Neighborhoods of GR: Baxter Community Center celebrates 50 years

Baxter’s roots run deep, evidenced by the Baxter Community Center, a 50-year-old nonprofit that is more committed than ever to serving, living, and growing with its neighbors.
“What does it mean to have a community?” This was the question asked by Baxter Community Center’s original founders, and the question that has been continually asked by the staff, volunteers, and neighbors that have called the nonprofit home for half a century. This year, the center will celebrate 50 years of collaborating with residents in Baxter, a Grand Rapids neighborhood nestled neatly between Eastown and Heritage Hill, and home to Joe Taylor Park. Though a community targeted by redlining practices that historically affected People of Color, Baxter’s roots run deep, evidenced by a nonprofit that is more committed than ever to serving, living, and growing with its neighbors.

When discussing the topic of "revitalization" efforts attempting to reinvent a historical community with new businesses, Executive Director Melanie Beelen puts it simply: “Life didn’t start when white people showed up.” And despite rapidly gentrifying corridors to the north, east, and west of the neighborhood, the center has been cultivating community in this predominantly Black area of the city for 50 years. 

“In the late 1960s, a time of profound civil strife, ever-widening urban decay and pervasive racial inequality, several members of Eastern Avenue Christian Reformed Church and the surrounding community recognized a shared desire to tangibly respond to the social injustice and unmet needs in their neighborhood. At that time, housing covenants encouraged by the federal government kept black and white populations separate. Tensions gripped the public school system, kept alive by a predominantly white school board claiming to represent a multi-ethnic city and division between the West and Southeast sides.” — from Stacy Ladenburger, “Planting Seeds and Singing Songs: In Celebration of 40 Years of Faithful Service.”

During this tumultuous time of segregation and racial tension, which included the infamous 1967 race riots, Baxter community members, including Calvin College Education Professor Dennis Hoekstra, formed a small organization in a space above Bierling Bakery on Eastern Ave.

Soon after moving to its current location in the former site of the Baxter Christian School in the summer of 1969, and employing their first Executive Director, influential local artist and athlete Herschell Turner, the nonprofit cemented its role as a vital neighborhood resource. Back then, as now, “Baxter was a rich place to be,” says Senior Director Sonja Forte.

Describing the community center as the site for after-school activities like basketball and boy scouts, as well as school dances, Forte paints a picture of a lively haven for children whose parents relied on the space as a safe, stimulating environment for their kids. Soon after its founding, the community center added programs for free tax preparation, a food and clothing pantry, counseling, and childcare. “All of that is who we are,” says Forte.

Nikki Thompkins grew up just down the street from the center. She describes playing basketball on the outdoor court daily, ‘“because we couldn’t afford a gym membership,” she says. “I played every day at Baxter…. I was the only girl … I think that’s why my game was more aggressive,” she jokes.

This determination and daily practice paid off for Thompkins, who went on to attend Central Michigan University on a full-ride athletic scholarship, later play professional basketball in Europe, and even play shortly for the WNBA’s Detroit Shock training camp.

Upon returning to West Michigan, Thompkins took a job with the Grand Rapids Parks and Recreation Department as the liaison and supervisor for the Baxter Community Center’s athletic programs. “I knew that my heart was in the community and so I wanted to find a job kind of where I grew up or with kids that had kind of my background growing up,” says Thompkins. 

In her role, Thompkins implemented her own athletic, academic, and life skills programming for Baxter neighborhood kids, guided the transition from an outdoor court into an indoor facility, and even oversaw the donation of basketball hoops from the Orlando Magic’s practice court — on which she was the first to shoot a basket.

“My connection just runs deep,” says Thompkins, who while working with Baxter was diagnosed with and treated for ovarian cancer. “The response was just so great,” she says, from Beleen and other community members. “Baxter is like my second family.”

Many other community members like Thompkins have relied on the center their entire lives for community-building, athletics, and life-saving services like their medical clinic, in which physicians from Alger Pediatrics volunteer three to four times per week to treat patients from pediatrics to adulthood.

The center is also home to a dental clinic nine months out of the year, offering services completely free of charge.

For its 40th anniversary, Baxter also constructed and opened its own greenhouse, which supplies their food pantry with fresh produce year-round.

“We have often been described as a one-stop shop,” says Beelen. In addition to offering services that meet neighbors’ physical needs, the center is also home to the Mzizi Maji Mentoring Program, which serves and educates youth aged eight to 18. With Mzizi meaning “root” and maji meaning “water,” the program is based in Psalm 1:3, which likens the reader to a tree that prospers when fed by the rivers of the water. Thus, the mentoring program, rooted in cultural education and designed to encourage youth to succeed in school by offering end-of-the-year travel, feeds the hearts and minds of Baxter school children.

The Baxter Community Center offers access to dental services.

Even after 50 years, the staff at the Baxter Community Center are more devoted than ever to serving their neighbors with medical services, food and clothing, counseling, and above all, a place to form long-lasting relationships. As Beleen, Forte, and other staff kick off their Bax50 campaign to raise $500,000 to fund programming, they are encouraging Grand Rapidians touched by Baxter to share their own stories of the neighborhood’s impact on their lives.

“Baxter can position itself to tell those stories in ways that make people think and paradigm switch,” says Beleen, who continues to witness the incredible work done by and for Baxter residents every day at the center. And throughout the year, as they raise the funds to kick off their next 50 years, the center has designed their fundraising methods — whether by storytelling, purchasing a quilt square, or by hosting a youth basketball camp — to be “reflective of both our values that all people are involved in their city and all people are involved in the success of their neighborhoods and all people … benefit from strong neighborhoods.”

Photos courtesy of the Baxter Community Center.
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.