UIX: Claire Guisfredi and NKCS help community thrive

Claire Guisfredi covers a lot of ground. From a base of operations in Rockford, she keeps North Kent Community Services well-oiled and functioning for a large portion of Kent County. While many of its clients initially seek their help in meeting basic needs, Guisfredi is leading the organization in new, solutions-oriented programming to help people thrive, not just survive.
Claire Guisfredi covers a lot of ground. From a base of operations in Rockford, she keeps North Kent Community Services well-oiled and functioning for a large portion of Kent County.
Clientele in search of assistance with food, senior services, financial assistance, clothing, household goods, educational opportunities and more have been finding themselves at the NKCS facility for the last 41 years. The organization was founded to develop a spirit of independence within the rural population of North Kent County. Since Guisfredi joined NKCS in 2013, the facility has expanded physically and functionally.
“Our mission is to help people get on their feet, help them with basic needs and help them reach self-sufficiency,” Guisfredi says.
Most recently, Guisfredi has overseen the inception and progression of the Thrive program at the facility, in which women attend weekly classes to concentrate on vital skill building. Guisfredi says the idea for the program came about from regular conversations with NKCS clientele.
“As I sit here at my desk and see the same people coming in every month for assistance or food, I find myself asking the question, why can’t they get back on their feet? I would call them in and ask what was going on in their lives,” she says.
Learning the different issues her clients faced on a regular basis, Guisfredi realized she needed to somehow connect them with resources, but not necessarily free assistance.
“A lot of times, what happens to people in poverty is, they get so overwhelmed with their problems,” Guisfredi says. “It’s like you have a garage that’s so filled with clutter, you close the door and say you’re going to do it next week, but never do. Finally you just have to say, ‘I’m going to start on it a little at a time.’ You just have to bite it off. You take a corner of that garage, you clean it, and next time you concentrate on a different part.”
The Thrive program consists of a cohort of women meeting weekly for six months to work toward their goals with the help of social worker Chérie Elahl. It’s funded through individual contributions garnered through community campaigns Elahl and Guisfredi have led.
“The women in Thrive are all at different places. One wants to look at renting a salon space; she’s starting a business. Some are working on their high school diploma. Others are looking for jobs. Everybody has a certain space that they’re in, and they have different priorities.” Guisfredi says. “They come and meet together every Monday. They support and encourage each other and they’re held accountable for those steps. They’re taking goals, one at a time, and they’re working on them. When they’re successful with one, they’ll take the next, and the next.”
The pilot class will “graduate” in March, while the second group started in January and will run through July. The classes start off with budgeting before exploring goal setting. There’s an important reason for that, Guisfredi says.
“You have to start with something that’s not so overwhelming,” she says. “These women don’t even know what’s out there yet. But we also get speakers in here from different groups. We can show them what’s available and get them the gas money to go to those classes.”
Elahl handles the intake for potential Thrive clientele. She admits it’s been hard to find participants for the initial program, but future classes should see more and more coming to benefit.
“I think that as we continue on with Thrive, it’s going to be the participants that pass along the word,” she says. “I've seen that in example a little more with this new cohort. The participants from the first one are telling their friends and they’re curious. We have the MSU Extension coming in to teach financial literacy, we have Grand Rapids Center for Mindfulness coming in and teaching mindfulness. We have different resources in the community coming in to talk about what they offer: WMCAT's adult medical coding and billing program, Goodwill Achieve, Grand Rapids Opportunity for Women, and others."
The program was opened up to anyone, but women with children filled up the class rolls in both the initial pilot and second cohort. Elahl asked each client what made them want to better themselves and the most common answer was their children.
“They want their children to see that they can do it,” Elahl says. “The generational poverty cycle stops and it’s better for future generations. I think that out of all the 17 or 18 women in the program, all but two said that.”
Guisfredi notes that the clients striving towards a high school diploma are bringing schoolwork home and working on it alongside their children.
“Their children are in school and they’re studying at the same kitchen table as their moms; it’s empowering,” she says. “They encourage their moms and that tells the child that school is important. It’s not just affecting eight women at this point, it’s effecting eight women and their kids. They see the change in mom and the importance of setting goals and staying in school.”
There are no carrots handed out during the intake interview with Elahl. The reward of the program is seeing how the program works, Guisfredi says. In other words, the clients get out what they put in.
“I came by the other day and saw one of the women studying for a test in economics. She asked me when she was ever going to use it, and I said, ‘Probably never but you’re going to get it done.’ She said, ‘I am. I am going to do it.’ She’s graduating in May with her high school diploma and she feels good about herself,” Guisfredi says.
Guisfredi feels good about her own position, too, and has plans for the future. Perhaps ironically, her goal for NKCS is obsolescence.
“When you look at the overall goal, it would be great if we could shut down in 10 years,” she says. “It would be great if people didn't need us anymore.”
For more information on Guisfredi, Elahl, or NKCS, visit http://nkcs.org/

Matthew Russell is the Project Editor for UIX Grand Rapids. Contact him at [email protected] 

Photography by Steph Harding 
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