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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Images courtesy of #GRSummerProject.
 

Innovation Central engineering lab will accelerate careers and college

The City of Grand Rapids SmartZone Local Development Finance Authority has is granting Grand Rapids Public Schools $384,306 for the Innovation Central Advanced Technology Educational Initiative, which at its centerpiece includes creating a new state-of-the-art engineering lab. Funds will be dispersed over a three year period.

The initiative will expand the existing lab and outfit it with cutting edge technology like prototyping equipment and 3D printers. Grant funds will also help to further develop the school’s engineering curriculum. In addition, the Initiative will partner with West Michigan Center for Art and Technology (WMCAT) and Grand Circus to provide even more opportunities to students in the program. (According to Talent 2025, annual openings for engineering positions in West Michigan are going to continue to rise steeply.) Other partners involved in the initiative include Grand Valley State and Ferris State UniversitySteelcaseVan Andel Institute, and Fishbeck Thompson Carr & Huber.

“We’ve taken what our community partners have told us and implemented new courses that will help our students succeed within the engineering field,” adds Gideon Sanders, GRPS director for Innovative Strategies. “The grant will help us modernize the equipment so students will have access to things they will see in their profession or where they intern. The industry has a desire for students who can code and do computer programming. The grant will help us establish a lab dedicated to engineering.”

Innovation Central is one of three Grand Rapids Public Schools Centers for Innovation. Launched in 2008 in partnership with West Michigan’s universities, colleges, and industry leaders, the Centers of Innovation encourage students to focus on specific career or college pathways. University Prep offers middle and high school students an individualized, college-focused curriculum. The Public Museum School embodies place-based education and design thinking within an immersion environment within two Grand Rapids Public Museum and nine through twelve at the renovated 54 Jefferson building.

In addition to the Academy of Modern Engineering, Innovation Central houses the Academy of Business, Leadership and Entrepreneurship, Academy of Design and Construction, and Academy of Health Science and Technology. In all, Innovation Central enrolls more than 700 students; 160 currently take part in the engineering program.

The City of Grand Rapids and Downtown Grand Rapids Inc. (DGRI) also joined the partnership, specifically The Pubic Museum School and Innovation Central, as both lie within Grand Rapids’ downtown boundaries.

“When our friends at Downtown Grand Rapids Inc. developed the GR Forward plan, we met with them. We asked, ‘Hey what's the role of K -2 within this?’ If you want to have the best downtown for a midsize city, having strong school choices are a part of this,” says John Helmholdt, GRPS executive director of Communications & External Affairs. “They wholeheartedly embraced it. GR Forward includes a chapter around K-12 schools.”

Every eighth-grade student in the district applying to Innovation Central gets in, regardless of grades, attendance, or behavior. However, if students wait until they are in ninth grade or later to apply, those factors are weighed in the admission decision.

“It’s open access to everybody. GRPS has one school that’s a test-in (City Middle and High). Our superintendent (Teresa Weatherall Neal) does not want more than one of those,” Frost says. “We want all the kids we can get because we think we’ve got something for everybody.”

Innovation Central’s four academies had been housed with larger high schools but, according to John Helmholdt, some were getting “lost in the shuffle.” Consolidating the four Academies under one roof has proven successful: Innovation Central now boasts as 93 percent graduation rate.

“Centers of Innovation act like charter schools but within the district, with our teachers, and with the union,” he says. “Principal Mark Frost is absolutely a rock-star school leader. Innovation Central is now the strongest and best program in the district.”

Written by Estelle Slootmaker, Development News Editor
Photos courtesy Grand Rapids Public Schools


May LEAD training targets 18 to 24 year-olds: $800 stipends for youth from "neighborhoods of focus"

Since Mayor George Heartwell founded it in 2010, the City of Grand Rapids’ Leadership and Employment, Achievement and Direction (LEAD) program has trained youth in civic engagement, leadership, and employment skills. In 2013, President Obama recognized the program as a national model for mayoral leadership in youth employment. Managed by Our Community’s Children, a public-private partnership among the City of Grand Rapids, Grand Rapids Public Schools, and community partners, LEAD is free and open to residents ages 15 to 24 and those attending college in the greater Grand Rapids area.

 

Grant funds from the WK Kellogg Foundation will provide participating youth from specific southeast, southwest, and northwest Grand Rapids neighborhoods who successfully complete the program with an $800 stipend. From May 1 through 15, the first of two cohorts will target youth at the upper end of the age spectrum, ages 18 through 24.

 

“We found that in focus groups with other projects that we facilitated, students were saying, ‘After we go through high school, there’s no go-to person anymore, no principal, counselor, or teacher. We’re out there on our own,’” says Shannon Harris, Our Community’s Children program coordinator.

 

The LEAD program originally targeted high-school-age youth. In 2015, organizers decided to include 18 to 24 year-olds. While college students are accepted into the program, the hope is that older youth facing challenges with completing school or finding a job will enroll and move their lives forward.

 

“We accept students that have a past. We accept students that haven’t graduated from high school. We accept students that haven’t had any work experience at all. Those are really the students we want to be part of the program,” Harris says. “We think this is a great age group because they are able to make their own decisions in life. We just want to help them along the way whether to college, getting a job, or getting an internship.”

 

LEAD topics include financial literacy, dressing for success, mock interviews, and writing resumes and cover letters. Activities include acting lessons with actor Sammy A. Publes (The Chi, 2018; Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, 2016; and Empire, 2015) and field trips to local businesses and colleges.

 

After graduating from the LEAD program, youth can earn a job making $10 to $13 an hour at a Mayor’s 100 Business. Some will go to work for firms associated with City government—public relations, engineering, or with a law firm. Others will hone their skills at other local small businesses.

 

“The young people who go through this program really learn about themselves, their community, the nation, and worldwide,” Harris says. “How we do that is through a few assessments. One, we use the DISC assessment …This really helps them with identifying and validating who they are.”

 

Apply today or tomorrow!
 

Open to youth ages 15 through 24, a second LEAD cohort takes place June 11 through 26. Meeting from 8:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. at City Hall, both sessions offer the $800 stipend to youth residents of Grand Rapids’ Neighborhoods of Focus. The program provides parking, bike racks, and bus passes. Youth who want to attend the May cohort must register by end of business day April 27. They can register online or contact Harris at 616.456.3558 or sharris@grcity.us.

 

“This will be our 13th and 14th cohort this year. We are looking for students that want an opportunity to learn a variety of things but, at the end, also get meaningful employment—and it’s a lot of fun,” Harris concludes. “It’s really about introducing them to the possibilities and uplifting their talents and abilities.”

 

Written by Estelle Slootmaker, Development News Editor

Photos courtesy Leadership and Employment, Achievement and Direction (LEAD) program


Heart of West Michigan United Way pledges $589,000 in STEM program funding

"We have been investing in Kent County for over 100 years," says Michelle Van Dyke, Heart of West Michigan United Way president and CEO. A century-old nonprofit designed to reduce poverty in West Michigan, United Way raises money, vets partner agencies, fund solutions, and mobilizes volunteers, according to their website. Recently, Van Dyke and the nonprofit set its sites on education, specifically in math and science, of youth in Kent County.

Conducting an assessment of the education needs of the community, United Way identified a gap in middle school STEM programming. Aiming to prepare this cross section of students in the area with adequate training in math and science, the nonprofit designated $589,000 of their 2017-2018 Community Investment Fund Grants to education in these arenas.

"A broad array of what we're funding around the issue of middle school math and science. We need better achievement in those subject in order or kids to be ready for the jobs in this community," says Van Dyke.

Part of this funding, announced yesterday at Westwood Middle School, was allocated to a one-time gift to Grand Rapids Public Schools of a leading STEM curriculum by Discovery Education. After meeting with GRPS Superintendent Teresa Weatherall McNeal last year, Van Dyke quickly determined that this partnership fit perfectly with both the nonprofit and the school district's missions of preparing students for future jobs.

This, says Van Dyke, is United Way's principal goal with specially tailored programs. "[We want to] make sure kids get a quality education and that they get opportunities that they need to get living wage jobs when they're adults. That's our aim," she says.

In addition to partnering with GRPS and providing this specialized curriculum for middle schoolers district-wide, United Way has teamed up with Camp Blodgett to form a STEM Academy and STEM Club, Kent Intermediate School District "training teachers how to be better science teachers and math teachers, as well as professional development in STEM subjects," and the Expanded Learning Opportunities Network (ELO) to create a new STEAM strategy.

United Way is also working with The Refugee Education Center to provide funding for academic intervention for those students who are learning English alongside their math and science curriculums.

Over the next three years, Van Dyke aims to equip Kent County students with the tools they need to master STEM and prepare themselves for careers in engineering, healthcare, and advanced manufacturing, among other industries.

For her, for GRPS, and for the many partner agencies throughout Kent County, it's simple:

"Our kids need to know math and science," says Van Dyke.

Young Professional Spotlight: Zyra Castillo

As we get further into the season of giving and thanks, we had a chance to sit down and appreciate the hard work local arts teacher and Gallafe art curator Zyra Castillo does in the Greater Grand Rapids area.

We chatted with Castillo to get her perspective on life in Grand Rapids, and how she is making her own way in our growing Midwest city.

RG: Can you tell us a bit about yourself? (Are you from the area, how do you identify, what are your currently doing for work and interest here in Grand Rapids)

ZC: I grew up in the Upper Peninsula and left after graduating for GVSU (Grand Valley State University). Originally born in the Philippines, I came when I was four just in time to turn five and start school the following fall. A lot of my childhood and college experiences have shaped the way I currently teach and get involved in the community. As an art teacher, my focus is on creative and analytical thinking using mediums to express those thoughts or interpret the visual world around us. Those experiences also are great influences on my involvement in the Grand Rapids Asian Festival. 

RG: Where did you study/grow up and how has that experience shape who you are?

ZC: There were both positive and negative aspects of my youth. Growing up in the UP gave me an appreciation for country living, slow pace, nature, and agriculture. I had great appreciation for growing up around Native American culture. I was lucky enough to have gone through a time period in high school were the arts were highly valued and gave me another route for the future. 

I didn’t have to deal with the quickness and overpopulation of a large urban center. 
However, that also meant there was lack in diversity. I didn’t always know where to fit in. I learned to self hate within my own identity. 

That experience continued in college. However, college was still a huge eye-opener and I tried to take on as many experiences as possible which didn't always help me academically. But the whole process was an immense life learning lesson. Those struggles helped me understand and connect with different people that may have been more difficult if I had not had to pay for my own schooling and taken multiple jobs in and out of campus. I found tufts of community that felt accepting in a place I didn't have any connection to.

RG: What is your current work/passion?

ZC: I am currently an art teacher, organizer, curator, and whatever else I can get my hands on. I love being able to provide and bring enrichment. Everything I do is a reflection of my teacher impulses—being able to connect people and ideas, opening conceptual doors, trying to search for humanity. As equally as I love harmony, I also love the challenge of discourse. I enjoy proving people wrong in situations that feel unequal and unjust.

RG: As a woman of color (WoC) what current issues are most pressing to you?

ZC: The fact there are still so many misconceptions, mistreatment, and disrespect for women professionals is a challenge, as well as the lack of women and POC (people of color) in positions of power that are taken seriously.

RG: As a young professional, what has been your career path, growth, and obstacles?

ZC: I stick to my principles in the workplace. Your personal values should be reflected in your work and vice versa. Not to be confused with style or method. But things like integrity, empathy, openness, can be be challenging in work environments. I’ve found it challenging at times to fit into spaces because my opinions and input are not always taken seriously for whatever reasons being related to age, sex, profession, race.

Being a woman of color can make it difficult even with men of color who are playing the business or power game that celebrates patriarchy. Places often say they want innovation or diversity but don't really understand and implement on a basic or superficial level. 

Through my process of refining my professional goals, I’ve found incredible support. Those challenges have strengthened by goals, and changed my view of goals as fluid and evolving. I want to support and provide a resource for culture and education. The Asian Festival has been instrumental as a medium to do so, as well as my continual interest in growing my food pop up, and becoming a stronger educator. 

RG: How has Grand Rapids faired in helping support you as PoC?

ZC: Things have improved. I was eager to seek larger and more diverse settings to feel the support I needed. I still don't feel completely accepted. I see APA (Asian Pacific American) culture used more frequently as a sensational business opportunity, entertainment, and backdrop with disregard to actual Asian people and culture. People want to try Americanized Asian food as foodie culture has exploded in GR, but yet there isn't increased knowledge about Asian culture. I'm more identifiable but still feel othered. Even in setting that are supposed to help POC, at times there is this air of savior syndrome that exudes expectation for gratitude, or assimilation. I've found my communities that make me feel at home, but outside of it is still quite uncomfortable. 

Being a teacher to children of color, I have to prepare them for a world that isn't as kind or understanding about where they come from. that their history and cultures are not given consideration in this bootstrap culture. 

RG: Anything else you would like to add, discuss, or share? 

ZC: Go to cultural events, local happenings, and support artists and people of color. Be involved. Know about your community. Be open to other people's narratives.

Castillo’s food travels can be found online here.

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.

Images courtesy of
 Zyra Castillo.

Steel River: Fitness and growth

Hacking: when we hear that word we think of fingers typing furiously on a keyboard in an attempt to gain entry to a network full of sensitive information. Rather, like many other words, the definition of hacking has changed with time. 
 
Hacking now speaks to a method of gathering readily available resources to create a working solution to a problem. If you know what it means to “MacGyver” something ,then you know what it means to hack something together.
 
Taylor Wieck founded Steel River fitness as a way to hack his life back together by bringing his passion for fitness to life. From working in manufacturing, to direct sales, to fitness, Wieck has hacked together an active and purposeful life for himself.
 
 “Steel River was born out of a need for fitness and health to be relatable and easily understood," says Wieck. "My personal brand of training creates results by combining effective and challenging workouts with lifestyle coaching. Health and fitness is a true passion of mine. Before I found the gym I was socially awkward, in awful health, and was headed towards an early grave. One morning I woke up and just felt absolutely terrible. I could hardly breathe and felt completely drained. This continued for weeks and I simply decided enough was enough. I dove headfirst into every bit of knowledge I could find regarding exercise, fitness, health, lifestyle changes, and hacking your own mentality. The fitness field became a forge for all my passion and gave me purpose.”
 
Entrepreneurial businesses do not happen overnight and require long hours of work just to get the working plan off the ground. Even before a business plan is executed, there comes the mental preparation an entrepreneur must go through before arriving to their idea.

Wieck adds, “I was allowing myself to take the easy way out by not working with people and I wasn't getting anywhere because I wasn't actually in the field I dreamt of being in. I knew I needed to get better at working with people and wanted to take on fitness full time, so I did what any young adult with a trial by fire mentality would do. I jumped from factory work straight into direct sales. It changed my life. I started as a sales rep for a gym while finishing up study for my NASM CPT exam. At first I was terrible! A lack of social skills will do that to you. After I got past the first month I started to catch on and developed an honest love for bringing people into the place I loved most, namely the gym.”

A local group has also been hacking education for more than two decades. Currently located on the west side of the city, The Geek Group is a deceptively large makerspace, studio space, and learning center for the whole city. Wieck was familiar with the group and tells us how he became more involved.

“I originally approached the group with the intent to volunteer as the on-staff personal trainer. Something unexpected happened. I fell in love with the place. I decided that I would take what I knew about sales and communications and apply it to this non-profit that brought so much to the community. I worked full-time at the gym and on my personal training skills while also volunteering in public outreach and membership services for The Geek Group. This opportunity to work in two different worlds helped me to build a blended and balanced set of skills that improved my performance in each.”

Although the space is physically located on West Leonard, that does not limit its staff involvement as Wieck tells us “Our team is built of over 25 staff members across the globe who have experience in areas that include manufacturing, higher education, social work, electronics, engineering, programming, carpentry, and hospitality. Between all of us we are able to assist people in both identifying their goals and reaching them.” This ties well with what Wieck has come to make of his career, where he helps his clients reach their fitness goals, and helps his fellow members at The Geek Group to accomplish their learning goals.

The Geek Group is always in search of new opportunities to give back to the community as well as programs to further educate their members. Wieck adds, “We are in the middle of a three-year rollout right now for providing direct vocational access to West Michigan. We want to fully expand out our programming to cover the industry's growing the most locally, and give individuals the strongest opportunity to excel in those areas.”

The Geek Group has amassed a large collection of tools, expert staff, and it is always seeking to add diversify their member base. The group understands that innovative solutions come from teams with a diverse makeup, be it in age, career type, gender, culture, or background.

When asked what is next for his business venture Wieck adds  “As Steel River grows and develops my intent is to reach a larger crowd through social media and online video while continuing to build my skills at The Geek Group. My mission is to truly create an impact in people's lives through both fitness and personal growth, which means also helping people to seek new skills and trades. I intend on building my brand through the principals I've always pushed myself to uphold. Honesty, confidence, communication, and passion. Steel River will not only be a local fitness brand for Grand Rapids but a nationwide solution to lifestyle coaching and personal development.”

You can learn more about The Geek Group’s mission and current projects here and find Wieck at the space ready to help you with your fitness and learning questions.

Wieck can be found on Instagram @steelriverfit. If you wish to reach out to fulfill your fitness goals you can reach Wieck via email at steelriverfitness@gmail.com!

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.

Local firm Mindscape redefines marketing through relationship building

Mindscape, a 17-year old digital marketing firm located on Grand Rapids' West Side, has been upping its game with community involvement. Offering services that educate its clients, but also engaging community members for free, Mindscape is in hot pursuit of better digital marketing for everyone.

"We're always looking for opportunities to engage the community," says CEO Pete Brand. With this in mind, Brand developed various content marketing workshops for small business owners, nonprofits, and marketing professionals who want to make the jump from traditional marketing and learn "how to navigate the digital space effectively," says Brand. Mindscape also provides training for inbound marketing strategy.

In addition to paid training, Mindscape has expanded their educational opportunities to be accessible to all. "We made the decision that we'd like to teach other people as well so we can not just help the people that are paying us," says Brand.

Two years ago, Mindscape began facilitating Lunch & Learn events, in which interested community members can visit their West Side office for a free lunch and an hour of education on a particular topic in the industry.

This fall, Brand and his cohort will embark on an exciting new project as part of their Create & Execute strategy building program. Working with Grand Valley State University and Ferris State University, Mindscape will act as the go-between for recent graduates and nonprofits seeking digital marketing talent. "We do the matchmaking," says Brand, for organizations "who typically have limited resources and capacity internally to tap into digital marketing," he adds.

Contributing half of the cost of the nonprofit's participation in the program, Mindscape assists in developing a strategic digital marketing plan for the organization while at the same time mentoring the recent grad. At the end of this experimental program, the grad will have to then present their plan in front of the nonprofit's board of directors for approval. "We want to help the nonprofit and also hep the marketing student so they can stay here," says Brand.

All of these efforts are part of Brand's desire to reach to and improve his community. From carefully crafted educational programs to fun events like National Margarita Day at the Widdicomb building, Mindscape is making strides in their mission to spread the marketing love. "It's not just about the bottom line," says Brand. "It's about rolling up your sleeves and pitching in to the community that you're a part of."
 

The Women's Resource Center: Providing pathways to self-sufficiency and success

We all enter the workforce at different ages and with different backgrounds. There is of course the tale of a young Warren Buffett and his paper route where he displayed a high business acumen at such an early age. The young Buffett made sure to write off his bicycle on his taxes because of its use during his paper route.

Now, we all know what that young boy grew up to be, and the legend he has become. The Oracle of Omaha is now worth just under $74 Billion and is considered to be one of the world’s most savvy businesspeople. No one would deny that Buffett was born with an innate gift for business, but we cannot overlook the time and systems of privileges that allowed him to use his full talent and hard work to achieve and overcome.

It is very easy to look at those from our community that have fallen on hard times or were born into systems of perpetual structural violence and disadvantage, and not see talent, potential, or passion. Yet it is there, and time and time again we are reminded of those of us that rise from adversity. In big ways and in smaller ways, whether it is a mega star like Oprah Winfrey or a home grown star like Latesha Lipscomb, the talent is there alongside all the barriers.

Grand Rapids is fortunate to have a team of dedicated and talented people at the Women’s Resource Center, and a newly named CEO in Sandra Gaddy. The proverb states it takes a village to raise a child, yet in many ways when we live in community with each other it should be better said it takes a village to raise a person.

When entering or re-entering the workforce it can feel daunting and scary, and many try to go at it alone not knowing that no one ever makes it completely on their own. Behind every successful person there is a long story; the successful stand on the shoulders of their mentors, coaches, sponsors, family, network, and friends.

This is what the Women’s Resource Center provides for its members, and they take it to heart. Newly appointed CEO Sandra Gaddy refers to herself as the newest member of the team, and speaks about how it takes the entire team, at times other program members, to empower each and every woman in the program.

Gaddy says “Our purpose is simple yet powerful. We empower local women to become economically self sufficient and improve their lives through career development, meaningful employment, and powerful growth.”
Servant leadership shows itself at the core of this amazing team, where they have several pathways aimed to empower and uplift women.

The Empower Pathway “..helps women who are in a life transition to move toward economic self-sufficiency by providing career and life skill development” states the organization’s website, and is provided by professional staff Career Coaches.

The Women Mentoring Women Pathway provides “caring volunteer mentors who offer one-on-one advice and encouragement while developing a personalized plan of action with each participant.” states the organization’s website

The New Beginnings Pathway operates with the “understanding that incarceration presents unique challenges for future job seekers, and provides enhanced gender-responsive mentoring services to women at Kent County Jail pre-release and up to 18 months post-release. Offering one-on-one and/or group mentoring, employability assessments coupled with individual employment development plans, employability and life skills workshops, job placement and retention assistance, and strength-based case management services to connect returning women with collaborative community partners for substance abuse and mental health treatment, education/training, housing and basic needs, and other services critical to their successful community reentry.” states the organization’s website.

If these programs were not already multi-faceted, the center also provides: a business center, computer classes, resume coaching, a seeking employment together- support group, interviewing techniques, resume writing, personal finance management, a working women’s clothing closet - where you can pick out a full work outfit, a divorce information workshop, and a scholarship program available for the women participating in the intensive program and is designed to assist women in becoming economically self-sufficient.

Gaddy adds “Not everyone comes to the Resource Center at the same time and place in their lives and careers,” so the center has a diverse set of resources to overcome the barriers and challenges that women often encounter.

I have no doubt of the quality of work that the Women’s Resource Center provides, but I do know that a team can always use more players for the long game. If you fancy yourself a leader or a skilled teammate, consider looking at the growing talent at the Women’s Resource Center and reach out to the team to learn more how you can continue to lead by having a hand in inspiring and growing more leaders.

If you want to become a participant or are unsure if the Women’s Resource Center is right for you and would like to learn more please reach out to the team here. Take Gaddy’s words to heart “We empower local women..”, and indeed they have, are doing so, and will continue to do so.

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.

Summer science camps: Van Andel Education Institute makes learning fun for local students

We are rounding that spring corner, and before you know it we will be right in the middle of summer! If you found yourself scrambling this spring break for educational activities for the little ones, we are here to make sure you are prepared for the summer. The folks at the Van Andel Education Institute have a plenty of programs to help fill up your kid’s, and entire family’s, summer.

“Kids love hands-on science. They enjoy getting messy, seeing how things work, and exploring,” says Terra Tarango, director of the Van Andel Education Institute.

The institute will be offering two summer camps geared towards students in fourth through seventh grades.
The fourth and fifth graders will be joining the “Animal Survivor: Pill Bugs, Newts & Geckos, Oh My!” program.

As part of this week-long day camp, students will explore the world of animal adaptations, including studying animal behavior, observing structural traits and discovering what helps animals survive in the wild. Plus, the youngsters will have the chance to learn about a variety of species, including invertebrates, amphibians and reptiles, through hands-on exploration.

“The students love getting to interact with the different animals we have in the lab,” Tarango says. “They have seen geckos and bearded dragons, but most of them have never been able to hold them, so they can’t wait to get their hands on them and learn about their survival mechanisms and habitat preference.”

There will be two sessions held, with the first running from June 26 to June 30 and the second starting July 17 and wrapping up July 21.

The sixth and seventh graders will get to dive into the “Environmental Forensics: What’s in the water?” program.
As part of this, students will “explore solutions to the world’s most pressing environmental concerns,” the institute explains.

Also a week-long day camp, this program will allow the children to “discover how oil spills, chemical contamination and other threats to water quality affect our environment.”

By using hands-on investigations, learning water monitoring techniques and working with peers, students will brainstorm how to protect Earth’s water.

“In this camp, students study real-world challenges to our water resources, giving them a strong foundational understanding of water quality and environmental influences,” says Tarango.

There will be two sessions held for this as well: one from July 10 - 14 and the second from July 24 - 27.

The cost for each of these summer camps is $185. For more information, head on over to the VAEI site for registration.

Not ready to take the full dive just yet? The institute has a great weekend option for you and your little ones to dip your toes into. Science on Saturday provides a great exposure to science for those who might not be ready to take the plunge. The program is $20 for teams of a student and an adult, but financial assistance is available. Space is limited to 16 teams per session, so be sure to contact the institute at information@vaei.org or call 616-234-5528 to register.

There will be a session for first and second graders at the end of this month so be sure to reserve your spot as they tend to fill up quickly!

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.
 

Human trafficking in West Michigan: How Ferris State University is fighting modern-day slavery

Human trafficking is a deeply rooted problem that’s growing in Kent County, and throughout Michigan, according to human rights advocates. As an increasing number of people are forced into modern day slavery, leaders across Michigan, a state that has more trafficking victims than almost anywhere else in the country, are determined to combat this epidemic.

The Ferris State University Coalition Against Slavery and the Professional Convention Management Association Student Organization are holding a two-day public “Conference on Human Trafficking Awareness” from April 5 to April 6 at the FSU University Center, located at 805 Campus Drive in Big Rapids, Michigan.

FSU conference attendees are welcome to register for one or both days and will learn more about trafficking, signs of exploitation, root causes, the trauma experienced by a person who has been exploited, and tips for keeping family and friends safe through cyber security.

Day one will be held on Wednesday, April 5 in the University Center Ballroom from 7:00pm-9:30pm. It will include a presentation given by Jason Otting and the Women in Cyber Security Student Organization titled “Fighting for the Silenced: How Cyber Security Can Curb Human Trafficking.” The evening will conclude with a screening of “The Long Night” by Tim Matsui and Media Storm Productions.

Day two will be held on Thursday, April 6 in the University Center from 9am to 4pm. For a small fee ($15 for students; $30 for non-students), registrants will attend breakout sessions, enjoy a catered lunch and participate in a panel discussion with guest speakers, including Carmen Kucinich, FBI Victim Specialist; Nikeidra Battle-Debarge, Wedgewood’s Manasseh Project Coordinator; and Jane White, Chair of the Michigan State Human Trafficking Task Force.

Human trafficking: A growing problem

The FSU conference comes at a time when there has been a nationwide push to address human trafficking. In the last weeks of his final term, former U.S. President Barack Obama declared January 2017 as National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month.

The National Human Trafficking Hotline’s website defines trafficking as “a form of modern-day slavery in which traffickers use force, fraud, or coercion to control victims for the purpose of engaging in commercial sex acts or labor services against his/her will.”

Human trafficking continues to be a growing problem in Michigan. In 2016, 246 human trafficking cases were reported in Michigan alone, The National Human Trafficking Hotline saw a 37.5 percent increase in calls in 2016. Of those 246 cases, 191 were sex trafficking cases, 30 were labor trafficking, eight were sex and labor, and 17 were not specified. The majority of the victims, 216 individuals, were female, and 29 were male, according to Polaris, an organization that works to eradicate human trafficking.

While 246 cases were reported in Michigan last year, advocates say the actual number of trafficking victims is far higher. It’s difficult to gauge how many people are being trafficked in the region, but Women at Risk International, a Wyoming, Michigan-based nonprofit that’s working to eliminate human trafficking, reports there could be as many as 2,400 minors who are currently trafficking victims in West Michigan -- and that number doesn’t take into account the women and men forced into slavery. People of all ages are subjected to the horrors of trafficking, though the U.S. Department of Justice states that the average age of a victim of sex trafficking in the country is 13, with 12 being the average for a boy and 14 for a girl.

Trafficking touches all corners of Michigan, and the group Hope Against Trafficking notes Michigan was ranked as the second highest state for the number of sex trafficking victims in 2015.

“Over the last decade, criminal dockets have detailed tragic accounts of children sold for sex at truck stops, servants held in captivity and forced to clean for free, and women forced to enter the sex industry and provide profit for their traffickers,” Michigan’s Human Trafficking Commission states in a 2013 report. “From urban centers like Detroit and Grand Rapids to rural communities in the state’s Upper Peninsula, reports of trafficking have made headlines. Cases like these vividly illustrate the need for a comprehensive response to this crime.”

While Michigan has strengthened its laws regarding human trafficking in recent years, communities such as Kent County is facing a growing problem, according to the Kent County Human Trafficking Task Force, which first convened in March 2015.

“Like others, our community possesses characteristics that can be easily exploited by traffickers in what is, at its core, a highly lucrative commercial enterprise,” the task force writes, citing West Michigan’s agribusiness sector as a draw for labor traffickers and truck stops and rest areas dotting well-traveled highways as “attractive places for sex traffickers to sell their victims.”

“Our local hospitality industry has grown as our region becomes an increasingly popular location for large-scale events and national conventions,” the task force writes. “Hotels — filled with guests frequently coming and going and often unfamiliar to hotel staff — provide convenient, temporary cover for traffickers looking to service sex workers.”

Additionally, the task force notes that “the socio-economic conditions that can make people vulnerable to sex and labor trafficking in the first place are widespread in our community.”

“The economic growth Kent County has experienced in recent years remains stubbornly out of reach for thousands,” the group writes. “One in six people in our community lives in poverty. With few economic options, adults and children alike are often coerced into dangerous situations to simply put food on the table and a roof over their heads.”

How you can help

As an everyday citizen, there’s much you can do to help fight human trafficking, from lending a hand financially to just keeping an eye out for signs that someone may be a victim.
 
  • There are numerous signs that may show someone is being forced to have sex or work against their will, a list of which you can see here and here.
  • If you are a victim, or you think you know someone who is, call the Kent County Human Trafficking hotline, which is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, at 616-726-7777.
  • You can also call the National Human Trafficking hotline at 1-888-373-7888.
  • There are numerous groups in West Michigan that support human trafficking victims, many of which accept donations and/or volunteers. You can see a list here.
  • Increase awareness by talking to your friends neighbors about trafficking, donate items that trafficking victims and their children need, and more. See the numerous ways to help at the Wyoming, Michigan-based Women at Risk International.

The Conference on Human Trafficking Awareness will be held April 5 and 6 at Ferris State University’s University Center, located at 805 Campus Drive in Big Rapids, Michigan. Pre-registration is required and will close Monday, April 3 at 11:59pm.

Additional reporting by Anna Gustafson

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.


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.

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!

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.

The Ferris State Digital Animation and Game Design program gains national recognition

The Ferris State Digital Animation and Game Design (DAGD) program could easily be one of West Michigan’s best kept secrets.

Of course, it is not a secret, but, unless you are directly involved with the program, you probably would be surprised by the success and scope of this innovative initiative.

Let’s review a few facts.

The program is nationally recognized. The Ferris DAGD program was recently ranked number 16 by the Princeton Review in its 2016 rankings of the top 50 undergraduate schools worldwide for game design instruction (the list includes institutions in the United States, Canada and abroad). This is the second consecutive year for Ferris’s number 16 ranking, which is based on factors such as lab facilities, academic offerings and starting salaries for graduates of the program.

The program is focused on helping students to become successfully employed after graduation. The DAGD program was designed by industry professionals  to teach students the entire spectrum of skills needed to be successful in the digital animation and game design industry. Among the industries the DAGD program helps prepare students for include film, game design/asset creation, medical visualization, educational software and game/animation development. DAGD program coordinator David Baker is an award-winning media producer, animator and educator with extensive background in media production and animation. He has produced projects ranging from instructional videos to children's CD-ROM games for organizations such as the Children's Television Workshop, MTV and Amway.

This emphasis on the gaming industry translates to big career opportunities for the students. After all, from an economic standpoint, the gaming industry had total revenues of $23.5 billion in the U.S. in 2015 -- an increase of five percent from 2014, according to Forbes.

The program is designed to not only help students gain the needed skills to be successful, but also help them post-college, with a very active and supportive alumni group, a network of digital animation employers and access to an online portfolio where students can share their work with the world.

But the real magic of the DAGD program is best understood from a student’s perspective.

Rapid Growth was able to interview Emma Alvarez, 17, a graduate of the West Michigan Aviation Academy and current DAGD student, via email.

RGM: When did you start the program?

Emma: I started at Ferris this fall (of 2016) at the age of 16.

RGM: Why did you choose this program?

Emma: I was originally planning to go to Western Michigan University to pursue Biomedical Engineering, but around May of this year my mother showed me a video on Facebook of this new Ferris University program. After watching the introductory video for the program, I was immediately hooked. I have always had a passion for art and video games, so the collaboration of the two that the program created was a perfect fit for me. I have always appreciated video games for their visual aspects, such as intricately animated environments and the graphic design behind game's UIs (user interfaces). Not only would this program allow me to expand on my own personal creativity, but it would also be training me for one of the most booming career fields in the current time: game design. How could I not want to be part of such an innovative and immersive program right in my own city? I did not even think twice about applying to the program.

RGM: What excites you about this program?

Emma: Frankly, everything about this program excites me. Though, if I had to make a choice, I would say the aspect that excites me the most is the opportunity to be able to join the VR (virtual reality) community. Day by day, the VR community is expanding and discovering new and innovative ways to bring its audience into a whole new side of gaming that they could not have ever imagined. It amazes me that the gaming community is experiencing such an awesome way to delve into their online interfaces, and it excites me even more that I could be part of the VR game making process. It has always been a dream of mine to create video games, and now this program has taken my dream and raised it a level, going beyond what I could have imagined.

RGM: What do hope to do after you graduate?

Emma: After I complete the program, I would like to start off working as a graphic designer at a video game studio, as well as doing PR (public relations) work for various companies. As I work my way up, gaining experience and networking, I would then like to see myself be able to start my own video game company that focuses on rebooting classic video games into VR versions, as well as creating new video games for the VR scene.

Well done Ferris State University. Well done.

Writer: John Rumery, Innovation and Jobs News Editor
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