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Straight from the farmer’s mouth: Support local agriculture at Saturday’s Growers Fare

Coming this weekend is the farmer’s market to end all farmers’ markets.

The West Michigan Growers Group, a consortium of farmers that became a nonprofit in January, is partnering with Michigan State University Extension and the Downtown Market for the 2017 Growers Fare: CSA [Community Supported Agriculture] Open House, which will give our local residents a chance to connect with, and support, area farmers. The third annual event will bring a coalition of more than 10 farms to the Downtown Market’s second floor banquet ballroom from 10am to 1:30pm this Saturday, March 25.

Market vendors will offer food samples that have used local farm produce. Along with being child-friendly, the event is geared to families seeking to support locally grown food. Those who attend Saturday’s gig will be able to get more information about, and sign up for, CSAs, programs that allow residents to purchase fresh produce from local growers. Along with produce shares, select vendors will also be offering milk and egg shares as part of their CSAs.

Farmers will provide demonstrations and be eager to field questions from any newcomers to the CSA model. The farms range from distances as far away as Kent City and Ada and as close as the south side of Grand Rapids.
The farms that will be represented this weekend include:
The event will be a great chance to ask farmers about their practices, pricing and products they offer. All WM Grower’s Group farms are committed to bringing sustainably grown products to their local communities.

While the Growers Group is a relatively new nonprofit, it has operated as a farmer-to-farmer organization since April 12, with the group meeting for monthly potlucks and farm tours in order to exchange ideas, tools and organize shared labor and other costs.

Be sure to come on down to the Downtown Market this Saturday and poke your head in and learn about the food that is being grown locally right from the...farmer’s mouth.

For more information about Growers Fare, visit www.wmgrowersgroup.org.

Ken Miguel-Cipriano is Rapid Growth’s innovation and jobs editor. To reach Ken, you can email ken.miguel.cipriano@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

Citizen Labs: How a group of data geeks, developers & designers are making GR more transparent

During a time in our country when the topic of government is in most headlines, there is a group in Grand Rapids that is connecting everyday citizens with civic data. Started by an all-volunteer group of developers, designers, data geeks, and others, Citizen Labs was founded in June 2016 with the mission to connect Grand Rapidians with open data and open source technology to improve their communities.

Founding members Jace Browning, Max Dillivan, Traci Montgomery, Lee Mueller, Brandon Klotz, Joel Anderson, and Allen Clark formed Citizen Labs to provide a greater transparency to the civic data -- data from public institutions, like the city government or the police department -- that often feels tangled within inaccessible formats, such as what can be convoluted city websites.

The team has successfully finished two projects in its short existence. The group provided a short description of the completed projects:

Open Budget: Grand Rapids: Launched on June 6, 2016, the Open Budget project promotes a deeper understanding of the city budget of Grand Rapids, so that citizens, officials, and other stakeholders can engage in more informed dialogue about how the city of Grand Rapids currently works and how it should in the future.

Grand Rapids Parks & Recreation Investments: The GR Parks Project launched September 2016 and uses open source OpenStreetMap and data from the city of Grand Rapids to show the parks of the city of Grand Rapids, the tax dollars invested in each park thus far, and details of updates made. The investments in our parks were made possible by dedicated property millage for capital and pool operations, and major repair and rehabilitation of parks and playgrounds that residents of Grand Rapids voted in favor of on November 5, 2013.

Currently the group is still looking over possible projects to take on as a team in 2017. Meet ups are used to work on personal projects or to pitch group projects as well.

The group meets every other Tuesday inside The Factory; these events are free and open to the public. Members say that newcomers do not need to have robust tech experience, but rather have a desire to use data to help our city.

The membership now consists of programmers, designers, planners, community leaders, data geeks, and idea makers, but they encourage diverse backgrounds. Citizen Labs understands that diversity of thought is necessary for innovative solutions. Clark mentions that, “We are looking to grow and connect more with the community for sure in the upcoming year.”

Being technology inclined, a majority of the group’s work is done outside of the meeting times. Their projects and information can be found on their Github page, or you can join the groups conversations on Slack.

Ken Miguel-Cipriano is Rapid Growth’s innovation and jobs editor. To reach Ken, you can email ken.miguel.cipriano@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter and Instagram.
 

Well Design Studio has big plans for the future, but they won't forget where they came from

Tucked away in a small office inside the Ledyard Building in the heart of downtown Grand Rapids is the home of Well Design Studio.

Recently, Rapid Growth had a chance to sit down and chat with the Well Design team to talk about the origin story of this design and communication studio that focuses on working with nonprofits and small local businesses.

RG: How did Well Design Studio start?

WD: Well started January 2015. The founding team was just Josh Leffingwell and Amar Dzomba, and in October 2015 we brought Tyler Doornbos in as a partner. He was owner of North Sea Studio, and he brought his clients to our company. That is maybe when Well started in its current form as a full service creative agency.

RG: What drives the studio? What is Well Design’s mission?

WD: We are all pretty entrepreneurial, so we really try to bring that mindset to the orgs and businesses we work with. When we work with an organization or company we like to get to know the organization as if we are the executive director or CEO. We learn about the funders, the donors, the constituents, and stakeholders. We really take the time to understand what produces for the client — what their constituency needs are, what they respond to, how they think. We can sometimes come off a bit imperious, I think — we kind of assume an opinionated role, where we are constantly asking the client, “if it’s not producing a benefit for you, why are you doing it?”

From that we begin to craft a plan, develop messaging and identify productive channel, and create beautiful design. It is that in-depth process that I think makes our company unique. We aren't looking at a campaign just for the campaign, we’re understanding it from the various perspectives and taking that approach to creating everything we do.

RG: There can be rough waters out here for smaller design studios. How have you had to adapt?

WD: Well started out as an agency that focused exclusively on nonprofits. The goal was to help nonprofits and the community through better design and communications.

We knew that nonprofits were struggling by usually only having pro bono designers work on their work. We knew that pro bono often means work that is temporary... it doesn't understand the needs of the organization or more importantly; it doesn't understand the organization's constituents. We wanted to help them create design and messaging that understood the people they serve. That level of market research is very rarely done at the non-profit level, and it's not because of money... it's often because they don't know that they need it.

We learned that if we can better speak to the audience of the client, they can do better outreach to their constituents and further serve the community.

However, over time we realized that nonprofits are not the only ones who support the community... seed, small and medium-sized growing businesses are important for any region. So we started working with for-profit businesses that are looking to grow and bring jobs to their community. We quickly learned they are similar to nonprofits in budget and their need to understand their audience.

RG: What kind of work does the studio do?

WD: We do back-to-front communications. We do design, messaging, marketing, web development, user experience and user interface design, human-centered design… our studio wants to do it all — in large part because of that entrepreneurial mindset. Plus, we have a small but crazy good team of designers, developers, and copywriters who are really talented with a really diverse set of skills. Those diverse skill sets make our team really collaborative and allows each person to have a hand on nearly every project.

RG: What is the culture like around the office?

WD: In our work, our culture is to push our clients. We get excited when a non-profit is willing to move past what people expect of them. Nonprofits are safe by design. They don't want to offend anyone because that person may be a donor some day — and non-profits often get flack for taking risks or challenging the safe day-to-day operational model that people expect. We understand that, but we also know that every nonprofit (and for profit for that matter) is fighting for air time, for funders or customers, for volunteers or talent, so they need to stand out. You can't have a traditional annual report, you can't use traditional fundraising asks — you can't just expect what is failing before to work just because you have someone polish it with better hierarchy and type. You have to challenge yourself to look beyond what you've done, or what your peers are doing.

We get excited about helping all of our clients push past what other comparable organizations are doing. Whether that is through design or messaging, we help them to stand out and most importantly, produce the outcomes they’re looking for.

Around the office, it's kind of a mix between laid back and intense. There’s a really collegial culture… everyone in the office is a friend, obviously due to our intensive team building program of arcade basketball and video games (okay, really just FIFA). None of us have worked for another studio so we don't know what it's like elsewhere, I guess. We’ve always been people that wanted to do our own thing. We all really like it, or at least we think the employees do, because everyone sticks around.

RG: The design field in Grand Rapids is really lacking diversity and inclusion. Thoughts?

WD: If firms are going to be able to compete in the long-term they will need to have diverse teams, because all of our communities are more diverse. Agencies need to value people of color. If you're hiring a copywriter and that person is Latinx and speaks Spanish, they not only bring more value from a work perspective, but they also bring a new perspective to the agency — they deserve to be paid according to the huge value they bring into the firm.

We work with a number of black-owned businesses, and nonprofits that serve people of color. Every design or tech company likely does. We understand that we have a responsibility to work with a team that understands those communities. For instance, when we do messaging for the Latinx community, we know that we need copywriters who not only speak Spanish, but understand the specific vernacular used by the people we are speaking to. Most firms speak about “translation” — we talk about Spanish-language copywriting.

RG: What do the next five years hold for the studio?

WD: We want to grow a lot in the coming years. We are looking at doubling this year, and again next year. Once we break through the current growth ceiling, we have aims to be counted among the top boutique design firms in the area.
On the side, the agency also runs a few projects like Beer O'Clock GR (the best damn happy hour site in the world) and Featherlight (hands-off websites that help professional academics build their personal brand affordably).

We plan on these projects experiencing considerable growth in the next 12 to 18 months. We are serious about building a culture and company that values entrepreneurial thinking and produces projects that expand what we do beyond just a fee-for-service agency. Plus, getting out of our collective comfort zones makes us better at producing results for our clients at Well, since we learn an enormous amount by doing on our side projects.

RG: What is right around the corner?

WD: We are always excited about working with some of our long-term clients like the West Michigan Environmental Action Council, Kids Food Basket, HQ, and Challenge Scholars (Grand Rapids Community Foundation and Grand Rapids Public Schools).

But we also are doing all the design for AIGA West Michigan’s Design Week (March 25 to April 1) and we'll be doing all the design for this year's Friends of Grand Rapids Parks' Green Gala.

We have a big campaign rolling out for Friends of Grand Rapids Parks shortly that we can't talk about yet, but we are crazy excited about that. FGRP told us to create a fun fundraising campaign for them and let us run with it; that is the kind of work we love.

This amazing city of ours continues to produce hard working and talented professionals like the team at Well Design. Let’s hope this becomes the new norm, instead of the exception.

Ken Miguel-Cipriano is Rapid Growth’s innovation and jobs editor. To reach Ken, you can email ken.miguel.cipriano@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

Job hunting? These tips will help your search

Searching for a new job? The prospect of a new job can be exciting (and daunting), so here are some tips to aid in your search for your new gig or career.

These recommendations can be applied pretty much across the board, no matter what job level you’re seeking or the type of career you’d like to land. Whether you’re an aspiring yogi, programmer or recent college graduate, having a method to the madness that is job hunting will always give you a leg up on the competition.


Just like any good athlete will do and tell you: don’t get ready; stay ready! Be sure to always have a current resume, always be building new contacts and strengthening old ones. As well as always learning and seek growth opportunities.

Be present in the work you are doing. You never know when you will have to ask for a recommendation. As the saying goes, find the work you love and you will never have to work again. This is very true. Although you may feel pressured to take the first high paying job that comes across, remember that a job is not necessarily a career -- and a career must cohabit with your personal life.

Increase your network. It’s not all about business card swapping; rather, aim to build meaningful relationships with a greater diversity of people. These relationships will help when searching for and securing new job opportunities. A cursory search into famous business, movie, or historical figures will show you that. Grand Rapids groups that can help you with networking include Equity DrinksBLEND and Drinks & Digital.

Do you have a mentor, coach and sponsor? Do you know the difference?

Non-profit organization Catalyst states it elegantly: “A coach talks to you; a mentor talks with you; a sponsor talks about you.”

A coach will help guide you through your career development. You can have more than one coach, and they do not necessarily have to be from your same career field.

A mentor is there to help you navigate your career choices. This relationship is often limited to fewer people, and many people often settle on one person as their mentor. Your mentor does not necessarily have to be from your career field, but having one that does often deepens the relationship and the wisdom that they provide.

A sponsor is like your promoter; they are someone in your career field that has a senior or influential status that can speak on your character, skills and experience. A sponsor must be in your career field to be effective in promoting who you are to other higher level professionals.

These relationships must be built over time and are driven by you. It can take time to find a mentor, whereas coaches can be found by asking a senior professional directly. A mentor will take time and energy to build and show that the relationship will benefit both parties. Finally the sponsor can often take more time, especially if you are still in an early development stage in your career. The first step starts with asking.

This may seem intimidating or formulaic at first, but it is a natural consequence of successful people. To add to the saying “Rome wasn’t built in a day,” it was also definitely not built by a single person. Behind every successful person there are countless people who have helped along the way, whether they are coaches, mentors, sponsors, contemporaries, or friends. The importance of knowing that you are not alone, and that you cannot do it all alone, is the first step in the right direction.

Volunteering, internships and side jobs are a great way to build skills, networks and experience, with the latter allowing you the extra income to build up a savings. To learn more about volunteering opportunities in and around Grand Rapids, you can go here and here for internships.

Nothing is more awkward than a cold email to a loose contact for a recommendation letter. It’s not about being a wanderer or a job nomad, but rather always following your passion and building yourself up. Some jobs will help add to your skill set, others to your network, and most to your experience, while some others are missteps. It’s OK to have a plateau where you gain your bearings and just maintain your career; life isn’t all about work. Life is meant to be lived!

Check out some of these local job boards and see if they pique your interest. If you are searching your mind for who your coach, mentor, or sponsor could be no need to rush. It takes time to build.

StartUp Jobs

City of Grand Rapids Jobs

Ken Miguel-Cipriano is Rapid Growth’s innovation and jobs editor. To reach Ken, you can email ken.miguel.cipriano@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter and Instagram.


Smashing glass ceilings: The women running Grand Rapids

March 8 is International Women’s Day, and the organizers of the Women’s March on Washington have called for a “Day Without a Woman” to coincide with an international women’s strike. This united effort is meant to recognize “the enormous value that women of all backgrounds add to our socio-economic system -- while receiving lower wages and experiencing greater inequities, vulnerability to discrimination, sexual harassment, and job security,” as the Women’s March website states.

“We recognize that trans and gender nonconforming people face heightened levels of discrimination, social oppression and political targeting,” the website goes on to say. “We believe in gender justice.”

Similar to the Day Without Immigrants and the Women’s March, the event is a chance to stand up for those in our society who have been, and continue to be, marginalized and oppressed. As part of the event, individuals can participate by: women taking the day off from paid and unpaid labor and all people supporting small, women- and minority-owned businesses.

“Let’s raise our voices together again to say that women’s rights are human rights, regardless fo a woman’s race, ethnicity, religion, immigration status, sexual identity, gender expression, economic status, age, or disability,” the organizers write.

The women of our city are indispensable, and without them our very functioning would jolt to an immediate full stop. Let us take the time to recognize and honor the amazing women of our city.

Just a few of the remarkable women that work tirelessly to run our city government include: Mayor Rosalynn Bliss, Second Ward Commissioner Ruth Kelly, Third Ward Commissioner Senita Lenear, Economic Development Director Kara Wood, Planning Director Suzanne Schulz, Managing Director of Administration Services Mari Beth Jelks, 311 Custom Service Manager Becky Jo Glover, City Clerk Darlene O’Neal, and City Attorney Anita Hitchcock.

Below are more brilliant women who are not always in the spotlight but help shape, run and push our city forward every day. This list, of course, could go on almost endlessly, and we’d love to hear from you about the women who aren’t on here in the comments below.

Adriane JohnsonChief
Creative Director at Rebellious Creative, Membership Director at AIGA West Michigan

Andrea Napierkowski
Owner of Curly Host, Founder/Host at Doc Night

Anel Guel
Community Engagement Organizer at the City of Grand Rapids

Breannah R. Alexander
Director of Strategic Programs at Partners for a Racism Free Community

Denavvia Mojet
Board Member of Equity PAC

Heather Duffy
Exhibitions Curator at Urban Institute for Contemporary Art, Founding President of Throwbactivists

Kelsey Perdue
Program Manager at Grand Circus, Co-Chair of Equity PAC

Keyuana Rosemond
FitKids360 Program Coordinator at Health Net of West Michigan, Board Member of Equity Drinks

Kiran Sood Patel
Managing Editor of The Rapidian

LaTarro Taylor
Community Relations Coordinator at Downtown Grand Rapids Inc.

Lis Bokt
Executive Director of The Geek Group National Science Institute

Lisa Ann Cockrel
Director at Festival of Faith & Writing, Managing Director at Calvin Center for Faith & Writing.

Lorena Aguayo-Marquez
Adult Education at Grand Rapids Community College

Lydia VanHoven
Creative Team Leader at Meijer, Adjunct Professor at Kendall College of Art and Design, Co-founder of Grand Rapids Feminist Film Festival

Michelle Jokish-Polo
On The Ground Editor at Rapid Growth Media

Milinda Ysasi-Castanon
Executive Director of The Source, Cofounder at The Latina Network of West Michigan

Rebeca Velazquez-Publes
Director of Programs at Health Net of West Michigan, Board Member of Equity Drinks, Cofounder at The Latina Network of West Michigan

Samantha Przybylski
Welcome + Inclusion Specialist at HQ

Shorouq Almallah
Director of Richard M. and Helen DeVos Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation

Steffanie Rosalez
Program Director at Grandville Avenue Arts & Humanities - Cook Arts Center

With women still earning on average 79 cents for every dollar a man makes, there is still much work to be done -- even if the gender pay gap has shrunk over the decades. Grand Rapids can count itself lucky to be the home so many talented women.

Let's continue to recognize, honor and work harder for all the women in our lives who have given so much, been denied more, and have been compensated even less. The time is now.

Ken Miguel-Cipriano is Rapid Growth’s innovation and jobs editor. To reach Ken, you can email ken.miguel.cipriano@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter and Instagram.


The little space that could: Snow Monster Studios aims to make GR a hub for filmmakers

If you were to walk down South Division on First Fridays, a monthly event on the first friday that is aimed at promoting businesses in Avenue of the Arts down Division, you might just miss or stop short of an amazing little space doing a great many things. In the words of the android David in the 2012 mystery sci-fi film “Prometheus,” “Big things have small beginnings.” No other phrase is more apt once you get the opportunity to tour and speak with a little team with big ideas.

The location is 222 Division Ave. South, and the team is Snow Monster Studios. This handful of young creatives from around the city and country have one thing in common, media. David Prindle, co-founder of the studio and co-working space, describes it best when he says, “We are a bunch of people trying to make awesome stuff; I make movies; other people here make podcasts, film in VR (virtual reality); and we have someone that makes props.”  

A quick look around Snow Monster’s space shows the DNA of the team. This is not the place that you bring your $8 coffee and “update your blog.” This space is raw and functional, with a secret compartment room for quiet work.

“Snow Monster Studios is the film division of our group and Snowball Studios is the podcast and marketing arm of our space,” Prindle explains.

Prindle himself teaches at Kendall College of Art & Design, runs the Snow Monster space, and works on his own projects that include an ambitious, fully immersive animated VR film. A natural maker with curiosity, Prindle sees the film industry as antiquated and full of middlemen that impede the process of innovation and art. He hopes to secure funding for his film project soon, and when asked to explain why he chose such a complex project, he replies, “Because it’s hard, no one has done it before. That’s what excites me. I can have fun figuring it all out, and still make an awesome movie.”

His ambition does not end there. Prindle aims to grow Snow Monster Studios into a bigger space that he hopes to design and build himself: a place with an audio and film studio, a co-working space, and a learning environment. He wants to get the knowledge that he has into as many hands as possible. His dream is to help make Grand Rapids a hub for filmmakers, but he is acutely aware that the makeup of the industry needs to change.

“When we don’t bring in different people, we lose out on talent,” Prindle says, describing the homogeneity of the film industry.

“I want things to change; I want to bring jobs to our city; I want to make sure people learn new skills,” Prindle adds as he talks about his vision for Snow Monster Studios.

The space is currently available for memberships, although some have already moved in, and some of the benefits of joining the space are as follows:
 
  • First consideration for hire when Snow Monster Studios receives paid work.
  • Powerful rendering machine
  • Motion capture software and system
  • Access to film equipment
  • Reservation of studio
  • Photography space
  • Event space reservation

With memberships on a six-month or 12-month agreement and price ranging from as low as $30 for students and $250 for 24/7 access, the studio is highly competitive given the co-working landscape in Grand Rapids.

Snowball Studios itself will be having its launch party this Thursday, March 2nd from 6-9pm and will be a great chance to meet the entire team and tour the amazing little space they have literally carved out for themselves on South Division.

Ken Miguel-Cipriano is Rapid Growth’s innovation and jobs editor. To reach Ken, you can email ken.miguel.cipriano@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter and Instagram.
 

Game on! National sports event to draw tens of thousands of visitors to Grand Rapids

The 2017 State Games of America host title could have gone to sunny San Diego or Virginia Beach, but the Great Lakes State showed up to claim that moniker this year.

On its 10th anniversary, West Michigan Sports Commission President Mike Guswiler and the rest of his team are bursting at the seams with excitement to bring this event that draws tens of thousands of visitors to Grand Rapids. This national event will replace the 2017 Meijer State Games- Summer Games.

The State Games of America is a biennial four-day event that will run from Aug. 3 through Aug.6 and attracts well over 12,000 athletes from more than 40 states and Canada. Athletes who have previously won medals at their own respective Summer Games state competitions are invited to this national event. These athletes participate in over 50 sports competitions throughout the course of the games, with spectator numbers tripling at 30,000 spectators. This single event has the potential to impact our region’s economy to the tune of an estimated $9.5 million.

“This year we’re combining our State Games with the State Games of America, and that’s going to bring three to four thousand more athletes on top of our regular 8,000. It’s like the Olympics for sports in our state, and the premise is that all ages and all abilities can participate,” says Guswiler.

While the two primary venues will be the Van Andel Arena (which will host the opening ceremonies) and the DeVos Place Convention Center (where the event’s “Athlete Village” will be), athletes will be competing at venues throughout a multi-county area. As we all know with hungry athletes come hungry bellies, and our city’s extensive food variety should be prepared to take the onslaught of an army of 12,000 people who have spent their days doing everything from synchronized swimming and soccer to judo and kickball. Armed with tamales, tacos, barbecue, gyros, ramen, and kielbasa, our region’s local restaurants can expect a good summer.

The event registration will be open to all ages and abilities, although team sports will require athletes to register as teams. Registration info will be coming soon.

With all this coming excitement to the region you might ask yourself, what is the West Michigan Sports Commission? Well, it is a non-profit that, according to a press statement, “works to identify, secure, and host a diverse level of youth and amateur sporting events to make a positive impact on the economy and quality of life in the region.” The WMSC, founded in 2007, has booked 568 sporting events and tournaments that attracted 880,000 athletes and visitors, generating $240 million in direct visitor spending to the region.

Although the group operates in Kent, Ottawa, and Muskegon Counties, its primary focus is in the Kent County - greater Grand Rapids area. Michigan had the Great Lakes State Games in the late 80s and 90s, which were bolstered by government and some private funding, but the model was unsustainable and it shuttered.

The National Congress of State Games, which runs the State Games of America, started when governors sought to activate their populus formed, but the government funding dried up as handoff from one administration to another became difficult and the vision for the games became cloudy. Through all this history, the WMSC and many other states have formed a resurgence in youth and amateurs sports throughout the country.

Even with the securing of the 2017 State Games of America, the WMSC team is still hard at work to bring even more events to our region. The work never stops, and here are just some of the events that are already booked for the rest of the 2017 year:
 
When asked if WMSC is looking to expand their reach into less traditional sports, Guswiler states “Oh yes, we have looked into BMX, standup paddle-boarding, even drone racing and e-gaming sports. It’s all on our radar. Our effort is to market this destination for youth and amateur travel sport.”

So, be sure to lace up those sneakers, find all the spandex in your closet, and start warming up for this summer’s State Games of America coming to Grand Rapids.

Ken Miguel-Cipriano is Rapid Growth’s innovation and jobs editor. To reach Ken, you can email ken.miguel.cipriano@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

Falling in love with programming: Django Girls inspires women to join the tech world

I came across a Facebook post the other day of a room full of women learning to code, and thought how great it was that we were getting another boot camp. Programming (or coding) has been a hot topic for a few years now, with new coding boot camps springing up across the country. Grand Rapid itself is getting its very own boot camp this spring when Grand Circus-Detroit finishes its expansion to the west side of the state; its first class is set to launch in late March.

I looked further into the post only to realize that it was not a coding bootcamp, but something just as exciting. After some Facebook investigating, I found out it was a coding tutorial that went into the weekend. The group responsible for this weekend coding blitz was Django Girls. They are an international non-profit organization that helps people of all backgrounds to learn how to to code using Django (an open-source framework written in the programming language Python).

If you’ve tuned out already, don’t worry: that is about as heady as the coding talk will get here.

So, I reach out to Django Girls and ask if they have time to meet and chat more about their story. We decide to meet at every downtown freelancer’s office, a coffee shop with strong brews and wifi. I’m welcomed by three of the organizers: Rachell Calhoun, Josh Yuhas and Jace Browning. They are three of a total of five total organizers for Django Girls: Grand Rapids.

Calhoun starts off with the history of Django Girls. “It started in 2014 during a Django conference in Berlin by two Polish women, Ola Sitarska and Ola Sendecka,” she explains. Calhoun comes from a recent nine-year stint in Korea, where she was a member of the local Django Girls chapter. She says their mission, like their website, is simple and to the point:
 
  • Inspire women to fall in love with programming.
  • Support and mentor those that want to continue their programming after the workshop.
  • Build a revolving community: students become mentors.
  • Help increase the presence of women and individuals from underrepresented groups in the tech field.
  • Create a safe, non-threatening environment in the local tech communities.

The rest of the group chimes in about how their approach to every participant is to treat them as if they don’t know anything about computers -- down to where to find the startup bar, so that this way no one feels left behind. You can move as fast or as slow as you want without feeling pressured. Django Girls are not here to run code alongside a room of people, rather they are here to help guide them every step of the way.

Their first event in Grand Rapids was hosted at the beginning of February, and it filled up. They like to keep the ratio to about one volunteer to every two participants. The coding workshop is structured around a tutorial for building a blog. I ask, why a blog? Can’t anyone go to a free website to get their own pre-made blog website? Yuhas chimes in, saying, “It touches all the pieces of code you need to learn. It’s not about just building a piece of software, but about learning the basics of the language as well. A blog covers a lot of what a beginner will need to know to move on to bigger projects.”  

The event starts on a Friday, lasting three hours to get everyone set up. You only need a laptop and enthusiasm to join, and the team will provide the rest of the software needed. The team of volunteers and instructors spend the time making sure all software is installed and that you are ready for the next day.

Saturday is a full work day, an eight-hour marathon, not a sprint, to the end of the tutorial. As a local chapter of Django Girls, the team has access to tutorials and resources they can use to host these workshops. During the day, they make sure to give the participants food breaks, resting periods and plenty of encouragement in the form of hand-clappers. Every participant is given one to celebrate finishing a section.

What’s next for the Django Girls team? Where do inspired new programmers go after they attend their first event? The team tells me that the international Django Girls organization has plenty of more tutorials and resources to offer. Calhoun herself was part of many tutorials while teaching in Korea. The team is always there to support weekend coding projects through a Slack channel or coffee meetups. The plan is to have more events and tutorials as interest grows.

Yuhas tells me that “Django Girls is perfect for Grand Rapids since it already has Bitcamp in the ecosystem. Django Girls wants to help underrepresented women in the community, because if you look at any of the agencies in the city, women may represent one or two of a total of 70-plus employees. There’s something wrong with that; there’s a lot of talent being lost there.”

In furthering their mission, the Django Girls team are very aware that they need effective marketing and strategic partnership to ensure thorough community outreach. They are already looking to collaborate with other events organizations to further enhance outreach for underrepresented women in the West Michigan area.

Calhoun mentions in closing that she was an English teacher before learning to code, and that she never paid for a formal coding education. She now helps lead the Django Girls team and is herself employed in the tech sector, making a living on what she taught herself to do.

The Django Girls team would like to invite you to stay tuned to their website to join their next coding tutorial event. Come for the coding, but stay for the clappers.

Photos courtesy of Stoneburner Media

Ken Miguel-Cipriano is Rapid Growth’s innovation and jobs editor. To reach Ken, you can email ken.miguel.cipriano@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter and Instagram.
 

Business with a conscience: How Symposia Labs is changing GR’s marketing landscape

On a windy afternoon I head inside a downtown coffee shop to sit down with Timothy Haines, the founder of Symposia Labs, a digital marketing and advertising agency, to chat about industry, ethics, and the growing Grand Rapids market.

The Symposia team is fresh from a ribbon cutting ceremony for their new Grand Rapids office that opened on January 31 of this year. In their move from Holland to Grand Rapids, they found a location just a few blocks east of downtown at 255 Washington Street.

As with any good story, I sit back and ask Haines about where it all began. Not surprisingly, the Symposia Labs story starts like many tech company stories: at home with employee number one, Haines.

“At first it’s all trial and error,” Haines says after I ask him if the company was always in digital marketing. “You take the work you can get, and you’re not sure who you are. Do you build websites? Are you in marketing? Do you do design work?”

Haines tells me that at first the company approached work by specializing in social media, and after some time he began to pivot to digital marketing as a whole. He explains it best when he says, “We’ve found that our approach has three components: technology, people, and business… and to do digital marketing right you have to understand all three. Not just those concepts individually, but also how they interact.”

I tell Haines how many non-business owners, or people outside of the industry, might look at Facebook advertising, search engine optimization (SEO), Google ad words, and so forth as millennial hogwash. Timothy replies with an elegant explanation. “Digital marketing is like a lense on a camera; it enhances what you see on the subject.”

So I ask him, what does Symposia Labs do? “ We execute and design digital design strategies,” he replies, clarifying that his team operates a bit differently than others. They of course have the cool office, telecommute option, and laid-back culture, but they differ in how they interact with their clients. Symposia Labs does not a have a large swath of clients across West Michigan, rather they opt to have a smaller portfolio of clients with whom they work closely.

“We work on retainer and mold ourselves around our client’s team to get the best results for them,” Haines says. In a city with more and more freelancers and small design shops, it can be hard to find a business with a conscience. A business that isn’t after billable hours, but rather a strong working relationship.

Haines credits the large, and growing, Grand Rapids market for his approach. “There’s enough pie for all of us here,” he notes. As part of his company’s move, they share a space with local design studio Kmotion Design to accommodate the few clients that need a bit of everything, including a custom website from the ground up. Symposia Labs has found what they are great at, honed their expertise, and expanded their network to include business friends to assist with the excess work load.

I follow up Haines’s thoughts about business with a conscience and ask him about the lack of professionals of color in tech and if he has this in mind in his hiring practices as Symposia Labs grows larger.

“Absolutely, we moved here from Holland for a chance, albeit still small, at greater diversity in our work,” he says. I mention how important it is for people of color to see representation in different business fields, and Haines points to the design landscape in West Michigan, sighs and says, “I know; you look around and it’s white guy, white guy, white guy, white guy, white guy, and you know there’s something wrong there.”

I’m surprised to hear Haines be so natural and at ease when speaking truth to these issues, especially because of what midwest decorum normally dictates. It’s refreshing to hear a person of privilege be so honest about their privilege and actively seek answers. We move on to speaking about operating from a place of intentionality and how we must be intentional if we want to help.

He brings up an example of his time in Holland, when he knew few people in the digital marketing space, and how he wanted to expand his network but also share and learn experiences and techniques in his field. Without an approachable resource to turn to, he started what is now Drinks and Digital, an event where professionals interested in digital marketing can meet up and talk a bit of business over drinks.

Haines mentions that it has evolved to a become a bit of a pool of prospective applicants where many of his hires have come from. His team is still ramping up after their Grand Rapids launch, and they will be searching for another team member to come on board as project manager within the next few months.

As he takes the last drink of his coffee I remind him that I discovered his agency on Facebook. His eyes light up, and he goes for his phone and says, “ I bet it was the latest Facebook ad we put out that you saw! We practice what we preach!”

Ken Miguel-Cipriano is Rapid Growth’s innovation and jobs editor. To reach Ken, you can email ken.miguel.cipriano@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

Speaking out: Women in tech tackle (lack of) diversity in their field

As Grand Circus ramps up its Grand Rapids launch, the company hosted a panel discussion with all women in tech. I mention specifically a discussion with all women in tech instead of a discussion about women in tech because of how each woman framed their professional experiences that night.

If you weren’t able to make it out to Start Garden on Wednesday, Feb. 8, you really missed out. As packed as we all were in the main room, there was spillover space in the far back, and it was worth the standing to hear the gems powerful messages that each panelist brought to the stage.

Grand Circus gathered an array of professional women in tech from around the city. There was Emily Carbonell-Ferguson of Mighty in the MidwestBecky VandenBout, an independent freelancer; Beth Zuke of Amway; and Andrea Napierkowski of Curly Host, a Grand Rapid-based firm that specializes in Wordpress websites.

To a standing-room-only crowd, panelists spoke about their experiences in the tech field, their opinions on what it means to be a woman in tech, and what they hope to see in the field.

As the night drew on, panelist Andrea Napierkowski found herself behind the mic more and more, adding wit along with some much-needed candid answers to the mostly male room.

When posed with the question, “how do we empower women to succeed," Napierkowski’s replied quickly, saying, “To say that women need to be empowered feels as if we as women do not already have what it takes to do the work. I disagree with that; I think we as women already have what it takes to do the job. What is happening is that we are being overlooked.”

After a brief pause, Napierkowski pressed on to declare, “It seems to me that what the industry needs to be doing is educating our male counterparts as to why they need diversity and inclusion. We women aren’t the problem.” A quick look around the crowd showed a room filling with smiles, nodding heads of agreement, and attempted slow claps, surely paused by the prospect of hearing more from Napierkowski. It was clear that this response summed up the feelings of many in the room.


After the event I took some time to sit down and chat with Napierkowski to further the conversation she championed on the stage.

We hit the ground running and started talking about her strongest response during the panel discussion, and I ask her how she has come to that point of view. Napierkowski tells me that it was not something she came into the field thinking about. “It was actually a surprise to me when I came to the realization a few years ago that there weren’t many women in tech,” Napierkowski adds.

She recounts how she came into the industry really by chance. “It started with one project I gained through a connection; I was coming into all this from international relations and political science background.” Napierkowski shifted careers from her college major to working in the food service industry to building websites. I asked her if she didn’t grow up programming or building websites, what then was her dream job?

“My dream job was to come into people’s houses and clean and organize everything, then make them an amazing meal from whatever was in their kitchen...that never materialized," Napierkowski replies.


I ask her about her prior perception of the tech industry and how it is unusual that she was unaware of the gender gap. “I hit the ground running; I became so involved with my work. I come from a family of very thoughtful learners. We all dive deep into our work and passions” Napierkowski responds.

Napierkowski’s  learning and working approach is different. “Starting off, I had to do everything myself, often taking work and learning it on the go. I picked up a lot of skills, so by the time I had enough work that I had to begin hiring people and collaborating, I realized how advanced I’d become.”

“I imagined everyone in the industry was like me, or better," she elaborates. "You see, I would start a project and have to collaborate with others and realize that they hadn’t touched design, or marketing, or user experience, or backend code. So it made collaborating a bit more difficult; I had to search harder for collaborators that I could work with well.”

Collaboration can be difficult, so we talk about the biggest roadblock to her collaboration process.

“I have worked with very talented programmers who pride themselves in building sites from the ground up," she says. "The sites end up meeting exactly what the client asks for, but they are impossible to figure out on the backend, and makes any adjustments or maintenance tedious.”


Napierkowski adds that her "goal isn’t to make my clients dependent on me. I want them to run their business and use the site flawlessly. I try and make it easy enough for them to update and adjust as they need.”

I point out that I see this trend, coming from small design shops in Grand Rapids, of building a business with a conscience. I ask her if she would describe her business in this way and she replies, “I love my work and clients, don’t get me wrong, but my hope is to not have to see them after the project is done. My work has to be good enough to not break. I actually encourage my clients to try and break it!”

Napierkowski tells me that a website has a life of about two to three years, and that her work quality of work stands the test of time so well that most clients return for their updates and rebuilds.

“There is this idea in the industry that the higher the price the better the quality," she says. "I sometimes take on clients who currently have a custom site that cost them nearly double my rate and I have to go in and fix the mess.”

I press Napierkowski to see if she is willing, or has in the past, arbitrarily raised her bid to get the project, and she sighs, saying, “No, it just doesn’t make any sense. The goal is to get them up and running, I just don’t have time for anything else.”

Napierkowski and I stay and talk longer about tech, client war stories, and the latest films we want to see. In full disclosure I have known her for some years now, but in a different capacity. I have been part of her documentary film club since returning to Grand Rapids some years ago.

Her vast network, kindness, and ever-curious mind have helped to build an impressive roster of clients. Her welcoming approach of having people into her home to orient themselves in the city has always been refreshing in this ever-growing metropolis.

Ken Miguel-Cipriano is Rapid Growth’s innovation and jobs editor. To reach Ken, you can email ken.miguel.cipriano@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter and Instagram.
 
Photos courtesy of Start Garden

Grand Rapids Child Discovery Center students raise more than $1K to help rebuild Rising Grinds Café

One by one, hundreds of students file into the Grand Rapids Child Discovery Center’s cavernous gym this past Friday, filling the space with a sea of colorful book bags and talk of the impending weekend. They do the things kids do when they gather together: they laugh; they braid each other’s hair; they excitedly wave to friends, parents and teachers as they wait, winter hats in hand, to exit the school doors and welcome the weekend. Like every Friday afternoon, they cover the school’s wooden floor to bid adieu to an eventful week and cheer on each other’s accomplishments. There is much to celebrate this past week: children’s birthdays, students’ artistic feats, lessons on Martin Luther King Jr., and more.

On this day, however, something different is happening. Today, the students will learn how much money they raised for Rising Grinds Café, a coffee shop that, after nearly three years in the making, was set to soon open its doors at 1530 Madison Ave. SE before it burned to the ground this past November. And they will present a check to the folks behind the café, who are working to rebuild the space that is slated to empower young adults from the Madison Square community with employment and training opportunities.

“We’ve been talking about Martin Luther King and one person making a difference,” GRCDC Principal John Robinson, whose school, located at the corner of Wealthy Street and Lafayette Avenue, is situated about a mile and a half from Rising Grinds, says to the students. “You have a voice, and it’s so important to hear from all of you.”

Then, the students, who spent the past month holding a drive to collect change for the café, are told how much they have raised: $1,090.10. It’s a number that brings cheers and gasps from the students -- after all, it’s hundreds more than many of them expected. And it was done almost entirely by collecting change (plus a few $10 and $20 bills).

“I feel like I’m going to cry; I’m so touched,” says Justin Beene, who, along with his brother, Nathan Beene, is working to reopen Rising Grinds, which lost more than $50,000 worth of equipment and donated materials in the blaze. “It was devastating for me -- it was a three-year process of trying to get a cafe that everyone could own, where everyone could feel comfortable.”

Nathan Beene too tells the students what a difference their efforts have made -- for their morale and, of course, for the café itself.

“This is a perfect example of what it really means to be a community,” Nathan Beene says. “With all of your help and support, we will rise from the ashes again.”

Nathan Beene’s daughter, Tayden, a 9-year-old student in the fourth grade at GRCDC, is the mastermind behind the fundraiser: she was the one to call for the school to step in and help. Following Tayden’s original call to action, Sheryl Veeneman, a parent whose son, Hunter Veeneman, 11, attends the school, helped build upon the idea, suggesting the students conduct a drive entailing collecting change. All of the school’s 264 students immediately got involved, doing everything from scouring couch cushions to keeping an eye out on the street for change and more, and their efforts were incredibly successful. (Plus, as a reward, all of the students will receive a much-anticipated pizza party with food from Eastown's Harmony Brewing.)

“It felt really important to me,” Tayden says, explaining her desire to launch the fundraiser -- an initiative she told her father about on Christmas. “If the café didn’t open, it would affect the community.”

Veeneman echoes these sentiments, explaining that when Hunter, her son, told her about the fire, “it broke my heart.”

“We’re such a community-driven school that something like this is very devastating,” Veeneman says. “I said, ‘Let’s do a penny drive -- I thought we’d get a couple hundred dollars. When I heard how much we we’d raised, I cried.”

That the students poured so much of an effort into this has inspired Nathan and Justin Beene, along with everyone behind Rising Grinds, a project from the Grand Rapids Center for Community Transformation -- a collaborative entity created by Bethany Christian Services, Tabernacle Community Church and Double O Supply & Craftsmen Inc. With the café, the Beenes say they want to focus their recruitment efforts on disenfranchised members of the community: for example, individuals in foster care and immigrants and refugees. Alongside decent wages, the café would offer such benefits as a social worker to assist with housing and other issues, enrollment in the Center for Community Transformation’s GED program, and more.

“We grew up in this neighborhood, and to see the kids have a voice and make such an impact, it’s powerful,” says Nathan Beene, the director of operations at Building Bridges Professional Services, an initiative also from the Center for Community Transformation that focuses on employing disenfranchised youth. “One voice really can make a difference.”

“That the kids got to witness Tayden having this idea and it becoming a reality, it says, ‘I matter; I have value,'” Beene continues.

If you're interested in learning how you can help support Rising Grinds Café's rebuilding efforts, please visit their Facebook page here or call Rosie at Rising Grinds at 616-224-7409. You can also visit the Center for Community Transformation at 1530 Madison Ave. and enjoy a cup of coffee at the Rising Grinds incubation site.

Cheap thrills: How to explore downtown Grand Rapids without breaking the bank

This article is the first installment in Rapid Growth’s series covering ways to explore our city’s incredible neighborhoods without breaking the bank. This week, we head downtown. Don’t let the new, shiny buildings fool you: there’s still plenty of ways to have fun and not spend a ton of dough.

There’s nothing better than an unexpected day off. So, what is there to do around the city if you have an entire free day to spend? Michigan winters can snow on your parade a bit, but it can also unexpectedly, and quite literally, brighten up your day.

First things first, text your best friend and see if they’re available. If you’re a first time day-off adventurer, it may be best to tag team the day with a friend. For all others going solo, bold or otherwise, don’t forget to grab your headphones and make sure your favorite music and podcasts are all downloaded and synced while you still have some strong wifi at home.

If you’re fortunate enough to live inside the city limits, grab your bus pass and check the Transit app for the next bus headed downtown. If you live outside Grand Rapids, or you don’t have a bus pass, grab those keys and head downtown.

This is where you might be asking yourself: why should I take the bus? I have a car with gas to burn and a need for speed. Allow me to answer your question with the following: Slow down, fast and furious, it’s an adventure so try something different; don’t waste your day/money looking for parking, and finally use the free time to hang with your friend or sink into your favorite podcast.

So, the best place to start is at the Downtown Market. If you don’t have bus passes, mosey up the hill to the Silver Line stop on Division near Wealthy and purchase a day pass ($3.50 for an adult). Head back down into the market and grab a hot chocolate and pastry from either Field & Fire or the market’s newly arrived Madcap. As you munch away, put together a loose plan of what you feel like doing. It’s a day off, so don’t stress on packing the day with activities. Travel from spot to spot and let your mood guide you through the day. Heck, I’ve spent whole afternoons riding the same transit line back and forth in major cities just listening to music, and popping out just for snacks -- and I don’t regret a second of it. Here, with your $3.50 day pass, you can kick back and relax while getting to be a tourist in your own city.

When you’re finished with breakfast, head down Ionia, past the bridge underpass and then take a right to pop back up onto Division, where you should be sure to head into any of the Avenue for the Arts shops. Walk into Parliament the Boutique and check out the team’s latest crafts, or just admire the cat it in all its orange glory.

Cross the street to check out some music at Vertigo, and be sure to find a favorite artist in the stacks. Then browse nearby in the same genre and see if you can’t find something that catches your attention. I have found plenty of new favorite artists this way. You can snag plenty of music for under $10 -- including some amazing vinyl finds for $1. Just have your headphones ready for an impromptu album listen right there in the stacks.

Now, if you’re still feeling chill from the Vertigo vibes, take a walk down the street to the UICA and catch a noon film ($4 for members, $8 for non-members). Heads up: for discounts to places like the UICA, check out a Michigan activity pass with your public library card.

Don’t feel like sitting for an entire movie? Keep those legs moving and wander around the city streets, soaking in architecture, art, more art, and history with self-guided (read: free!) tours. Be sure to take this free interactive tour of GR’s Civil Rights history. Created by Kent Innovation High students, the tour includes 12 stops that provide insight into incredible achievements by our city’s African American residents and organizations, such as Helen Claytor, who fought tirelessly for racial justice and was the first black woman to serve as president of the Grand Rapids YWCA.

And, if you’re hanging out on a Tuesday, be sure to head to the Grand Rapids Art Museum -- you’ll be able to get in free all day. (You can also bypass admission costs on Thursday evening from 5-9pm.)

Want to move your feet in a different direction? Head north and keep the tunes blasting because you’ll be catching the Dash North (free and no bus pass needed) to Higher Ground Rock Climbing for some fancy footwork. Be sure to get off the dash near the 6th street bridge and walk on over to Higher Ground. Get set up for your climbing session and let it rip. Pro tip: having wireless headphones will let you turn your climbing session past 10 and straight to 11. (At $22, which includes a day pass and all the rental equipment, this is the most expensive thing on our list -- but you can stay there for as long as your feet can keep climbing.)

So you’ve rocked it at Higher Ground, and now your stomach is clamoring for food. Cross the street and start walking down to the Dash stop right on the corner of 6th Street and Monroe. Be sure to get off right before the bridge underpass. When you’re off the bus, head down to the Silver Line stop, heading south and get off at the Wealthy Street Station to walk back to the Downtown Market.

If your head is spinning from these transfers you can always get out your phone and hail a Lyft, so if your stomach is roaring it’s best to tame the beast and head to food quickly!

Now that you’re back at the Downtown Market, head to Slow’s BBQ. Get the small, $3 pit smoked beans and watch as they kindly fill it to the brim with beans and small chunks of barbecue meat. Walk over to Field & Fire and buy the smallest bread available to help slop up the delectable beans and sauce. Turn around and grab a cold can of guava juice from Rak Thai, then head upstairs into the greenhouse seating area to soak up the sun while it’s still up.

So you’re back where you started, and you’ve had a full day. Congratulations on your mini-adventure, but there’s still hours left on your watch and the night is young. Do you double down and head back out or call it a day? Let us know in the comments how you would continue your mini-adventure, or if you would like to hear our second half of our day off adventure!

Until next time, stay moving, stay cheap, stay curious.

Ken Miguel-Cipriano is Rapid Growth’s innovation and jobs editor. To reach Ken, you can email ken.miguel.cipriano@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

Giving back: A guide to volunteering in Grand Rapids

Giving back through volunteering does more than just help the organization that receives your efforts. It expands your mind, extends your network, creates new friendships, and in some cases gets you into events for free!

Check out our roundup of some of our local organizations that are easy to sign up for, have lots of programming, and are really fun. (Click on the name of the organization for the groups' information on volunteering.)

Of course, this is just a drop in the bucket when it comes to the many wonderful groups in our area who are looking for volunteers. Please feel free to share who you love supporting in the comments below.

Urban Institute for Contemporary Art (UICA)
Become a docent (a guide) to expand your knowledge, improve your speaking and presentation skills, and gain access to nationally recognized art. Remember, nothing beefs up your dinner party conversation more than a little insider art information from the latest exhibit.
Training Required: Yes



Grand Rapids Main Library & Branches
Whether it’s special events, helping with the Summer Reading Program, or assisting the Grand Rapids History & Special Collections Department, you will be able to find a great way to give back to your community. The Main Library’s Instagram account is a great example of how to make learning cool and funny. See their post from Aug. 2 for a good chuckle.
Training Required: No

Organizations serving refugees in Grand Rapids
Michigan has long been one of the top states to welcome refugees in the country. Here in West Michigan, we are fortunate to have numerous organizations serving those who come to the United States as refugees, including: the Refugee Education Center, Bethany Christian Services, Samaritas, Thrive: A Refugee Support Program, and Justice for Our Neighbors. At these various sites, you can lend a hand by doing everything from helping individuals settle into their new lives immediately after they move here to furnishing apartments and more.
Training Required: Depends on what you’d like to do.

The Grand Rapids Community Media Center (GRTV, WYCE, Rapidian, and Wealthy Theatre)
The aspiring PEGOT (Pulitzer, Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony) training ground of Grand Rapids, this local organization has it all, from spinning records to ushering seats. If you happen to volunteer at the Wealthy Theatre you’ll find yourself being treated to a free pop, popcorn, and a free seat if any are open. That’s a hefty reward given that a night at a normal cineplex will cost you at least $20.
Training Required: Depends on what you’d like to do.



Friends of Grand Rapids Parks

This is the perfect choice for the green thumbed citizen. Our city parks can always use a little TLC whether it’s spring, summer, or fall. Did I mention they have a Citizen Forester program? There’s no official patch for your jacket arm sleeve just yet, but they do have other neat FGRP swag!
Training Required: No, Offered

Hispanic Center of Western Michigan
If you find you need to break out of your bubble, then check out the Hispanic Center. Located on the southwest side of the city, this organization welcomes volunteers from all skill levels. Although speaking Spanish does help, it is not required. Experts say the best way to learn a language is through immersion!
Training Required: No

Grand Rapids Ballet
This is the only professional ballet company in Michigan, and we have it right around the corner. To witness extraordinary people defy gravity and push the human body to its limit, you’ll want to grab a seat of your own with your volunteer discount.
Training Required: No

Grand Rapids Civic Theatre
Building sets, sewing costumes, helping with props, and that’s just on stage! If you rather stand away from the limelight, the theatre has plenty of other off-stage opportunities. But beware, once you get a taste for the lights and glow, you may begin to hear the stage calling!
Training Required: Depends on what you’d like to do.

Well House
You can increase access to safe, affordable housing in Grand Rapids by lending a hand to this nonprofit that purchases vacant, boarded-up houses in the city and brings them back to life to provide housing for our homeless neighbors. Work in their garden, help fix up homes and more.
Training Required: Depends on what you’d like to do.

The Grand Rapids Red Project
For more than a decade and a half, this organization has been dedicated to improving health, providing health resources, and preventing HIV, accidental drug overdose, and Hepatitis C. Volunteers are always needed to help build a stronger community, including to work during the Walk To End HIV, World AIDS Day, and more.
Training Required: Depends on what you’d like to do.

Grand Rapids Art Museum
Be a docent, assist in the gift shop, or help with the youth or family programs. Pick anything from the list of opportunities; any one of the options will bring you up close and center to world renowned art.
Training Required: Depends on what you’d like to do.

Autism Support of Kent County
From friendship support groups for children and teens with autism to free movie screenings for families, there are plenty of ways to get involved with this nonprofit. The group holds monthly family activities for anyone affected by autism, and they’re always looking for volunteers for these events.
Training Required: No

Grandville Avenue Arts & Humanities
With its Cook Arts Center and Cook Library Center, the Grandville Avenue Arts & Humanities aims to empower and enrich the lives of youth who live in the Grandville community. (Recently, for example, GAAH teamed up with the Hispanic Center of Western Michigan to offer teenagers the chance to paint a gorgeous public mural on Grandville Avenue.) Both centers depend on student and community volunteers to run their many classes and programs, including their Teen Leaders in the Arts, Girls Rock! Grand Rapids, and more.
Training Required: Depends on what you'd like to do.

West Michigan Center for Arts and Technology
Are you tech savvy? Want to work with some seriously talented teens? There’s some very fun ways to volunteer with WMCAT, an organization that does everything from empower the city’s teens to affect social change through design thinking to provide free job training for underemployed adults.
Training Required: Yes

Grand Rapids African American Health Institute
Volunteer with this nonprofit to help promote health care parity in the city’s African American community. Through advocacy, education and research, the organizations ensures that all residents have access to excellent health care.
Training: Depends on what you’d like to do.

Kids Food Basket
One in five children in Michigan experiences hunger, but the Grand Rapids-based Kids Food Basket is changing that with its Sack Supper program, which ensure thousands of our community’s children can receive nutritious evening meals that their parents often cannot afford. This is a great organization to volunteer for as an individual or a group -- you can do a wish list drive, help with the sack suppers, raise money through school dances or benefit concerts, and more.
Training: No

Dégagé Ministries
There are more than 1,200 volunteers who give their time to Dégagé, and the organization is always on the lookout for more. This group plays a big role in supporting our neighbors who are homeless, providing services like transportation, funding for prescription co-pays, appointment scheduling, meals, showers, storage space, trips to places like Lake Michigan and Whitecaps games, and an overnight women’s shelter. There are endless volunteering opportunities, from taking people to a baseball game to hosting movie nights, when you’ll have a chance to get to know your homeless neighbors better.
Training: No

HQ
A drop-in center for youth ages 14 through 24 who are experiencing homelessness, HQ gives teens and young adults a place to rest, connect with resources and spend time with friends. Volunteers provide a huge range of services at this center, which provides individuals everything from meals and showers to help with job searches and housing, and a whole lot more.
Training: Yes

Your local neighborhood association
Want to see something in your neighborhood change? Or have an idea that you think could make your area even better? Throughout the city, there are numerous neighborhood associations that would love to see volunteers help with a huge range of activities: street festivals, community meet-and-greets, official association meetings, and a whole lot more. You can find contact information for your neighborhood association here.
Training: No

Catherine’s Health Center
This nonprofit, community-based health facility offers medical care to low-income, underinsured residents -- and support from volunteers is vital. Right now, they have opportunities for primary care professionals, registered nurses, health coaches, computer assistants, and more.
Training: Yes

Literacy Center of West Michigan
One in eight adults in West Michigan struggle with low literacy. The Literacy Center of West Michigan offers a variety of literacy programs for adults, and volunteer tutors are needed to work with adult learners. You’ll get to meet people from all over the city -- and globe -- who will enrich your life as much as you enrich theirs.
Training: Yes

Whether you’re looking to get more involved in our city or fulfill that New Year’s resolution of spontaneity be sure to bring a family member, a friend, maybe even a date! Just don’t forget to snag a picture and tag these great organizations online before you leave!

Their fingers on the pulse of Grand Rapids, GRNow's new owners roll out big plans for website

What’s going on in Grand Rapids this week? Well, for starters: the Lumineers are playing at the Van Andel Arena, internationally renowned artist Ai Weiwei’s exhibit opens at Meijer Gardens, the Grand Rapids Symphony is performing a live score for “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” and there’s the USA Cycling Fat Bike National Championships -- not to mention about a billion other things.

It’s no secret that Grand Rapids’ cultural and entertainment scene is exploding, with everyone from international superstars (think: Kanye and Garth Brooks) to local celebrities (Vox Vidorra and Lady Ace Boogie, to name a couple) providing the soundtrack to our city, the debut of a nearly constant stream of new restaurants and bars, venues like 20 Monroe Live and Studio C opening their doors, and, of course, arts and music festivals that have landed the city in headlines across the country.

With everything that’s happening, it’s become an almost daunting question: What should I do tonight? This weekend? This spring (or on the strange winter days when it feels like flowers will be blooming at any second)? CJ DeVries and Jeff DeLongchamp want to help you answer that.

DeVries and DeLongchamp, both longtime Grand Rapidians, purchased the website GRNow.com from the former owner, Josh Depenbrok, last August, and the duo have been unrolling ambitious plans to make it, as DeVries says, “the most comprehensive list of events” in the city, from sports happenings and live music to art openings and theatre performances -- and everything in between. Plus, the website features bloggers covering Grand Rapids’ food, fashion, city living, and art scenes.

“Both CJ and I are big Grand Rapids fans; we’ve been here for a long time,” says DeLongchamp, who also co-owns ELK Brewing and owns ElectionSource, a Grand Rapids-based company that provides election products and services nationwide. “That we can provide a media outlet for everybody, one place where everybody can go and not just list events but find events that are going on is exciting. We want it to be the place to go. If you’re going out on the weekend, we want this site to be the site you go to.”

Like DeLongchamp, DeVries, who founded and owns Innovative Social Exchange MKTG, a Grand Rapids-based creative marketing firm, says she was thrilled to take on a new role as co-owner of GRNow.com.

“With my marketing company, I had used GRNow from the advertiser perspective, so I got to see how powerful it is,” DeVries says. “It made me believe it’s such a great platform; it helps local businesses grow. And I used it personally, so when I found out Josh was getting out, I was like, hands down I want to do this. It’s really neat that Jeff and I get to have something that I’ve really looked up to.”

The site, which DeVries and DeLongchamp are planning on growing, currently has about 10 people working for it, and the two owners are set to unveil a new GRNow.com website this year, apps they’ll soon be beta testing, and more content.

“The apps will have features that people are really going to like,” DeLongchamp says, hinting that the upcoming applications will be event-heavy. “There will be some very fun things, and I think they’ll be used immensely.”

Plus, DeVries notes that they will in the near future launch a show during which they’ll talk about upcoming happenings in the city. For the program, she’ll be partnering with former Second City comedian Joe Anderson -- who’s set to soon open a new downtown comedy club in Grand Rapids.

With all of this new movement from DeVries and DeLongchamp, the work that Depenbrok invested in the site and the site’s massive social media presence (it has more than 70,000 Facebook likes and nearly 32,000 Twitter followers), GRNow’s reach is skyrocketing -- its recent 2017 development roundup (written by Rapid Growth’s former publisher, Jeff Hill), was seen by 135,000 people, for example. With those kind of numbers, DeVries says the owners are hoping the site’s weight will translate to major support for the city.

“We’re using this medium, this platform, to help charities, and we’re very much trying to collaborate with other businesses,” she says.

As connoisseurs of events, restaurants and more in GR, DeVries and DeLongchamp shed some light on some of their go-to favorites in the city.

What's your favorite restaurant/bar?

DeLongchamp: ELK is number one. And we have great restaurants: Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse, The Chop House -- those are two favorites, but there are so many great local restaurants, so many places to eat, like Electric Cheetah, in Grand Rapids; it’s unbelievable. We have a lot of great food in this area; it’s changed so much over the past 25 years I’ve been here.

DeVries: My favorite place to eat is Little Africa; it’s awesome. My other favorite restaurant is whichever the next one I’m going to try -- I love the fact I can walk out of my office and see a new place opening up. But we have to understand even if there’s a new place, we still have to patronize the places that have made Grand Rapids what it is.

What upcoming event are you excited about?

DeLongchamp: The 12th annual Winter Beer Festival at Fifth Third Ballpark in February. [Tickets for the festival’s Saturday event on Feb. 25 are sold out, but brew lovers can still snag a spot on Friday, Feb. 24 here.]

DeVries: The Yoga Dance Party and Brunch at Lions & Rabbits, Huntin' Time Expo at DeltaPlex Arena, Cookies and Canvas at Cheshire Kitchen, and the USAC Fat Bike Nationals at Indian Trails Golf Course.

What’s your favorite hidden gem in Grand Rapids?

DeVries: Dime and Regal -- they have very minimalistic jewelry; they want you to be able to have artwork but at moderate prices. Nothing in the store is over $75, and there are local artists. Also, Goodwill has an upscale boutique, reBlue; it’s amazing.

DeLongchamp: There are so many. If you’re looking downtown, there’s so many neat little niches. The SpeakEZ -- Eric Albertson, who owns it, has done a great job with that place.

Literary sensibility: Books & Mortar and Congress Elementary partner to provide books to students

When Chris Roe and Jonathan Shotwell opened Books & Mortar in East Hills this past fall, they knew they wanted their passion for books, reading and literacy to translate to support for the inclusive, empathetic and caring community that surrounded them.

So, when many of their customers would relay their fears about the incoming administration in the days leading up to the presidential inauguration, Roe and Shotwell began to think: what could they do to showcase, and lend hands to, a community that thinks globally and acts locally? In the face of a divided nation, what could they do to continue the unity sewn by so many in their neighborhood and city?

To answer these questions, they looked to their neighbor: Congress Elementary.

Roe and Shotwell have just announced that they are partnering with Congress to create a fund that will provide books for every student in March, books for teachers and school workers, and other financial support for a wide range of literacy opportunities.

“We were getting people all day who are very down about the climate of the country and the administration,” Roe says. “We thought, ‘We should be promoting the little things that we can do.’ We felt helpless, but there are so many things that keep us going forward in our community. Congress is in the backyard of the store, and we’re both huge public school advocates.”

Essentially, Books & Mortar will be partnering with Congress “for forever,” Roe says, explaining that the fund is meant to support the elementary school with any of its literacy programs and goals. In the coming months, the fund will pay for books -- chosen by the teachers -- for the entire student body, and, come May, every fifth grade student will get to go to the store and select a book for free. Additionally, the fund will provide books for the teachers, and the shop will keep educators’ book dream lists on file, allowing customers to purchase, at a discounted price, books that the teachers want.

“At the most rudimentary level, this is about making a value statement and saying, ‘These children and this school have a huge amount of value in this community,” Roe says. “It’s really just about putting out there that the school matters. It’s as simple as people coming to the store and realizing there’s a really great school resource in this community.”

A big component to this partnership is an emphasis on it being just that: a partnership.

“We really want this to be a mutual relationship; we’re giving to Congress, but Congress already gives so much to the community,” Roe says. “Congress is putting out all these children, teachers and families that are awesome assets to this community.”

And, Roe says, they’re looking forward to seeing how their work with Congress, and the community at large, continues to grow.

“When we started [Books & Mortar], we always wanted to be part of the community,” he says. “This is the first step; we’re really excited about this. This is a tangible way to respond to the state of the union.”

To support the Congress Elementary literacy fund, you can make a donation of any amount at the store, located at 955 Cherry St. SE. When you donate, you can put your name and a thoughtful message on a recycled paper heart that Books & Mortar are using to fill the shop's windows. On March 1, there will be an all-day event to kick off March Is Reading Month, and the store will be having special discounts for those who donate to the fund that day.

For further information, 
email Books & Mortar at info@booksandmortar.com, call 616-214-8233, visit its website, and follow it on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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