On the first day of May, the Pinery Park Little League shared a post on Facebook that must have disappointed parents and players.
Spring showers left the infield submerged, with a single mallard floating just above the pitchers' mound. Games for the evening had been canceled.
As soon as the ad hoc duck pond had dried up, baseball returned to Pinery Park.
A few years earlier, the little league was facing a different sort of delay, one that nearly struck it out for good. Attendance was enough to fill the benches, but the books were in the red. Years of financial mismanagement were burying the little league under a mound of debt.
“In 2015 our league had some tax and financial issues to the point where the City of Wyoming had to step in and we had to sign a new agreement that included the Greater Wyoming Community Resource Alliance (GWCRA) managing our finances through their fiduciary,” says PPLL President Mark Phillips.
The Wyoming City Council recognized the potential loss of this little league as a threat to the community's culture and called in some relief. The GWCRA, acting as a fiduciary, helped the little league through those lean years, ensuring gameplay would continue as scheduled.
Area kids continue to play baseball with the support of the GWCRA.
Four years later, the GWCRA continues to assist the little league in managing its finances. The rosters are stronger than ever, and so is the surrounding community. Outside the diamonds at Pinery Park, this nonprofit, directed by City of Wyoming staff members, and residents, is supporting tree plantings, band scholarships, robotics competitions, and even a color printer.
“The Alliance was originally created to solve a fiduciary problem for local organizations,” says City Manager Curtis Holt. “Several years later, we’re happy to see that it’s not just solving problems, but becoming a catalyst for further investment into our community. Whether through recreation programs, scholarships, or tree plantings, The Alliance ensures that local funds are returning to our citizens in thoughtful, life-changing ways. “
Building a community resource
Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, gang activity had become a substantial obstacle to the safety of Wyoming citizens. The Wyoming Police Department was bringing speakers to local high schools and engaging teenagers in violence prevention classes, and there was plenty of support from the community to continue those programs, but there had always been an issue with accepting donations without a 501(c)3 tax status. Holt and former Director of Police and Fire Services James Carmody created the nonprofit in 2011 as a means to help those groups secure funding, and put their plans in action.
In its fiduciary role, the GWCRA manages accounts holding donations for its beneficiaries, the groups that are working to make Wyoming a safer, more equitable, and more vibrant community. It dispenses those funds as requested.
"Then we do the bookkeeping for them, and as a 501(c)3, we take care of all the paperwork," says Wyoming City Council member Kent Vanderwood. "For other organizations, where we give grants from the funds we raise, we exist to support them. We give the money away as opposed to accumulate a large surplus of funds, and we are looking for worthy projects to support."
The GWCRA helps keep programs like the Godfrey-Lee Public Schools band funded.
“Here at the City, we’re always thinking about what we can do to serve the people of Wyoming,” Holt says. “While our primary mandate is to ensure the safety of the public through police and fire services, high-quality roads, infrastructure, and other basic services, there are additional ways we can leverage our resources and bring a larger return to the 75,000 people who live here. Our mission is community, safety, stewardship, and the work of The Alliance embodies these concepts in a very tangible way.”
Along with the police department and its K-9 squad; the Community Enrichment Commission, which arranges concerts in the park in the summer; the Tree Commission, which beautifies Wyoming through tree plantings and clean-up efforts; the Historical Commission, and others are also beneficiaries of the GWCRA fund.
The GWCRA holds these funds for the organizations until they are needed to pay their expenses. Then, it handles the bookkeeping for them, and as a 501(c)3, takes care of all the paperwork.
For other organizations, the GWCRA exists as a charitable fund, awarding grants to support their initiatives. More than a dozen applicants are supported with grant money every year. Since 2011, the organization has doled out more than $86,500 to these local projects.
And they all began with a letter.
GWCRA applications by the numbers
At the Wyoming City Hall, Vanderwood makes his way into a meeting room with a white binder the size of a desktop PC. Letters dating back before Vanderwood became chairman in 2018 are archived in thin plastic sleeves. The letters are from grant applicants who have sought support from the GWCRA.
The GWRCA received its highest number of grant applications in 2014, with 26 total requests. The gross total of awarded grant money also peaked that year, at $16,435. During that year, and those previous, the organization required applicants to submit a number of forms before it switched to a letter of approach model.
Not all of them received the amount they applied for. Some were denied, but the letters are now the required first step to soliciting the GWRCA's assistance in community-centered projects.
In 2016, a total of $13,049 was requested from the GWCRA, with a total of $13,935.25 being awarded.
In 2017, $13,700 was requested, and $8,194.44 was awarded.
In 2018, $30,600.97 was applied for, and 10,600.97 awarded.
This year, the GWCRA has received requests for $9,500 in grant money and has so far awarded just $2,500.
The GWCRA currently holds just over $72,000 in its charitable fund, all from donations, and much of it from a single breakfast event held in the fall of 2018. Ideally, Vanderwood says, it will all go somewhere it is needed more, rather than sit in a bank.
“The plan is to give it all away,” he says.
Each letter of inquiry is discussed at a board meeting. They are approved or denied and passed on to Director of Community Services Rebecca Rynbrant to follow up with details on the amount awarded, and the causes for which it is intended.
Donation dollars in action
Each year, the GWCRA earmarks several thousand dollars for the Parks and Recreation Department, which covers the cost of classes for low-income families. Children who otherwise may not have the chance are able to participate in activities like football, swimming, and Tae Kwon Do, without having to come up with anywhere from $18 to $114 for the registration fees.
Public safety programs get a smaller amount each year, and community initiatives make up the rest. So far in 2019, funded initiatives include sponsorship for the Salvation Army Chicago Staff Band and band camp scholarships for Godfrey-Lee High School students.
For the past several years, Godfrey-Lee’s sponsored band camp has been held in Greenville. But attendance has grown consistently, which prompted Kevin Gabrielse, band director for Godfrey-Lee Public Schools, to find another facility that could accommodate his students.
Kevin Gabrielse, band director for Godfrey-Lee Public Schools.
This year, the young musicians will be honing their talents at Hope College. They’ll be staying in the college dorms, navigating the college campus, and eating in the cafeteria. It’s a big difference from what many of the students are used to, coming from a 1.3-square-mile school district, Gabrielse says. Moreover, the costs are substantially more than they were at the prior location.
This forces the students and their families, many coming from low income or single parent homes, to make a tough decision. And when siblings are involved, it gets even tougher.
“It’s one thing for parents to put together $300 for their typical band camp, but when you've got two kids in the band, it can be extremely taxing,” Gabrielse says. “We've had families say, ‘You know, we can't afford to send our kids band camp this year, they will not be going.’ And that is a massive detriment, not just to the kid or to the kids, but to the whole band as well.”
During the week of band camp, instructors and students cram nine weeks' worth of class time into less than seven days. Students that don’t make it may fall behind for the remainder of the year, or even be precluded from participating in certain events.
With the help of the GWCRA, those band camp attendance fees are being defrayed by sibling scholarships. Each pair of siblings that attends receives $70 off the cost of both applications, for a total of $140.
There are currently 30 students in the Godfrey-Lee High School band program who have siblings. Next year, there will be 32, and all of them will benefit from the GWCRA scholarships.
Meanwhile, band camp attendance hasn’t dropped.
“When I started here, 20 years ago, we had 24 in the high school band,” Gabrielse says. “This year, we were just under 100. We're at 98. And next year we will be at about 108. And the following year, I think we'll probably top off at right about 125. And that's only one senior band.”
GWCRA board member Jenn Franson joined the team in 2018. She credits the organization with inspiring her and others to make Wyoming and West Michigan a better place to live. That inspiration is found not just in the projects that are funded through grants, but the volunteers who keep the GWCRA going.
"Being a part of this board has inspired hope!" she says. "I see the Wyoming community of city leaders and citizens volunteering to give of their time and money to not just to rescue people but empower them. The GWCRA comes alongside and supports people who are investing in their community to make a difference."
Franson says her colleagues in the Wyoming city leadership are volunteering their time to fundraise for and mentor active citizens looking to impact the Wyoming community. They aren’t getting paid for the work, but they are bringing out the same generosity and sense of community in their neighbors. Until 2018, the GWCRA was funded largely by unsolicited individual contributions, along with money from a yearly carnival, which brings in $10,000, and continued grants from the GM Foundation, which bring in another $5,000 every year. A charity breakfast held last fall at Metro Health University of Michigan Health brought in over $16,000, the largest surplus the organization has ever seen, and one which Holt, Vanderwood, Rynbrandt, Franson, and others will soon appropriate to various community causes.
The Greater Wyoming Community Resource Alliance is unique in its longevity, as well as the number of programs it has seen through to implementation. In neighboring Grand Rapids, a similar program, the Neighborhood Match Fund has only existed since 2017. Not counting statewide initiatives, the next closest community grant matching program is in Battle Creek.
Where the GWCRA stands out lies also in the fact that applicants are not required to pony up a matching amount. They are not required to fill out volumes of paperwork. And, they are not subject to the distant and often sterilized oversight that often accompanies charitable grant work. All they have to do is write a letter, meet with their local leaders, demonstrate community empowerment, and get to work.
There are obligations in reporting that work, of course, but ever there, it’s local residents communicating with their own elected officials, often working hand in had to build a stronger community.
To learn more about the GWCRA, visit https://www.wyomingmi.gov/Living-in-Wyoming/Greater-Wyoming-Community-Resource-Alliance
Urban Innovation Exchange highlights the people and projects transforming West Michigan through sustainable efforts. Matthew Russell is the editor for UIX Grand Rapids. Contact him at [email protected].
Photography by Adam Bird of Bird + Bird Studio.