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Code Camp teaches app-building for a future in entrepreneurship

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Images courtesy of Junior Achievement of the Michigan Great Lakes.
 

The Diatribe uses poetry as a catalyst for social reform

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Images courtesy of The Diatribe.
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Images courtesy of the Grand Rapids Art Museum.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photos courtesy of the Responsible Parent Program.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Images courtesy of Local First.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For more information, you can visit their website here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Images courtesy of Mary Free Bed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Images courtesy of Urban Roots.
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Images courtesy of #GRSummerProject.
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SLSA Creative Agency seeks to push the agenda of creativity

Last month, clustered in a sector of the Rising Grinds Café, were a handful of dreamy-eyed entrepreneurs and creatives, eager to learn about the outline, or as SLSA Creative Agency titled it, The Blueprint, of steps necessary to pursue your career. SLSA founder Shayna Harris talked about how the organization’s target audience—creatives, entrepreneurs, and millennials—often lack the funding for full branding of their ideas. Additionally, Harris invited speakers to share their takes on brand development, including founder of Grand Rapids Area Black Businesses Jamiel Robinson, and GRNow founder CJ Devries.

With the Blueprint, the first of many in a series of workshops in brand building, she aims to provide others with a foundation of skill sets for pursuing their career. However, The Blueprint is only one of a multitude of ways in which SLSA is trying to serve the community of Grand Rapids.

SLSA Creative agency is an organization functioning much like a public relations firm, focusing on the branding and marketing, creative design, and event production of persons pursuing a career in the creative field.

“The name, SLSA, is our promise to our clients that we work on the branding and marketing side, that we promise strategy to prolong longevity, style, and ambition,” says Harris. Simply put, the mission “is to keep creatives, creative.”

The idea for SLSA was born out of a need to pave the way for more creative pursuits in Grand Rapids. She explained that because there are a lot of creatives in the city who do not have access to resources for developing their brand, the organization strives to become that resource which, at times, is challenging.

“There’s no other businesses to really collaborate with,” Harris says. “When you’re the only one creating an agency that says, ‘Hey, I just want to support you,’ you’re doing a lot of digging.”

“This is what Grand Rapids lacks, so I just finally decided [on starting the organization] because I’ve seen a lot of my friends leave to go to L.A. and Chicago because there’s just more opportunity there for creatives. Whether you rap, you sing, you write, you paint—whatever it is—there’s just no lane for it here.”

The team is made up of three women, Harris included, who hone in on the organization’s ideology of versatility and diversity. Harris takes on the responsibility of meeting with clients and coming up with strategies to figure out what direction their brand needs to go in, another visually brings to life the campaign for the brand, and the third typically handles the demands of human resources and business development. Together, the three range in skills, physical appearance, and age, in order to create a triad of perspectives.

“We want the creatives in our community to feel supported, so when I bring people to my table for SLSA, I want that represented and I want our clients to see that represented, and I want the creatives that we highlight to feel welcome, even if they don’t look like me,” Harris says.

In the next couple of months, SLSA seeks to extend their efforts into a physical space, where they hope foster an environment for collaboration amongst other creatives within Grand Rapids.

Photos courtesy of SLSA Creative Agency.

Michigan Good Food Fund welcomes Grand Rapids Opportunities for Women as lending partner

Grand Rapids Opportunities for Women (GROW) is joining the Michigan Good Food Fund (MGFF) in its valuable work to address food apartheid in communities throughout Michigan. While “food deserts” are defined as neighborhoods with limited access to healthy food, nutrient-poor food is often readily available in income-challenged neighborhoods. The MGFF’s unique lending programs seek to change that status quo.

With GROW as a lending partner, MGFF is helping West Michigan businesses to finance enterprises that increase access to affordable, healthy food in an income-challenged, underserved, Michigan community. Any business that grows, processes, distributes, or sells healthy food within an eligible community can apply for loans ranging from $1,000 to $6 million from the fund, which is a public-private partnership.

GROW, along with two other lending partners, Northern Initiatives and Detroit Development Fund, will underwrite loans less than $250,000. MGFF fund manager, Capital Impact Partners, underwrites loans more than $250,000. Businesses can seek financing for working capital, inventory, equipment, acquiring real estate, construction, property improvements, facility expansions, and business process upgrades.

“We have $30 million available to support businesses across Michigan. Since our launch, we have built a network of lending partners and also a robust, technical support services pipeline,” says Mary Donnell, MGGF program manager. “GROW lets us deepen our presence in the west side of the State. It really is our goal that every business we lend to improves the health of Michigan children and families.”

MGFF had already helped two Grand Rapids businesses with financing. Ken’s Fruit Market provides affordable fresh produce in three locations: 2420 Eastern Ave SE, 3500 Plainfield Ave NE, and 830 28th St. SW. Placita Olvera, a mixed-use development on Grandville Avenue, will include a brewery, multiple restaurants, an outdoor farmers' market, and a business incubator space.

As MGFF sought to expand the program in West Michigan, involving GROW seemed a natural next step. West Michigan businesses applying for MGFF loans through GROW must attend a free, one-hour seminar that introduces them to all of the services that GROW offers. (The lending opportunity is not restricted to women.)

According to Kelli Smith, GROW’s business development officer and microloan counselor, the MGFF lending program aligns with GROW’s goals because many of the local businesses GROW serves are based in neighborhoods with limited food access or run by minority business owners.

“Increasing access to affordable, healthy food is one of our sweet spots. We are attempting to help the same minority-based borrowers that the program is specifically seeking out,” she says. “We’re excited to get moving with this. And, we’re trying to spread the word that we have lending options for food centered businesses.”

Written by Estelle Slootmaker, Development News Editor
Photos courtesy Grand Rapids Opportunities for Women
 


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

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