particular poem. Gleason’s favorite session was the discussion students held after listening to the poem “When Viola Davis Won” by Ajanae Dawkins — one relating to the representation of women of color.

“It was a really cool experience to see it unfold in that way, especially because of the diversity of the students and where they came from,” she says.

In addition to their summer-youth program, The Diatribe formed a partnership with the Fair Housing Center of West Michigan, where, earlier in August, they hosted a workshop to promote awareness of housing resources to the youth; an unlikely duo that was effective in bridging the concept of self expression and social studies.

One of the focal points of the workshop, Gleason says, was “To know the law, to know how the law protects them, and to know that they can go somewhere for help.” The workshop itself was created out of the idea that if students were educated about the fair-housing act, they would educate those around them.

“Fair housing is a baseline issue, in that it impacts every part of someone’s life, especially in Grand Rapids right now, with the way the city is changing and the gentrification that’s happening,” says Gleason.

As an extension of the Youth Poetry Pop-Up Show and overall celebration of spoken word poetry, The Diatribe is hosting their Grand Showcase, one of the largest poetry events to be held in West Michigan, on October 6th. It will be held at Fountain Street Church, where alongside nationally known poets Andrea Gibson, Siaara Freeman, and T. Miller, and local poets including Zerilli, Michaelyn, TAE, and KFG, five students who participated in the Pop-Up Show will be selected to perform at the showcase.

What is most important, Gleason says, is poetry’s ability to empower people to share their stories and their voices. Using it as a catalyst for change time and time again, it seems as though the act of exploring identity through poetry quietly opens up one door at a time, enabling individuals to learn from each other’s most intimate experiences as human beings.

Follow this link to learn more about The Diatribe's upcoming Grand Showcase.

Images courtesy of The Diatribe.

Museums for All: The duality between low-income and higher learning in art

In Maslow’s hierarchy, a theory in psychology exploring needs imperative to the development of the human psyche, and in what order each ranks in importance, individuals are unable to reach self-actualization without the sustainability of basic needs like food and shelter. However, in more recent times, we are beginning to understand the power of allowing needs like safety and love and belonging to coincide and exist amongst one another, to create a more accurate depiction of how people’s lives unfold, how they see the world they live in, and giving them the space to express this on their own terms.

The Museums for All initiative, offered through the Institute of Museum and Library Services, has been adopted by the Grand Rapids Art Museum (GRAM) as of August 13. Its mission is to bridge the gap between individuals who want, just as much as their counterparts who have resources more readily available to them, to participate in the universal experiences that art has to offer. Museums for All enables the Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) card to be used as a valid form of free entry into the GRAM, much like its neighboring organizations, the Grand Rapids Children’s Museum and the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts (UICA), who began participating in 2017.

EBT cardholders typically use this form of payment as a way to purchase food, a very basic human need. Likewise, the Museums for All program equates art with this same significance, allowing cardholders to use it as a free entry pass. 

The core motive for GRAM moving forward with this program is to reach more people.

“We’re always evaluating how we are working with our community and our audiences, and a distinct goal of ours has always been, and always will be, to engage the widest population possible with what we have to offer,” says GRAM Director of Learning and Creativity Christopher Bruce. “And as part of that, we are always looking at all ways we can lower or remove barriers from access for our community.”

Day by day, the sentiment that art is for the elite, the wealthy, or higher-class, is slowly dwindling.

“Art allows you to expand your horizon, to experience creativity, to appreciate the world we live in,” Bruce says. “That should not be limited to just those who have the means to support those institutions.”

Individuals with an EBT card can have up to three additional people accompany them for free admission into GRAM, and are allowed to partake in any programs running that day that would be available to those who have paid regular admission. This includes their Saturday drop-in studio hours, museum tours, lectures, and any other services offered.

Bruce says on the day it was announced that GRAM would be participating, already there were people using this opportunity to their advantage.

“You don’t even have to fill out a form, you don’t have to provide all sorts of background information, you simply show your card and you’re allowed entry,” says Bruce. “And we honor the food assistance card from all 50 states. So it’s not just Michigan residents who can participate. Anyone in the country who is visiting Grand Rapids, who has an EBT card, can come to us free of charge whenever they would like.”

One of the more rewarding benefits of programs like this in the art community, Bruce explains, is the way it continuously allows conversation to ebb and flow in new directions.

“When we open our doors, and more people have access, more people can participate in the conversation, more people can voice their opinions, voice their views, and discuss their interpretations of those works of art,” he says. “It’s not my interpretation of a work of art that matters. It’s not the directors, it’s not a specific art historian, or guest who gets to say what an object means, because it means something different to each and every person who views it.

By removing those barriers, by inviting the community in and engaging in thoughtful conversation, we get to see what people see. We get to look at the world through their eyes, and it’s amazing — the conversations you have when you’re talking about a work of art. I’ve been at the museums for around eight and a half years now, and I am still surprised at the conversations I have in front of objects that I’ve been discussing [this] entire time.”

These magical moments, he says, are the ones they get to share when they work with programs like Museums for All.

Images courtesy of the Grand Rapids Art Museum.

Responsible Parent Program Center provides payers of child support with innovative support

Over the last few years, there have been multiple attempts by the Kent County Friend of the Court (FOC) to create and sustain programs for payers of child-support, that will “assist non-compliant payers overcome the barriers that lead to noncompliance with their support order,” says Friend of the Court director Dan Fojtik. However, due to programs in the past being grant-funded, the privilege of flexibility was gone; there was not as much freedom to evolve alongside of the needs of their clients.

For example, their last grant-funded program, Referral for Employment, Asset Development, Cooperation and Hope (REACH), was constrained to a timeframe for obtaining specific goals, including “help the payer attain property, establish a bank account, learn how to budget and avoid predatory lenders.” In the end, Fojtik says, there was no true difference between individuals who did or did not participate.

“It was sometimes pretty limiting,” he says. “I think it’s the biggest change that we’ve had from the past.”

Fast-forward to 2016, when the FOC established the Responsible Parent Program (RPP), designed as a way to identify the issues hindering payers of child support from making their payments and connecting them to tangible resources, eventually leading them to a state of compliance with their court orders. As a means to move away from being grant-funded, the FOC’s information technology department developed a system enabling them to re-allocate staff to the RPP.

“...our IT department developed a system known as Casetracker that monitors cases for enforcement, provides summary information for payers with multiple cases, saving us time going from screen to screen in the state system, and quickly generating forms,” says Fojtik.

Since funding their own program, the FOC has geared the focal points of the RPP toward gainful employment and meaningful community relationships amongst their clients and other organizations.

To strengthen these key areas of development, on June 11 the RPP opened a center located on the second floor of 82 Ionia Avenue NW. Because the program now exists at a physical location, the services previously provided for participants through one-on-one consultations with their caseworkers are now easily accessible in one place. This includes three workstations where individuals can update their resumes, apply for jobs online, and review a list of available employment opportunities.

“Maybe they [are] having parenting problems with the other parent and they need some information on how to fix that,” Fojtik says. “They may be referred to mediation services. They may need to have their license reinstated if it was suspended for child support. They can do that. And sometimes they may owe a lot of state-owed money, some of which they may be qualified to have discharged. That’s pretty much what [the case workers] do, and they spend a lot of time trying to get agency and employer partners to work with us so we can make proper referrals.”

Additionally, the program conducts outreaches, which involves caseworkers visiting various locations for open consultations about the RPP or an individual’s specific case.

“A lot of people are hesitant to come to our office, so we try to go out to them,” Fojtik says.

Some of the partner organizations at which caseworkers conduct outreaches are Michigan Works!, the Hispanic Center, Strong Fathers, and their newest partner, 70x7 Life Recovery. Fojtik explains that long-term contact with agencies like these are an important piece in how the RPP is able to better assist their clients. It also plays a role in the community’s perception of the program and the services it has to offer.

“A lot of people don’t trust us,” says Fojtik. “We were so enforcement-focused in the past — usually the first time they’d see us is when we’d have a show cause hearing for not complying with their court order or a bench hearing.”

Due to this misconception, he says they have created an early engagement program.

“We have a full-time worker calling people who have a brand new order to explain what the order means, what services we have available; the earlier we can engage them, the better, so that they understand who we are, and that we’re actually trying to help.”

Photos courtesy of the Responsible Parent Program.

$50K contract renewal fuels Local First's goals of inclusion and equity

In July, it was announced that the City of Grand Rapids Economic Development Corporation (EDC) will renew its contract with Local First, the non-profit organization that works with businesses to develop their core values, reflecting that of the greater surrounding community. The contract renewal doubled the EDC’s commitment — from $25,000 to $50,000. These funds will be allocated toward the organization’s Good for Grand Rapids campaign.

Good for Grand Rapids is an initiative designed to develop and sustain progressive practices within local West Michigan businesses. One of their main approaches to beginning to integrate these practices is the Quick Impact Assessment, a tool that measures the type of social equity present in the workplace, and how it can be improved.

Through these newfound connections, Local First plans to work with larger employers to identify where they invest their money, and to maximize goods and services on a local level to circulate wealth and resources within the community.

“...addressing that systemic change is gonna create a big, huge wave effect, I think, and [will] start getting money in the hands of people who need it most, and who have businesses that they’re being intentional with,” says Local First’s program and fund development manager Hanna Schulze.

One of the focal points of the Good for Grand Rapids campaign is intentionality in all forms: financial, environmental, social, and more. Schulze says she recognizes a shift in consumer behavior, in which more people are becoming concerned about the moral makeup and practices of the businesses at which they spend their money.

“We have a huge amount of businesses that are owned by white, middle-aged individuals, and we don’t have a representative percentage of businesses owned by people of color, by veterans, by women, by the LGBTQ community, etcetera,” says Schulze. “That’s something that we’ve recognized through our work with locally owned businesses … We’re not only trying to change that by putting capital resources and social resources in the hands of communities of color, women entrepreneurs, etcetera, but also to address the businesses that already exist — how they can be more intentional with what they’re doing?”

She notes that although economic development is important, it is necessary to ask if the businesses built out of these already disenfranchised communities will be empowered or further excluded.

Using the results and resources gathered from the Quick Impact Assessment and Good for Grand Rapids campaign overall, Local First strives to make businesses more conscious of these issues, with the hope of putting more ethical practices into motion.

Despite the disproportionate amount of businesses and organizations that do not accurately represent the demographics of the Grand Rapids area, Good for Grand Rapids has slowly begun fostering a community of diversity and inclusion over the past few years. This includes assisting companies in their path toward becoming B Corporations, certified institutions committed to extending intentional practices beyond the workplace.

“Since Local First’s quick impact assessment and related programming began in 2014, the BCorp community has grown from three BCorps to 19 in the west Michigan community," says Schulze. "The community of BCorps was strengthened in part by the resources and engagement opportunities provided to the businesses by Local First.”

The sentiment behind this movement of social equity and intentionality is optimistic, as one of the goals within the agreement between the EDC and Local First is for half of the businesses in Grand Rapids to take the Quick Impact Assessment within the next five years.

“We have people throughout the city helping us with that goal, but that is one of the deliverables,” Schultze says. “We have specific deliverables: inclusion and equity. This means the intentional employment of people from the Black, Hispanic, and underserved populations, and that specifically is referring to a certain census tract that has higher unemployment rates and a lower per capita income rate.”

However ambitious of a goal this may seem, the consensus is that, because consumers are seeking out businesses whose moral ideals are in alignment with their own, it is forcing the head of businesses to evolve with their audience. Schultze explains that this idea of a world in which employer practices bleed into the real world, outside of the workplace, is “no longer conceptual.” More specifically, tools like the Quick Impact Assessment are providing businesses with the honest insight they need to become more sensible to the world changing around them.

Images courtesy of Local First.

Meet Up to Eat Up program provides free meals to kids during summer vacation

According to the Michigan School Data information database, 73,377 children between the grades of kindergarten and 12th grade were eligible for free lunch during the 2017-2018 fall school year in the state of Michigan. Eligibility for free lunch is dependent on the income of each family.

According local education professionals, for students who come from low-income families, school is sometimes their primary source of reliable nutrition, which is why programs like Meet Up to Eat Up are important.

“...hunger doesn’t stop for the summer time, and basically, this is a bridged gap between meals that students may miss between the time school ends and starts back up in the fall,” says Grand Rapids Public Schools Director of Nutrition Services Phillip Green. “So this provides them an opportunity to receive some of the meals they would receive if they were in school.”

Meet Up to Eat Up is a program funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Michigan Department of Education, which allows kids who are 18 years old and under to receive free meals during the summer. The meals are served at various locations throughout Grand Rapids, typically providing breakfast and lunch Monday through Thursday; however, there are some locations who provide meals on Friday as well. Their first service of summer was held Monday, June 11.

“We also work with a couple of different apartment complexes,” says program supervisor Erin Webley. “Sometimes kids can’t leave or go far from their homes because their parents or guardians are at work and they’re watching their younger siblings at home, so being able to go to their apartment complex office has been really helpful for parents because they know their kids are getting one to two meals a day and they don’t have to go far for safety reasons to get that.”

Outside of navigating the website, one way of identifying the nearest site where Meet Up to Eat Up is providing meals, is to text ‘food’ to 877877, then texting your zip code. It will then send a list of sites closest to that zip code.

Green says one of the greatest challenges they have is spreading awareness about the program so that more families are able to participate. He recalled a parent he met at one of the sites who not only brought her own children, but children she was watching for another parent as well.

Depending on each location and the day, Green says there could be 20 children or over 100 children who attend the program.
One of their long-term goals in the future is to purchase a food truck in order to be mobile with the summer program.

For more information, you can visit their website here.

Mary Free Bed offers virtual health consultations for out-of-state patients

Oftentimes, individuals seeking sufficient healthcare may find themselves at a disadvantage; whether this is due to finances, availability, or even comfort, these circumstances can create barriers exempting them from the healthcare they need. However, Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital’s recent partnership with Chicago and Cincinnati Shriners Hospitals for Children have formed Telehealth, a service that allows patients to receive virtual consultations from their healthcare provider, an experience similar to FaceTime or Skype.

Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital focuses on the development of a patient’s healing process and Shriners Hospitals for Children specializes in treating orthopedic disorders, cleft lip and palate, spinal cord injuries, burns, and soft tissue conditions. Because each health facility is able to provide unique, specialized expertise for patients, as well as their families, Telehealth can connect patients with the best healthcare for a myriad of conditions. Their partnership is aiming to eliminate at least one barrier in healthcare: location.

“If you’re a mature organization and mature professional, you realize that you’re not all knowing,” says physical medicine and rehab physician Doctor Christian VandenBerg. “You realize you don’t have every resource possible, so we reach out for those partnerships to be better.”

VandenBerg has worked with Mary Free Bed for the last six years. On June 22, he was able to successfully work with their first patient through this partnership, who was based in Battle Creek.

VandenBerg says families who have follow-up appointments fitting into the criterion for a Telehealth consultation are able to communicate with Shriner’s technicians via Mary Free Bed’s facility; likewise, patients of Mary Free Bed located in Cincinnati and Chicago are able to do follow-up appointments through Shriner’s facility.

Much like Telehealth, Mary Free Bed has been offering virtual health services specific to their facility for about a year now, which Doctor Vandenberg uses often, assessing patient’s needs and determining where they would fit best in the ecosystem of their hospital.

“I often have a nurse or therapist there from the hospital that allows me to see how they’re [the patient is] moving,” says VandenBerg. “I can then have a conversation to clarify for the patient’s family my professional opinion on what are their needs and how can they best be met. And most importantly, to align expectations and goals of that patient and family.”

VandenBerg says having the ability to communicate with patients about the technical side of their impairments is only one reason why Telehealth is important.

“It’s not just about treating a specific disease or specific impairments,” says VandenBerg. “Impairments are things that get in the way of function. It’s really looking at that patient very holistically, very comprehensively, and so often, they need that contact. For someone to be successful, often they have to change their behavior.

Changing behavior is one of the most difficult things. You can’t do it in an isolated manner. You have to have those conversations to remain vigilant in your efforts, that encouragement that’s just so critical, as well as continuing to guide them in directions of healthier behaviors. To do that, you have to have conversations, and I think in doing that with the visual component, it makes a difference. It’s face to face.”

Images courtesy of Mary Free Bed.

The sleep consultation service Grand Rapids didn't know it needed

Imagine yourself a mother or father, coming home after days spent in the hospital, having just brought a new child into the world. Of all the things to draw worry from as the parent to a newborn, it is not the food, clothes, babysitter, or finances—no. The much-anticipated villain of this narrative is sleep deprivation.

However, this is not your first time figuring out the method behind the madness—the madness being the restless child who cannot seem to fall asleep. Luckily, you took heed to a few sleeping techniques and were able to get your first child to habitually sleep throughout the night. Even better—before coming back to work from your maternity leave, you are able to get your second child to sleep sound throughout the night before turning one.

This is the story of Rachel Turner’s sleep consultation business, Hello Sleep, one of the only sleep consultations resources available outside of hospitals and health clinics. After multiple conversations with other parents who were curious about how to keep their little ones sleeping throughout the night, Turner immediately recognized the need for sleep consultations in the Grand Rapids community.

“When I went back to work… [my coworkers] were like, ‘Okay, maybe with one kid that happens, but when you have two kids that you’ve successfully done that with, there must be something that you are doing that can help other people,” Turner says. “I think that’s what clicked, is that there’s a lot of parents out there that just need a little bit of support, and identifying the issue; why [their kids] are not falling asleep and trying to eliminate that [issue].”

Subsequently, it was in 2017 when Turner went through an extensive sleep consultant training program called Sleep Sense, lead by professional sleep consultant Dana Obleman in Sarasota, Florida. There, Turner, alongside 20 other women, was able to learn about various techniques to create and maintain healthy sleeping patterns for people of all ages, as well as how to develop a business.

Utilizing her training as well as her personal experience, Turner developed Hello Sleep to primarily focus on the sleep of children newborn to 12 years-old.

Upon initial contact, Turner’s mission is to get a feel of the family she is working with before she begins recommending different sleep techniques. Typically, she first calls clients to go through a checklist of criterion: what age is the child, are there any medical concerns preventing them from sleeping, what does a typical night of sleep looks like, etc. Turner then uses that information to create a personalized sleeping plan, working with families for two to three weeks, tweaking it along the way each night to figure out what is working the best. Often times, she works with families remotely, contacting them through either the phone or Skype sessions. However, she does offer in-home consultations for families as part of her services.

“One of the best things, which is another reason I went into this program, is giving mom and dad or whoever it is—maybe it’s a nanny or grandma or grandpa watching the child—giving them that moment to relax at the end of the night,” Turner says. “They never get that alone time or that me-time. Being able to relax a bit and have a glass of wine or read a book, or just sit in silence—giving parents that little bit of freedom and relaxation that they haven’t had in a while.”

Turner can be contacted through her website, where she has an active email and phone number. More information about her services and the pricing can be found there as well. The pricing of her service packages depend on how old the infant is, how often the client wants to check in with Turner throughout the two to three week period, and whether the clients want in-home or remote consultations. The pricing starts at $100, and she offers different payment plans.

Every week, Turner opens up her Facebook page to do live question and answer segments. She recently held a beginners class at Renew Mama Studio, and plans to host more workshops at the end of the month.

The meaning behind Urban Roots' "Grow, eat, learn"

“In the industrialized world, we think about things like machines, so the language we use, and I hear this all the time, is that we build gardens,” says Urban Roots founder Levi Gardner. “You don’t build gardens any more than you build a kid.”

In a place like Grand Rapids where the appeal of a modern metropolis is reflected in the exponential growth of its cityscape, Gardner notices the idealization of gardens sprinkled throughout the city in the form of raised garden beds and abandoned fields where gardens existed for short periods of time. This tendency to envision gardening as a cute, frivolous hobby, as opposed to a lifestyle that feeds into systems of ecology, is one that Gardner and his staff of five strive to reconceptualize.

Two years ago, Rapid Growth met with Gardner, who was just getting acquainted with Urban Roots’ new space on Madison Avenue. There, the organization was able to put into motion some of the bigger projects they had long sought after. Now, after having had the opportunity to solidify their presence in the Grand Rapids community, the group has taken the initiative to, day-by-day, to adjust their ethical practices to fit the lifestyle of as many individuals as possible, despite various upbringings such as socioeconomic status or skin color.

Over the last five years, the non-profit organization’s mantra, “Grow, eat, learn” not only applies directly to the immediate community around them, but is also a change agent for the organization itself, and how the context of its mission to serve others has changed since its conception. The group has made room for “elevating our level of consciousness about the connectivity between all things in the world,” and ensuring that the space of their facility is an open invitation to everyone.

“Grow, eat, learn” is the history, metaphor, and beauty behind the quickly-expanding non-profit organization, Urban Roots—the thriving garden located just a couple blocks wayward from the corner of Madison and Hall.

In late April, Urban Roots hosted a workshop called Start Your First Garden; in attendance were individuals from the local Madison neighborhood, East Grand Rapids, Ada, Rockford, and neighborhoods in between.

“Where else in Grand Rapids are 50 people from those demographics sitting in the same place? Not many, unless they’re shouting at each other, unfortunately,” says Gardner. “So when I look at something like that, I go, ‘That’s a tiny bit of fruit. That’s tiny, but it’s real.’ There’s nothing about that that’s synthetically fertilized."

Similarly, during the second week of June, the organization hosted their first Supperclub dinner of the summer, where they were able to merge separate worlds underneath a single, community event.

“We had multi-millionaire white men over the age of 50, that are from power and privilege, and then we had 18-year old, transgender persons of color on a piece of property on the same day in a world that is as polarized as we are.”

The common denominator, weaving all of these people together? “Grow, eat, learn.”

In the last few years, the organization’s staff has grown from just Gardner, to now a staff of five people, with six interns working alongside them. This year alone, they will have an estimated 50 to 60 groups from different schools, faith communities, and other non-profit organizations visit their facility. In just the past six months, they have received grants from Herman Miller, Spectrum, and Amway to further develop their projects and ideas. And as of now, they are still piecing together their kitchen, because this year, their urban farm will serve approximately 2,000 meals to the local community.

Gardner recalls a visiting student who had never eaten a carrot in their life.

“Not only had they never had a carrot straight from the ground, but they never had a carrot in their life,” says Gardner. “...and they pulled the carrot from the ground and said it was pretty good.”

“Maybe that’s one degree of turning, one degree of I can do something that’s loving to my own body, which is a way of caring for the earth and caring for themselves,” says Gardner. “That’s what we’re trying to do, is trying to change the world. Easy stuff.”

Images courtesy of Urban Roots.

#GRSummerProject: A platform and movement in the hands of the youth

Stephanie Gonda, sales manager of Townsquare Media, has created a movement meant to highlight issues the youth of Grand Rapids face every day. By bringing students together—organized into groups facilitated by mentors and coaches—and involving local organizations like Experience Grand Rapids and Amplify GR, #GRSummerProject aims to provide access to the resources necessary for developing solutions to those same issues.

“That’s the thing: I understand that people like to watch and see, but I need everybody involved,” Gonda says. “Anybody, from anywhere, from any medium, from any business, from any organization, from any zip code.”

The project will be in effect from June 12 until August 3. Each student, from sixth graders to freshmen in college, will choose a social issue they are passionate about and be grouped with other individuals who choose to work on the same issue. Each group will be given $1,049 to fund the solution being developed for their specific problem. The students have near total control over how they want to proceed with finding a solution and developing the solution itself; the mentors and coaches for each group will simply help piece together and polish the end result.

Originally, the application deadline was June 6, but has now been extended until June 29. As of the publication of this article, there are 34 students involved, tackling issues such as homelessness, discrimination, mental health, and entrepreneurship.

“We don’t expect solutions to come in the next eight weeks,” Gonda says. “They understand, I understand that that’s not gonna happen…[But] they want to be involved. They have come up with some amazing ideas or thoughts, and when we connect with the organizations that are working with some of these same [issues], we’re hoping new perspective is formed.”

For Gonda, the fuel behind #GRSummerProject rose out of frustration and ambiguity. Prior to the campaign, she raised the question to herself and her peers of whether or not they were impacting the youth as much as they should be. After going into the community and listening to their needs, the answer boiled down to one simple, yet profound concept: the youth of Grand Rapids need to be seen, heard, and felt before anyone else.

One student involved, Gonda explains, expressed her concerns about her safety after being held in a lockdown at school due to a nearby armed shooter. Another touched upon his struggles with being bullied and depression.

“I’ve had a couple of people go and say, that are not involved with the project, ‘Well, are the students really going to want to get involved with a commitment like this,” Gonda says. “And I’m like yes— they are begging to be heard. They want somebody to ask them questions. They want to be involved in the solutions.”

Additionally, Magic 104.9 radio station is collaborating with #GRSummerProject, not only to highlight community issues, but to highlight local musicians as well. Students have the opportunity to submit their original music to win a cash prize of $2,500, have their music featured on the radio, and to open for the end of the summer concert designed to celebrate eight weeks' worth of commitment to social change.

“We just have to bring all that good together to light under one platform, that we can all celebrate together the progress that’s going to be made by being intentional over these eight weeks over the summer.”

If you're interested in applying to be part of #GRSummerProject, download the pledge form here.

Images courtesy of #GRSummerProject.

Muse GR renovates an idea: From adult bookstore, to photography studio, to interactive art gallery

For the past 50 years, the building at 727 Leonard St NW housed a windowless, closed-off adult bookstore, of which its neighboring community was not a fan. However, over the past year, the building was purchased, renovated, and transformed into an interactive art gallery, now known as Muse GR, by Stephen Smith, who owns photography company Executive Visions and works in Grand Rapids Public Schools, and Taylor Smith, writer for the marketing and communications team of World Renew. The ribbon cutting was held on Friday, May 18th at 12pm.

Originally, Stephen says, the sole use of the building was for a photography studio that would be broken into three different spaces in which to conduct photoshoots.

“We saw the need for that because all the places [photography studios] that were open would close down after a while,” says Stephen. “I would interview the owners and they would say the overhead was too high. So that’s kind of how we got the idea—if we can leverage the cost by actually buying the property, as opposed to renting it out, then we wouldn’t have to be worried about closing down.”

Additionally, the couple wanted to create a space where everyone would feel comfortable.

“The need, I would say, came out of us being a part of different studios around the area and Stephen doing photography, and not feeling like we were always welcomed,” says Taylor. “Or, feeling like there wasn’t a community feel to these different spaces. We felt limited. We don’t want people to feel like they’re excluded.”

Throughout the process of reconstructing both the physical appearance and the conceptual use of the space, the two took business classes to perfect their business model, sought out an architect and construction company who best complemented how they wanted to bring their vision to life, and surveyed different photographers about their thoughts on the space.

Many of the resources and support they received were from local organizations, including Grand Rapids Area Black Businesses, who lent advice about navigating city policies and the commercial side of real estate, and Start Garden, who recently awarded Stephen and Taylor funding from their 100 Ideas pitch contest.

Eventually, the primary focus of the space shifted from being used as a photography studio, to being used for an art gallery and a place to hold events, workshops, classes, and more. Stephens says they want the community to generate ideas for events to host in the space in the future.

In the near-future, they are looking to collaborate with various artists, both local and national, to create a platform for pop-up art, live art, and speaker series.

Additionally, they hope to change the community’s perception of how they are able to create something of value to themselves and their community.

“There are things people want to change in the city or to add to the city, and they have the ideas, but they don’t realize they have the power to do it,” says Taylor. “So I just hope it encourages other young people to do what’s in their heart.”

On June 1, Muse GR will open its doors from 12 p.m. to 4 p.m. to the public.
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