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Little Space Studio changing their approach to creative co-working

If you were view Little Space Studio’s (LSS) original plans for their first two years, founder Alysha White would have have simply called it a workshop space.

“It’s one thing to just host a workshop –– it’s another thing to design a space where people can just come in and host their own workshops, or host their own meetings or events,” says White. “We thought it was so clean-cut to be say, ‘Here’s your workshop space, here’s where you actually do your work, here’s your desk,’ but there’s so much grey area there.”

“We were so surprised at how many different ways we would have a meetup and how many different ways we could host a workshop. And we’re not scared of that, but it does take a lot of consideration –– everything from liability to someone’s comfort level, to just making sure the space is readily available for anyone. There’s just so much design and thought and consideration in that process, that we just had no idea.”

Reflecting on how the city has changed over time and how the population engages with these changes, has also been one of the catalysts for how LSS would approach their work.

“I feel like two years ago, there was already this energy to try to change the organic community,” says White. “You saw the energy there, but you didn’t see a lot of that cross-pollination or bridge-building happening, and I still think we struggle with that.”

So, as many businesses tend to do, LSS has shifted its purpose of being more exact in how they want to serve the creative
community of Grand Rapids.

Since opening its doors in 2016 at 401 Hall St., their team has migrated to 111 Division Ave S. –– a multi-level, industrial-like space with more than enough room to dream big. By the end of the summer, the first floor will be open for use by members and the general public, where the most engagement will incur through co-working, programming, and the general opportunity for connecting with others. A fully-functioning sound studio will be installed, which White says will allow guest podcasters and guest broadcasters to engage with their space.

Reconstruction of the third floor will follow after, where various conference rooms and studios will be located.

Although there will be an emphasis on the visual appeal and resources the space will offer to its patrons, a special focus will be placed on allowing a diverse crowd of people to find their niche at LSS. Simple things, White explains, from integrating arts and technology into their programming, to providing a choice in snacks between ramen noodles and gluten-free muffins, are humanistic details that have pulled the variety of people who have participated in the space to continuously return. 

“I’m hoping that LSS becomes a go-to space in the Grand Rapids community to connect with whatever industry they’re in,” says White. “We’re not industry specific, but we are specific to the mindset of, ‘I am a creative person, this is how I define myself,’ and whether that is through coping, painting, or anything else, we want people to feel like they can get the beat of Grand Rapids [by] coming to our space.”

Photos courtesy Little Space Studio.

LOFT fulfills niche for tech software aftercare

Each day, the tech industry is bustling with new ideas, paired with individuals who are eager to craft them into tangible and useful platforms. These platforms, ranging from applications to software systems, are built from the ground up, in hopes of making a progressive contribution to the world. However, such platforms require a continuous amount of nurturing and aftercare at their core –– a particular set of skills that may not be as prominent in the individuals who initially created the platform. This is where the company Lots of Freaking Talent (LOFT) steps in to give a helping hand.

LOFT Vice President of Sales Brian Anderson describes their niche in the tech landscape as property managers. “When you think of support, it’s easier to think of what it’s like to rent an apartment or house, and if you think about what property managers do with the owners of property, that’s what we do for software systems,” he says.

“Someone that’s building either internally when they’re a startup and they’re running it or they’ve acquired it, and they want someone to manage it and support it for them so that they don’t have to take all the calls from the tenants and all of the flashback; they can focus on the big picture and we can just provide them with support.”

Anderson, who grew up in Grand Rapids and studied computer information systems at Western Michigan University, has long held an interest in the tech field. Over time, he has worked with companies such as Nusoft and OST, until eventually moving into the CEO position of Augusto Digital, a tech company more focused on the initial development end of software. LOFT was then borne out of Augusto Digital, launching in 2018 to help tech companies elevate and maintain the core functionality of their software over time.

Anderson says he and his team identified the need for tech support amongst their own projects when they realized it required a new set of processes, and an overall way of engaging.

“...those people are going to go from one project to the next, one build to the next, and they’re trained to build something over and over again, whereas [with] support, you have to be reactive,” says Anderson.

LOFT offers two tiers of support: the first maintaining the general wellness of the software, and the second, working toward actively improving what already exists.

The end result is one that satisfies an overlooked discipline in the aftermath of a new software, and also lends software developers the freedom to focus solely on the innovation of their platform. Ideally, this will allow these tech companies in Grand Rapids to quickly and effectively push new concepts forward, and to extend their network of skill sets beyond the initial startup of their platforms.

Images provided by LOFT. 


Vision To Learn launches first step toward free vision care for GRPS students

Just weeks ago, on January 24, Aberdeen K-8 School became the first of Grand Rapids Public Schools (GRPS) to collaborate with nonprofit Vision To Learn, who provides students with vision screening tests and proper eyewear. Nationwide, 2 million school children lack the eye care needed to succeed in school. At GRPS, 3,000 of these children will be gifted glasses at no charge

Vision To Learn’s National Director, Damian Carroll, says his best days on the job are seeing students react to putting on their new pair of glasses and being able to see correctly for the first time.

“A frequent reaction the kids get is that they can actually see the leaves on the trees for the first time,” Carroll says. “A lot of our kids are surprised to find out that a big tree is not like a big pea pod, or a big blob, but that when they get their glasses on, they can see all the individual leaves on the tree from a distance. That just delights them.”

Since 2012, Vision To Learn has been visiting school districts via mobile eye clinics to give students free eye exams and glasses, improving their experience in the classroom. The nonprofit is based out of Los Angeles, California, but began expanding their services across the country in 2014. Since then, they have extended their services to full-time programs in 12 different states.

Coincidentally, Vision To Learn founder Austin Beutner grew up in Grand Rapids and has long dreamt of bringing the program to his hometown community, where he sees a high demand for their services. Generally, the organization visits schools that have a higher percentage of kids who qualify for the Free and Reduced Lunch Program.

Carroll says there are many contributing factors in students’ lack access to vision care.

“Sometimes parents need to take a day or two off of work for the eye exam, and then to get the glasses fit,” he says. “There could be transportation issues, lack of access to optometrists who accept medication, and then there’s just the basic awareness issue –– sometimes parents don’t know that the child needs an eye exam, or are unaware of how to go about getting these eye exams.

So what our program was designed to do, and has been very successful in doing, is bridging the gap so that we can get signed consent forms from the parent. They don’t need to bring the child to the exam –– we bring the exam to the child.”

In addition to Grand Rapids, Michigan has programs operating in Detroit, Flint, and the the South Redford area. Carroll says their team looks forward to expanding their program to other schools in Kent County over the next few years, and hope to bring a clinic to Lansing.

“We think we’re not too far away from being within a few years of solving this problem for kids throughout Michigan,” says Carroll. “Wouldn’t that be exciting, to say every kid in Michigan who needs a pair of glasses for school, has that pair of glasses?”

Photos courtesy of Vision To Learn. 

Recognizing Muskegon's bright, entrepreneurial future

Over nearly two decades, Muskegon has seen an upward progression in its economic climate. More recently, in the last three or four years, Grand Valley State University's Muskegon Innovation Hub has intentionally reached out to the community, offering themselves up as a resource to push forth the tools necessary for self-starting success. Since then, the hub has seen their clients establish and sustain their own businesses, investing their ideas back into the Lakeshore. Such investment has born measurable change within the community, expressed through the frequency of shops and restaurants found revitalizing the area.

As a result, the Hub has declared 2019 as the first year that will celebrate a Lakeshore Innovator of the Year, a ceremony recognizing and awarding the creativity and innovation present within their community. Nominations will be open to single-person entrepreneurs, small or large companies, and non-profits.

“This first year, we’re casting a wide net,” says Muskegon Innovation Hub Director Kevin Ricco. “It’s speaking to anything innovative that hasn’t been done or hasn’t been brought up before, that has that creative and innovative drive attached to it.”
Ricco described downtown as once being “a giant sandbox,” but now, “You go downtown today, there are cranes constructing large six-story buildings, and older buildings being renovated to house new businesses.”

However, the type of businesses Muskegon’s landscape is able to foster continues to reshape, as well.

“Longer Days, a company that graduated here from the Hub a couple of years ago, is a company that focuses on virtual offices,” says Ricco. “They have a central location in downtown Muskegon, but their clients are all over the globe, quite literally.”

Overall, Ricco says during the last couple of years, there has been approximately $5 billion worth of projects either planned or in action for the greater Muskegon area.

The Hub will be taking nominations up until January 31 (nominations can be submitted here), then in February, their advisory committee will narrow down the nominations to five finalists, with one selected winner. On March 14th, the ceremony event will be hosted at the Hub facility, where all five finalists and the winner will be recognized.

“The number of people who have graduated from our program, continue to contribute to the Muskegon community, and now are renting all this space — we’re starting to see some of the fruits of that effort,” says Ricco.

Images courtesy of Muskegon Innovation Hub.

Students address "wicked" problems in Wege Prize competition

Since 2013, the Wege Prize competition has awarded teams a cash prize for their solutions for solving “wicked” problems –– problems, the competition describes, that are "considerably resistant to resolution." These are issues that, once under inspection, unveil an entirely new network of issues that must be resolved as well.

“Wicked problems are systemic, which means they both affect and are affected by a broad diversity of people, places, institutions, and fields of knowledge,” says Wege Prize Organizer Gayle DeBruyn. “The more you broaden your perspective, the better you will be able to understand and address these complex problems.”

The competition is broken into four phases: the first phase consists of two essays, one describing an entrant’s desire for entering the competition, and the other outlining the research plan of the problem being addressed. The second phase is the project summary first draft, or the means by which the solution will be brought to life. The third phase is a revision of the summary draft, and the fourth phase is the final draft and presentation to judges and a live audience.

Each year, the competition receives between 50 and 80 applicants, and have more recently allowed participation from graduate students and students attending university internationally.

“Due to the educational nature of the competition, we accept all qualified teams and encourage them to move forward through each phase, using the judges’ feedback to grow their understanding and develop their solutions,” says DeBruyn.

Each team is comprised of five members who choose a world issue they want to solve. This year, the teams, which were announced on December 6, will create a business model based on a circular economy.

“A circular economy is restorative by design,” says DeBruyn. “It is globally recognized as the most viable alternative to the linear economy, and is powered by the same transdisciplinary approach required of Wege Prize teams.”

In a circular economy, products should maintain their highest utility and value as a way to maximize their output, saving both money and energy. In this same way, businesses and services mirror the same model and overall, create an efficient work cycle, from the perspective of monetary value and eco-friendly operation.

In comparison, the linear economic system, which is the primary business model seen in practice today, relies on large quantities of easily accessible resources and energy. In this model, natural resources are used in abundance but very rarely restored, taking away from the long-term sustainability of our present economy.

Following the model of the circular economy, the 2018 Wege winners generated a solution to eco-tourism in Mexico, protecting the environment and the rights of indigenous communities, all while creating fiscal gain. 2017 winners created a food and beverage processing plant which converted organic waste products into animal feed and fertilizer. Outside of the competition itself, DeBruyn says it’s encouraging to see teams develop their ideas beyond the Wege Prize.

The 2018 first-place winners are currently rolling out their online platform to real-world customers, and the 2017 first-place winners are currently selling the product they developed.

“Wege Prize participants are empowered with a bold new way of looking at and tackling problems that may seem impossible to solve,” says DeBruyn. “The more people there are who not only believe that a better future is possible, but who are actively equipped to help us get there, the closer we get to making that future a reality.”

Photos courtesy of Wege Prize. 

The $150k Frey Foundation grant addresses the grey area of poverty

Poverty is not always defined by homelessness or unemployment –– sometimes, poverty is defined by the mental and physical stress of living paycheck to paycheck, or living in constant fear that one outlier or an incident will send a family’s budget into financial turmoil. The non-profit organization Frey Foundation refers to this group of people as the ALICE population: Asset-Limited, Income Constrained, Employed.

“...our ALICE population, which makes up almost 30 percent of our population in Grand Rapids, are really our lowest paid workers,” says Frey Foundation President Holly Johnson. “So these are people who are employed, they’re working, they’re supporting their families –– they’re just not making enough money to really live well in our community. They’re above the poverty level, so that also means that they aren’t able to get a lot of public assistance. They’re above that national poverty level ratio, so they’re really the ones that are struggling.”

As a continuation of the foundation’s efforts to assist this population, they awarded the $150,000 Housing Innovation Award to the Inner City Christian Federation (ICCF) in late November to push forward the agenda of affordable housing. The ICCF will use a Community Homes Land Trust model, allowing qualified applicants to purchase homes sold to them at below-market prices, as opposed to buying directly from the open market. Additionally, the structure will preserve housing affordability for future years, rather than skyrocketing with the growth of the economy.

“I think we initially see it as a good thing when the cost of housing goes up because it indicates economic growth, but when wages don’t keep up with the cost of housing, we get a wider and wider gap of people who are unable to afford [housing],” Johnson says.

“We think that people shouldn’t pay more than 30 to 35 percent of their annual gross income in housing expenses, so when that starts creeping up to 40 or 50 or 60 percent of your gross pay, it starts to make every other aspect of your life go out of whack. You’re not able to pay for health care, pay for education, pay for transportation, and all those other things that we have to do.”
Johnson notes that “This is the long game,” that this is an issue requiring more than grant-making, and instead, requires all the moving parts of the city government implementing policy change and higher working wages, and philanthropists who support these causes.

As a result, the ICCF was the chosen as the recipient of the grant, based on the organization’s approach to this issue and, drawing from previous work they have carried out, their capacity to achieve what goals they have in store.

Images courtesy of the Frey Foundation.

Revolution Farms challenges traditional agriculture methods with aquaponics farming

Revolution Farms, located on 76th street in Caledonia, is the second largest aquaponics farm in the United States. Just last month, the farm harvested its very first crop of produce, and on average will harvest 350,000 pounds of produce a year, with a focus on salad greens.

Initially, the company distributed their salad greens to 16 different SpartanNash stores; however, they now distribute to all 82 stores across Michigan, which include D&W, Family Fare, and VG’s.

Revolution Farms founder and CEO Tripp Frey explains that the two long-term, positive impacts of aquaponic farming are its sustainability and overall quality of product.

Essentially, aquaponic farming consists of growing produce in nutrient-rich water instead of soil and uses aquaculture, the breeding of underwater animals, to supply the nutrients for the water. Revolution Farms specifically breeds tilapia and filters out their naturally produced fertilizer, which is then used to saturate the foot-high pool of water in the greenhouse in which the vegetables are grown.

“When I talk about sustainability, the policy of environmental impact, this farm uses 90 percent less water than traditional agriculture,” says Frey. Additionally, “There’s nothing unnatural in our system because we have to have the fish and the plants survive together. So any kind of synthetic fertilizer or chemical could potentially be dangerous to both of our living organisms and our ecosystem that we’ve created.”

The facility is also 85,000 square feet, about an acre of land, whereas more common forms of agriculture such as field growing can use up to 30 acres of land to produce the same amount of crops.

Another benefit of Revolution Farms is its means to distribute salad greens locally. Generally, most of Michigan’s salad greens are imported from California and Arizona. The biggest issue with this long-distance sourcing is the time between harvesting and their actual arrival on Michigan’s grocery shelves.

“By the time it’s even on the rack, or the shelf of the store, it’s seven or more days old already,” says Frey. “So our goal is to get it on the shelf within a couple of days of being harvested.”

“And there’s a lot of evidence that the more fresher produce equals more nutritious produce, so those are kind of big advantages for the consumer. But obviously by supporting us, you’re supporting local community and supporting jobs.”

Although hydroponics is not the most popular method of farming, it is gaining more traction than before, especially since the practice is still developing new efficiencies. Frey reasons that because places like California and Arizona naturally have useful growing environments and have been reliable supply chains of greens, “No one ever challenged the assumption of us growing it under one person and trucking it around the country.”

“Aquaponics is definitely pushing the envelope here. There are more and more folks growing produce in greenhouses. The whole movement is about the decentralization of our food. Instead of having all of our ingredients come from California, we should be growing it locally around the country, year-round, in greenhouses or buildings, and giving our consumers fresher, healthier food.”

Images courtesy of Revolution Farms.

The Comedy Project set to open after New Year's

In this crucial time of development, where Grand Rapids’ identity is shifting toward something more definitive, the landscape for innovation in all forms is becoming more tangible. Spaces like the Comedy Project, an idea that planted itself only two years ago, is able to exist, and is set to open just after New Year’s. The site, which will also serve as a LaughFest venue, is located at 540 Leonard St. NW, and essentially, will be the only venue in Grand Rapids whose sole focus is on the art of comedy.

“The space essentially has three areas: there’s the classroom space, the main theatre, a space we’re calling the comedy cubicles, and we’ll be having a pretty thorough curriculum –– one for improvisation, one for comedy acting, and one for comedy writing,” says Comedy Project co-founder and artistic director Joe Anderson. “We’re going to really be pushing that training center as a way for people to either experiment to see if this is something they want to do, or if someone already does think they want to do it, it’s a way to challenge them and push them to be better.”

Anderson has been doing comedy for over 15 years. He has traveled across the country to perform, both alone and with his sketch comedy group the Don’t We Boys. Anderson’s management of the Comedy Project will draw from his years of experience, both good and bad, technical and comedic, the things he has seen, and the things he wishes he would have seen.

In addition to workshops and regular comedy performances, the venue will also be open to hosting corporate and private events and retreats. It will be open every day, with varying price admissions and hours depending on the day. The main acts will consist of a core group of six to 10 performers, whereas an opportunity will be given to newer, less frequent performers to fill in remaining slots. Additionally, there will be certain nights designated for student-only shows for those who are practicing their craft.

One of the hopes is that people who practice comedy in this space will grow more comfortable experimenting with their form.

“I feel like with a lot of art disciplines, but specifically comedy right now in Grand Rapids, I feel like a lot of people are worried and they’re being careful, and what I have been saying is you can’t do careful comedy,” says Anderson. “You should be doing responsible comedy, but there’s a big difference between that. You can talk about awful stuff, and you can play awful characters but as long as you’re doing it for a reason –– because if you’re just going to be an awful character saying awful things, then you’ve lost me.”

One of the expectations, however, is that each of their staff members can get paid doing what they love, even if that means going beyond the definition of what their actual job title is.

“Grand Rapids in general doesn’t have a lot of opportunities for people to do something like this as their job, and the truth is that for that job to exist, even with the Comedy Project, it’s going to mean doing some of the parts of the work that just aren’t fun,” says Anderson.

Alongside Anderson, the Comedy Project’s management is made up of four other individuals: Ben Wilke, Eirann Betka, Amy Gascon, Stevie Sahutske, and Cara Powell. In addition to their backgrounds in comedy, they each possess other valuable skills or are willing to contribute their time to tasks other than the comedy itself.

For example, Sahutske has experience in tech and event production, and Betka and Gascon have experience teaching at Civic Theatre and other organizations.

“Our goal is if less people are doing more duties and one of those duties is performing, then that group of people can make more money. Some of them, they’re gonna make money because they were also helping with the garbage, but we can either pay someone else to do that, or we can keep it in that little circle, so that we're at least making something significant.”

In part, this financial structure is necessary to maintain the space for something like the Comedy Project to exist, but the true end goal rests in delivering quality shows, which tends to reflect the likelihood of an audience continuously paying to support and maintain a venue like this.

“...I guess I would say because of the growth of the city, I do think artists are feeling emboldened, maybe because there’s potentially more support for it –– and by support, I really mean money,” says Anderson. “ If there’s more buildings, there means there’s more walls, and those walls need murals and art. So if that’s a true cause and effect, then that’s promising for artists.”

Images courtesy of the Comedy Project.

Ferris State University receives $1.2 million grant to increase STEM retention rates

Ferris State University (FSU) recently received a $1.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation to fund a new initiative called Project S3OAR (pronounced SOAR three), short for Sustainable, Scalable Scholarships, Opportunities, Achievements, and Results, in collaboration with Northern Kentucky University (NKU). The initiative will focus on low-income STEM major students, funding up to $10,000 toward their degree. Beginning in the fall of 2019, 36 students will be enrolled in the program, continuing for the next five years.

Although there are many initiatives across the country that encourage students to pursue STEM disciplines — some beginning as early as middle school — many educational institutions struggle to retain these majors at the higher level.

Across the country, retention rate percentages for STEM majors range from high 60s to the low 70s, and at Ferris State University, that statistic sits at 73 percent. One of the objectives of Project S3OAR is to increase this rate to 90 percent. Ferris State University’s Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences Dr. Kristi Haik says the main reasons these retention rates are low is due to a combination of STEM disciplines being generally challenging to succeed in and a lack of academic preparedness from students.

Dr. Haik reflected on her journey as STEM major, and connected her own experiences to those of the students with whom she works.

“When they get here and run into some really intense challenges, it’s hard and they might not know where to get the help,” she says. “I had great grades in high school and I thought I knew how to study, and then had a rude awakening. I have worked with students to do this program for years, and they all say exactly what I said ... ‘I thought I knew what I was doing, and then I got to college.’”

Prior to FSU, Dr. Haik was working at NKU, where the program was originally established in 2009. A year ago, she proposed that the grant-funded program continue at NKU, and would use that as a model to implement at FSU.

One of the important lessons learned from the program at NKU is that students need a support system to succeed.

“They’re not going to always want to seek help, even though they might need it,” says Dr. Haik. “So working with them, meeting with them, having somebody who is their champion on campus… really serves as that support system.”

The program will also give students the opportunity to shadow employees in the STEM field early in their program, for four to eight hours long, to decide if they want to commit to that career path.

“A lot of times, we hear from students, it was in their internship or junior year when they got connected to somebody at a business, when they ‘got it’ –– that this is something they really want to do,” says Dr. Haik.

Project S3OAR’s other objectives include increasing the enrollment of low-income and underrepresented groups by 10 percent, thus bringing STEM retention and graduation rates for these populations in line with the rest of the university; documenting the program’s sustainability and scalability; and conducting research on the effectiveness of job shadowing in increasing the retention rate from the first year into the next.

In response to the program’s success at NKU, the target goals of the program being met in the next few years to come seem likely. Overall, the program will allow students to think about a wider range of career paths –– a more optimistic future that opens the doors for underrepresented students.

Photos courtesy of Ferris State University.

Independent Living homes offer a solution to youth aging out of foster care

“A lot of times, older kids have been in the system for many years so they have a lot of behavioral issues, they’ve burned a lot of bridges, whether it’s with family members or people they’ve lived with, so they don’t really have a great support system there to help provide housing options as well,” says Samaritas’ West Michigan Director of Child Services Trisha Sverns. “...something that typically you or I might do if we are in difficult times, we might move back in with our parents or stay with a sibling, something like that. They don’t have those options available.”

Sverns is referring to the challenge older teens face, who are more difficult to place in foster care homes.

“It’s just hard because [foster parents] generally come into foster care wanting to take care of younger kids, so there’s a shortage of homes,” Sverns says.

As a result, the non-profit human resource organization Samaritas opened its doors to a new type of service as a way to address these needs. In 2015, the organization opened their first Independent Living Plus home for teens in the Southfield area, a program where they house four to six teens aged 16 to 19 who are in the foster care system.

The teens are placed in these homes on a referral basis through the Department of Health Services or other private agencies looking to place youth in adequate homes, and from there, a caseworker interviews the individual, assessing their capacity to successfully finish the program and in some sense, how well they will fit in with the other teens already there.

“What we’ve been able to see is that we have kids that are sometimes placed in residential settings like a treatment facility, and kids that age [out] have nowhere to go so they stay there longer than they need to,” says Sverns. “So we’ve been able to see a lot of kids come out of those programs because of this housing option, so they can then transition back into the community.”

Since opening up their first Independent Living Plus home, they have expanded in Lansing, Flint, Taylor, Holland, and more recently, Kalamazoo and Grand Rapids this past year. Overall, they are able to house 49 teens, and plan to expand even more in 2019.

What separates these Independent Living homes from a foster care home is the importance they places on building life skills from a place of practicality. The homes are staffed 16 hours a day to provide guidance when needed, and each teen is paired with a case manager and a life coach to ensure their personal needs are being met. The staff may be called on to assist with skills as basic as learning how to do laundry, helping with homework, or doing meal prep. The case manager is responsible for referring teens to resources they may need, making sure they are enrolled in school, and helping them with funding for things like driver’s education or a computer for school, etc.

The life skills coach even goes a step further, “[assessing] each of our youth and figuring out where their individual deficits are in terms of where they need to learn some skills in order to work successfully on their own after they leave our program,” according to Sverns. They educate teens on how to use the bus system, how to apply for resource benefits, or even how to apply for jobs.

Overall, in the three years that the program has been in effect, there has been measurable improvement among youth after leaving the program seen through the KC Life Skill Assessment, taken every quarter. Using this tool, staff are able to understand what skills each child has acquired or how much their skills have developed.

Something not as easily measurable — something that these Independent Living homes try to develop — are support systems for when teens leave the program. By introducing youth to community organizations and services while they are in the program, the hope is that they continue to use those resources and maintain those relationships long after.

“We had people who wanted to mentor kids, and that’s definitely something we would love to do, but I think it’s tricky because people care and they want to get involved and help, but really these kids need long-term support,” says Sverns. “I think it’s more helpful if we can find a way to connect them to the community or even churches or other organizations that would be there for them in the long run.”

Images courtesy of Samaritas.

Lessons in creativity and entrepreneurship with Carbon Stories

Carbon Stories, the creative agency focused on storytelling through photo and video, has grown in size, audience, and content in only three years. As the company continues to shape its identity, learning at a young stage what it takes to be better, more innovative each day, there is one thing that is certain:

“There are times where I’ll sit here and just watch videos about cameras or about lighting or about process, but really, in order to grow, I have to be producing it,” creative director and founder Erik Lauchié says. “I could watch these videos all day, or sit in a class all day, but our field is what you’re creating, so I’ve got to create more.”

Carbon Stories’ monochromatic space sits on Bridge Street facing the road, where large windows pull in just the right amount of sunlight. A friendly husky named Bella strolls around the front room, waiting to be tended to. Only four of the 10 Carbon employees are physically in the building, not counting the reservoir of 17 creators called upon for projects. Lauchié says, “On an average day, there’s something going on in the studio, people in here working, and [there’s] always stuff outside, shoot-wise.”

Carbon creator Allayah Quinn says one of her favorite things about being at Carbon Stories is that someone is always there creating.

“You could come here at 6 a.m. and someone will probably be here until 2 a.m.,” Quinn says.

This approach to the workplace is one of many elements that makes Carbon Stories stand out. It allows freedom for each employee to develop their skills the best way they know how, fostering their creativity in whatever form it may come. Additionally, their can-do attitude forms a team of people comfortable with where they lie on the spectrum of creativity, and pushing forth the mantra of constantly evolving.

“Creatively, something I feel that you should always have as a mindset at Carbon is that you’ll never stop evolving,” says Quinn. She says she always tells her story, especially to the younger generation who wants to work in a similar field, that she “never touched a camera until she came here for college.”

In the beginning, the company pulled in clientele by personally going business-to-business, person-to-person, handing people their business cards and telling them what they do. Lately, most of their clients come from word of mouth, like a domino-effect: one well-executed project leads them to another handful of clients, and so on.

However, Lauchié says, one thing he has learned is that the process of establishing new clients and successfully completing projects never ends. It is a constant process, but has gotten easier as Carbon Stories has become an integral part of his life.

“I remember when it first started, I just didn’t think about it that way,” he says. “...but I’ve learned you’ve got to be ready to talk about it, you’ve got to be ready to answer questions about it, and think through things. All the time, even when I’m just talking in conversation with someone, they’ll ask me something that I may have a good surface answer to, and then I’ll go back to it and go, 'Well wait, how do I address that?' [I am] always needing to find more solutions and continuing to grow.”

Over just the past year, the company has opened more doors of opportunity to experiment with the true meaning behind what entrepreneurship and creativity mean in terms of Carbon Stories and the Grand Rapids community as a whole. They have been more avid of direct involvement with the community, hosting various workshops for content creation and the use of photo equipment and software, as well as using their name as a platform to provoke and inspire. In just the past couple of months, Lauchié participated in an influencer panel at Madcap Coffee Company, spoke at Start Garden, and almost every week as a team, they go to the West Michigan Center for Arts and Technology (WMCAT) to give students feedback and assistance on their video projects — Lauchié even went on to produce his own podcast called Create Daily, where he explores ideas of what art means to other creatives.

For each month of this year, the group has been able to travel out of state for client work –– something they were only able to do twice in 2017. Earlier in the year, they were donated a truck they named Mobile 1202, which they use as a mobile photo studio and hope to change the way they do business with clients, both inside and outside of Michigan. In addition, every Thursday from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m., they host a networking night through an organization they are part of called PLUG (People Learning, Understanding, and Growing), which they use as a tool to connect with other creatives in Grand Rapids. Eventually, the collective wants it to be a space where they have resources available to people to use, such as a photography studio or a sewing station for clothing.

“It’s still in its baby stages, but that still answers that question of how do we connect,” says Lauchié. “There’s a board of five people who run it and I knew it was bigger than Carbon because this is something that crosses industries.”

To learn more about Carbon Stories as the company continues to learn and grow, visit their website at http://carbonstories.us/.

Images courtesy of Carbon Stories.

Foster Kent Kids coalition helps foster homes optimize their family dynamic

Formed this October, 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.
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