When Bill and Judy Johnson designed their scholarship, they got creative. Instead of helping a student with just the first semester or year of college, they worked with the Community Foundation to set up a scholarship that follows one student all the way through.

“We thought it would be better if the student could have that help for all four years,” said Bill. “We’re so glad the Community Foundation was willing to do this with us.”

“It was such a joy to us,” added Judy. “And a joy for David as well.”

David Grodus—the scholarship’s first recipient—is a Newaygo graduate now attending Ferris State University. He has stayed in touch with the Johnsons, sending them photos from move-in day and a note when he made the Dean’s List. Bill and Judy have no doubt he’ll be successful in whatever career he chooses.

“We hope he’ll see the value of investing in other students someday too,” said Judy. “I really think he will.”

“We think higher education is transformative,” Bill said. “Judy and I are both from what I would call humble beginnings. Our lives were transformed by a higher education opportunity. It’s important to us to try to help others have the same opportunities we’ve had.”

Creating a climate that encourages entrepreneurship often hinges on one key factor: if a potential entrepreneur can see someone who looks like themselves making money.

“In a rural area, it’s more difficult to connect with others and learn from others who are going through the same thing,” said Julie Burrell, business development coordinator with The Right Place. “There can be a lot of isolation.”

To foster greater connection, The Right Place partnered with the Community Foundation and Northern Initiatives—a nonprofit that provides loans to small businesses in rural areas—to create the Grow North series. Local entrepreneurs and small business owners gathered monthly to network and learn about different topics, from finding a niche to start-up funding. The series culminated with Pitch North, a business idea pitch competition with cash prizes. “We wanted to bring the kind of activity that’s becoming more common in Grand Rapids and Muskegon here to this community,” said Dennis West, retired president of Northern Initiatives.

“It’s exciting to see how the participants are growing and learning from each other,” said Julie. “They’re supporting each other’s businesses, mentoring each other. They have a friendly group to bounce ideas off.”

“As people see other people making progress, it grows,” said Dennis. “You see movement and it becomes infectious.”

Despite chapters in their lives lived in other cities, John and Ailene Pugno always felt the pull of their hometowns. John’s parents both experienced poverty while growing up and wanted something different for their own children. Moving to Fremont brought them opportunities in a small, close-knit community. “My dad coached here and started a business,” said John. “My parents were part of the fabric of the community. I always felt like part of the town. My heart was always here.”

Ailene grew up in Newaygo, close to the Muskegon River and close enough to school and the library that she could walk there. “I’ve moved away a couple times, but I’ve always come back,” she said.

Now living between their two hometowns, John and Ailene are creating two funds through their estate plan to permanently support their community. One fund will be dedicated to environmental causes and is inspired by a love of the Muskegon River. The other will support Newaygo’s library and Love INC.

“If someone has to fight to save these resources someday, they’ll have a place to come for a grant,” said John.

“There are so many people who need help,” said Ailene. “We wanted to do something local and something that would last.”

Until Open Arms Child Advocacy Center opened last year, local children who experienced abuse often had to recount their trauma over and over to police, lawyers, investigators, and others. According to Amy Taylor, Open Arms executive director, the process can be overwhelming and scary for young victims who often worry they did something wrong.

“If we do it right,” she said, “children are only interviewed once.”

At child advocacy centers like Open Arms, children tell their story to a specially-trained interviewer in a child-friendly setting while agencies involved in the investigation watch on monitors in another room. Open Arms then coordinates with partner agencies to provide follow-up services, including counseling referrals and support if a case goes to court.

Open Arms is the first center to serve Newaygo, Lake, Mecosta, and Osceola counties. Community foundations in all four counties and two youth advisory committees provided grants to support start-up costs.

“When we see the family getting help—that there was no further trauma to the child—we feel like we did a good job,” said Amy. “It’s rewarding to see kids going from victims to survivors and knowing that now they’re going to get help.”

Imagine navigating a pandemic and stay-at-home orders when home is a dangerous place. This has been the daily reality for too many in our community who experience domestic and sexual violence.

“With abusers in the home, without them leaving for work or recreation, a victim does not have an opportunity to escape,” said Jane Currie, executive director of Women’s Information Service, Inc (WISE). “Additionally, if the individuals lost pay or his or her job, the stress can cause an already volatile situation to escalate.”

For years, WISE has provided crisis intervention and support services to survivors in Mecosta, Newaygo, and Osceola counties. The organization offers emergency shelter, a 24-hour hotline, advocacy services, and more. COVID-19 has not changed their mission, but it has changed how services can be delivered. The shelter was reconfigured to allow for social distancing, already careful cleaning practices were quadrupled, and group support meetings moved online. Advocates were not able to remain with sexual assault survivors during forensic exams, but they stayed with them on the phone.

While dedication and creativity allowed the work to continue, WISE’s budget wasn’t built to accommodate these unforeseen changes. A pair of grants from the Community Foundation’s Community Response Fund helped fill the gaps.

“This has been a truly bright light during this unprecedented time,” said Jane. “We could not have provided this continued work without the Community Response Fund. It gave us what we needed to continue providing the services to survivors, giving them hope for a new life in the midst of this pandemic.”

Watching 17-year-old Zyra confidently stand center stage and create impromptu dance moves and characters, you would never guess that the Grant teen used to experience intense stage fright. “It was terrible,” she said. “But because of the youth drama program, it’s gotten so much better. I’m not as scared. And I really appreciate that they do that for me.”

Zyra is part of a group of teens, ranging from middle to high school, that comes together two Saturdays a month in White Cloud for Stage Door Players’ youth drama program. Each session features a guest presenter covering a different theater topic and participants can get involved in youth-focused productions during the year. On one snowy Saturday, the morning started with dance, laughter, and a little improv before moving on to a group performance of a Shel Silverstein poem.

The program grew out of a conversation between Bev Guikema, Stage Door’s board president, and members of the Community Foundation’s Youth Advisory Committee who were interested in supporting creative outlets for their peers. A subsequent YAC grant in 2017 helped get it started and two more grants have helped them expand.

“It’s been fantastic,” said Bev. “We are seeing more families at the shows and getting involved. An organization like ours, you’re not going to grow unless you can draw in families and young adults.”

The program also helps participants like Zyra conquer fears and gain self-confidence. Students not only learn about theater and acting, but they learn how to be part of a team. “It’s been rewarding seeing the friendships they’ve formed,” said Bev. “They just enjoy being here.”

“I’ve learned a lot,” said Zyra. “Not just about theater but about myself too.”

In the middle of a blizzard on icy roads, nurses Brandee Chase, Amy Drilling, and Ann LaPres-Hindes drove to Lansing to tour a hospice home. Each had known patients without families to care for them at the end of their lives and had seen how overwhelming that care could be. They made the drive that day looking for a solution.

“The minute we walked in, we knew this was it,” said Ann.

“We all cried on the way home,” added Amy. “This was given to us to do.”

The Newaygo County Compassion Home was born in that blizzard, a dream of a warm home where people could complete their lives in dignity, comfort, and love. Technical support from the Community Foundation and the Johnson Center for Philanthropy helped the organization build a strong foundation and a combination of grants for operating support and matching gifts has provided support for growth.

The community has also embraced them by volunteering and donating supplies, time, and—for one local family—a home. The organization had just purchased a building to renovate in Fremont when the White Cloud home came along as an “unexpected gift,” said Diane Rudholm, executive director. “It gave us the opportunity to start working on our mission.”

The White Cloud home has welcomed 36 guests since it opened. Some have stayed only a few hours, others a few months. They have told their stories around the kitchen table, visited with family in the cozy living room, and rested in their bedrooms with a favorite television show. Guests’ care and comfort is overseen around the clock by trained staff and volunteers who are deeply passionate about their mission.

When renovations are complete at the Fremont location, the second home will allow the organization to serve more guests and will also include a room reserved for respite care. “It represents a lot of growth and opportunities,” said Diane.

“It’s such an honor to have people come into our home,” said Ann. “The end of life is a really difficult subject for people to talk about. It gets glossed over, but it’s so important. Everyone has the right to die with compassion and love.”

Don and Sue Farmer believe in the power of scholarships. Sue, a retired Hesperia Middle School teacher, is grateful they helped her complete her post-secondary education. The Farmers’ two children also utilized scholarships to keep their student debt down, something that Don—a banker—does not take for granted.

“In my work, I see so many people with debt,” Don said. “It’s not uncommon to see people with $60,000 to $100,000 in student loan debt. They can’t even afford to pay it back with the jobs that they have.”

“You don’t want to see kids have to struggle so much,” said Sue. “They should be able to concentrate on important things like their family, not having to juggle three jobs just to get by.”

Wanting to do something to help, the couple created the Don and Sue Farmer Family Fund scholarship. They crafted the scholarship with criteria that reflects the passions of their family. It will be awarded to Fremont and Hesperia graduates with preference to those planning to attend Central Michigan University— Don and Sue’s alma mater—and study business or education. The scholarship also reflects the couple’s gratitude for the ways the Newaygo County community has impacted their lives.

“If it helps someone to go on, to go a little further, that’s where the satisfaction comes from,” said Don. “It takes the support of the community to be successful. We’re giving back to the community that’s given to us.”

Randy and Shari Paulsen and their two sons all attended Fremont High School (FHS). Both boys were involved in athletics and spent hours practicing. “They wouldn’t come home,” Randy said with a laugh.

“They had so much fun and found something they excelled at with sports,” said Shari. “It was an incentive to keep their grades up and it’s such a big factor in socialization in school.”

“We understand what it means for kids,” said Randy.

That’s why he and Shari created a fund at the Community Foundation to support FHS and its athletics programs. They’re especially focused on students who want to get involved but can’t afford to play.

“My vision would be that any kid that wants to play a sport doesn’t have to worry about how to pay for it,” said Randy.

In addition to their fund, the Paulsens have included the Community Foundation in their estate plan and are now members of the Our Next 75 donor group.

“We chose to give through the Community Foundation because you see what the funds can do in the community,” said Shari. “We want to make sure our grandkids have the same opportunities or better than we have had. We want to make this the best community possible for them.”

According to Lola Harmon-Ramsey, her family has “been here forever.” Lola grew up in Fremont and graduated from Fremont High School. After several years in Lansing and Grand Rapids, she and her husband Mark Ramsey—an Oklahoma transplant—decided they wanted their own children to grow up in Newaygo County too.

“We like the safety and sense of community,” said Mark. “People look out for each other.”

In addition to building a family here, Mark and Lola started a small recycling business with a trailer Mark made by hand. Today, Cart-Right Recycling handles hundreds of tons of recyclables each year.

Despite the busy schedules that come with owning a business and raising a family, Mark and Lola are still passionate about being involved in the community. Lola currently serves as a trustee on the Community Foundation’s board.

“My parents taught me to be active and engaged,” said Lola. “Newaygo County keeps investing in us, so that’s what we do in return.”

When she and Mark heard about the Our Next 75 donor group at the Community Foundation, they jumped at the chance to further invest in Newaygo County’s future.

“When I heard about it, I thought ‘We can do that,’” said Lola. “For the first time, I thought maybe I can be a philanthropist. It’s important to me to show my peers that you don’t have to have a lot of money. You just have to show up, you have to care. Your investment doesn’t have to be huge, but it does make a difference.”

At 15, Dawn Williams was the Hair Station’s first receptionist. Today, she is the Fremont salon’s owner.

“I like the customers and the women I work with,” she said. “I don’t feel like it’s work.”

In recognition of the community’s support of her business and knowing how difficult it can be to start out as a stylist, Dawn began to think of ways to help graduating cosmetologists from the Newaygo County Career-Tech Center. When she and her daughter Morgan heard about the build-a-fund program at the Community Foundation, it seemed like the perfect fit.

“I was surprised that you don’t have to have hundreds of thousands of dollars to start a fund,” said Dawn. “The Community Foundation made it easy for us.”

Along with staff and clients, they created the Hair Station Fund and an annual award that will help new cosmetologists pay for expensive state tests and equipment like scissors and clippers that most salons do not provide.

“It’s a huge hurdle when you’re just starting out,” said Morgan. “We’re hoping this can help offset that.”

In addition to creating a fund, Dawn added the Community Foundation to her estate plan and became the very first member of the Our Next 75 donor group.

“I remember times when I needed help and didn’t have anyone to turn to,” said Dawn. “So I’ve always felt strongly about giving back. I think if everyone was a little more giving, the world would be a better place.”

“It’s like a domino effect,” said Morgan. “If you’ve been helped, you want to help someone else.”

The loss of his son Tyler four years ago was awful, said Mike Slaughter, “but then it becomes about what you choose to do with that grief. You have to find a way to redeem it.”

Mike, along with family and friends, created a scholarship at the Community Foundation for adults studying social work. Tyler had gone back to school for his master’s degree as an adult and was working at Newaygo County Mental Health when he passed away in 2015.

The Tyler Patrick Slaughter Memorial Scholarship was awarded for the first time this year to Nicole Klomp, a local social worker.

“I had been thinking about going back to school for a while. I thought it would give me even more opportunities to help my community,” said Nicole. “The scholarship relieves a lot of financial stress, but it’s also a huge motivation. You know there are people who care and desire to see others prosper.”

Mike and Nicole had a chance to meet recently to talk about Tyler and their shared mission to be advocates for people in crisis.

“Knowing I’m able to make a difference in somebody’s life is very rewarding. I hope I represent Tyler well and carry on his passion for helping people,” Nicole told Mike.

“Every time I see your name, it will be like a dream taking visual form. Like the abstract becoming real. This is as much a gift to us as it is to you,” said Mike. “We need more people like you.”

Margaret Cain Branstrom wore dungarees, dug her own worm pile, and regularly took a red rowboat out fishing even though she couldn’t swim.

“She was loving and kind, but you didn’t get in her way,” said James Magee, Margaret’s grandson. “She always had a sparkle in her eye.”

“Total acceptance is what I think of,” said granddaughter Barbara Kemble. “She made everyone—regardless of where they came from—feel welcomed and warm.”

Margaret’s husband, William Branstrom, was well-known in Newaygo County for his philanthropy, civic engagement, and role in founding the Community Foundation. Margaret was not as public a figure, but she was very much his partner in philanthropy and equally passionate about service, education, and nature.

James created the Margaret C. Branstrom Arboretum Memorial Fund at the Community Foundation in memory of his grandmother. Through the fund, he supported a stone patio, bench, and plaque in Margaret’s honor at Arboretum Park in Fremont. James and his siblings remember playing there as children and how pleased their grandparents were to donate and endow the park.

“She was a presence,” said James of his grandmother. “Not nearly as public as my grandfather, but she was there. I wanted her name to be here too.”

Krista Sellers knows that life can veer in unexpected directions. For her, Circles Newaygo County represented the opportunity to get back on track and do something different for her family.

“I didn’t grow up in poverty,” said Krista. “Sometimes I think if just one or two things had gone differently, I wouldn’t be in this position. For a lot of us in Circles, we’re just wanting to be out of the position we’re in.”

Circles—a TrueNorth Community Services program—uses an intensive and personal approach to ending poverty one family at a time. At weekly meetings, Krista and other Circles Leaders learn about budgeting, credit, setting goals, self-care, and more. They are also matched with volunteers called Allies who provide encouragement. In addition to other support, the Community Foundation awarded a $155,000 grant to the program in 2018.

“In the beginning, I didn’t comprehend how Circles would help in all areas of my life,” said Krista. “Opportunities just open up. It’s connections beyond connections.”

Those connections have helped Krista and her husband navigate unexpected challenges while still progressing toward their goals. Krista is working to quit smoking and looks forward to finishing her associate degree. Ultimately, she wants to become an Ally herself.

“Circles makes me feel like I matter in the world,” said Krista. “It reminds me that I can do this—then I can help other people. I can’t wait.”

Susanne Jordan’s family traveled every summer when she was growing up. On Sundays—no matter where they were—they found a church to attend. In one small town, the church they chose was holding a clothing drive. When Susanne’s family left, her father got back in the car in his undershirt, having quietly donated the shirt he was wearing.

“I remember thinking, ‘Wow, he literally just gave the shirt off his back,’” said Susanne. “That impulsive act of generosity really made an impact on me.”

Early experiences watching their parents give deeply influenced both Susanne and Bob Jordan. They continued that mission in their lives together. “We’ve always had a heart for people who needed a helping hand,” said Susanne.

This was even reflected in the career paths they chose: social work for Susanne and philanthropy for Bob. Bob was on staff at the Community Foundation for over 17 years and came back after retirement to serve on the Investment Committee.

“Working with donors is humbling,” said Bob. “There are so many people who live modest lives but give so much. There are a lot of generous people in Newaygo County.”

Though the Jordans moved to Holland after retiring, they are still committed to the community where they lived, worked, and raised their children. They have supported a variety of local causes through their donor advised fund and are the newest members of Our Next 75.

“We have a family history in this community,” said Susanne. “Even though we don’t live here anymore, we want it to be vibrant and successful for years to come.”

For Dave and Lynne Robinson, connection is at the heart of philanthropy. Both grew up in Grant farming families and watched their parents and neighbors serve the community in any way they could.

“My parents didn’t have much but they were always involved,” said Dave. “Philanthropy isn’t just money.”

“It has to be hands-on,” said Lynne. “You have to experience it and participate in it. Then you can pass it on.”

Dave and Lynne have translated their own deep connection to the community into volunteerism, board service, giving through the Community Foundation, and teaching the next generation.

As their children grew up, Dave and Lynne taught them about philanthropy by allowing them to get involved in donation decisions. Each child was encouraged to pick things in the community they were passionate about for the family to support. Later, when Dave and Lynne were leading the Grant library’s capital campaign, they made a point to include lots of small projects that even local students could join in on.

“We did things everyone could be a part of,” said Lynne. “If you expect the people with the most [money] to do all the giving, then you never invest yourself. People need connection. Maybe it’s a kind word, a smile, keeping in touch with someone. Wherever you can be of some help, get involved. Give however you can.”

It would be unimaginable to use the same cell phone you bought in 2002. Yet, because of reductions in 911 telephone surcharges over the years, that was the scenario for Newaygo County Central Dispatch. Dispatchers were using a 17-year-old system to handle an ever-growing emergency call volume: 111,000 calls in 2018 alone.

“You can’t even get spare parts anymore,” said Jason Wolford, Central Dispatch director. “We’ve been fortunate we haven’t had a catastrophic failure.”

This year, Central Dispatch will make much-needed upgrades to the system. The improvements are possible thanks to local voters’ approval of the 911 surcharge reinstatement in November and a program-related investment of $650,000 from the Community Foundation.

“Our antiquated radio system is being replaced by the best technology to serve our community and emergency responders,” said Jason. “We can’t express our thanks enough.”

In addition to being more reliable and secure, a new radio console system will bring Newaygo County in line with the rest of the state, allow for regular upgrades, and ensure that emergency calls are prioritized no matter how busy local networks and towers get.

“We’re improving the experience for callers and dispatchers,” said Jason. “As cliché as it sounds, it’s really about helping people. The people we’re dealing with are having the worst day of their lives. They may never see you, but they will always remember the first person they talked to.”

Angie Bradley got a well-paying job at a factory right out of high school. She took college classes on and off over the years, but didn’t really see the need for a degree. Later, as her children grew, she felt guilty taking the time.

But when Angie was passed over for her dream job because it required a bachelor’s degree, she knew she needed to make a change.

“I decided never again would I not be able to have what I want in my career because of this,” Angie said. “Options and opportunities—that’s what I tell my kids that education provides. It’s easy to go to the quick money, but you have no idea what you’re going to come across down the road.”

Angie received an adult student scholarship from the Community Foundation after a coworker urged her to check into it. “Not having that financial burden up front is super nice. I could not have done my classes the last two years without the scholarship,” she said.

Now working toward a degree in psychology, Angie enjoys applying what she learns in class to her work in training and organizational development. She gets lots of support from her husband and children too. “They’re really proud of me,” she said. “I want to be able to tell my kids I did it.”

“You worry there will be a stigma to going back to school as an adult, but there’s not. People think it’s cool,” Angie said. “My advice to others? Start. Take one class. You don’t need to take six classes right now or have a career path planned out. Just start.”

Bill and Jeanne Leaver were both born in Fremont, just days apart. They dated in high school, went their separate ways, then reconnected years later at a reunion. Their careers—Bill’s in hospital administration and Jeanne’s in teaching—took them around the country, but they always planned to come home.

“We knew we would come back here,” said Bill. “Our kids and families were here.”

Their roots in the community grew right along with a belief in the importance of giving back.

“We both grew up in an environment where our parents were very focused on teaching you that you were blessed with many gifts and you have a responsibility to help,” said Bill.

Those early examples have inspired the Leavers to find their own ways to get involved, including volunteering and creating a fund at the Community Foundation.

With their donor advised fund, the Leavers can address a variety of needs—including supporting women in transition and homelessness—that can help strengthen their community.

“We need to be more concerned with what kind of society we have and the world our grandchildren will live in,” said Bill. “It’s not just the responsibility of the government or schools or churches. It’s all of us. What contribution are we making?”

“We all can think about the little things people did for us—little acts of kindness that you remember all your life,” said Jeanne. “Wanting to do for someone else, helping, being kind—that leads you to a place where you want to help with bigger changes.”

Before getting involved with Michigan Youth Opportunities Initiative (MYOI), said Luke, “I was starting down a pretty rough path. I couldn’t overstate the impact it’s had on me. It was a complete turnaround.”

MYOI helps current and former foster care youth, like Luke, transition to adulthood. It provides young adults 14-24 years old with a support network, life skills and employment training, financial education, and other resources.

“I’ve learned to invest in my future,” said Luke. “I haven’t been late on one bill. And without the friendships I’ve made, I don’t know if I could have the relationships I do today. I’m more friendly, happier. I’ve learned responsibility. Every aspect of my life I can thank MYOI for.”

But when Luke turned 21, he found himself in danger of losing the support he found with MYOI. Funding restrictions create a gap in resources for older participants. “And you still have a lot of learning to do after you turn 21,” said Tara Johnson, Lake-Newaygo MYOI coordinator.

That’s where June Britt stepped in.

June, a former case worker, has a special place in her heart for youth in foster care. Through the Jerry and June Britt Fund she created at the Community Foundation, June provided funding to help young adults like Luke stay involved with MYOI, now and in the future.

“I thought about how it would be very difficult to be a young person in that position, without help,” June said. “What they’re doing is wonderful. I was happy to find the organization and be able to help.”

“With her gift, I’m able to continue,” said Luke. “We’re all very appreciative. Nothing would be the same without it.”