As part of Dr. Gerald VanWieren’s commitment to the National Health Service Corps, he had to work in a high-need community after medical school. He and his wife Suzanne, a family nurse practitioner, chose Grant. Used to high doctor turnover, patients often asked how long they planned to stay.

“I was obligated to two years, but we’ve stayed 40,” said Gerald.

“We like small town life,” said Suzanne. “We like having those connections with people, and we’re rural but not very far from the city.”

The VanWierens raised their children here, love local trails and rivers, and are active volunteers. Suzanne served on Grant’s school board for 10 years and Gerald is a trustee of the Bridging Generations Fund at the Community Foundation.

As members of Our Next 75, the VanWierens have also given to the Maynard and Lavina DeKryger Scholarship. Their support honors the DeKrygers, who were mentors to them, and helps local graduates attending medical school.

“We’re not just here to amass material goods,” said Gerald. “We would like to leave the world a better place. We’re grateful for what we’ve received and want to return it.”

Love INC offers many services, including a food pantry, resale store, and help center which connects people with the appropriate resources. Most importantly, however, it’s a place where transformation begins.

“We’re helping people go from just surviving to thriving,” said Traci Slager, executive director. “A lot of people feel very stuck, and we help them see life through a different lens.”

Love INC’s Transformational Ministry programs, supported in part by grants from the Community Foundation, help individuals and families make lasting changes and regain hope. Participants learn about budgeting, job skills, setting healthy boundaries, and more. They are also matched with mentors. “We always say that we’re not just giving people resources, we’re trying to build resources in people,” said Traci.

With the support of local church partners and a host of dedicated volunteers, Love INC is working to expand their Transformational Ministry and develop new initiatives to meet other community needs.

“The most rewarding part of our work is the freedom we see in people as they’re completing these programs,” said Traci. “They used to feel trapped and hopeless and didn’t see their situation being any different in the future. Now we can see the weight lifted off them. They’re starting to find a way out.”

After Tim Rossler volunteered in his mother’s Head Start classroom in college—where he was studying business—he began picking up education electives and ultimately became a teacher and superintendent. For Peggy Rossler, a love of education started even earlier with a kindergarten teacher she adored. “Teaching was my dream from then on,” she said. “And I got to live my dream. It wasn’t always easy, but it was wonderful.”

Tim and Peggy are retired now, but they are still just as passionate about education. Their three sons are educators, Tim serves on the Promise Zone board, and Peggy, a Community Foundation trustee, is chair of our Education Committee. The couple also used our build-a-fund program to create the Tim and Peggy Rossler Fund for Early Literacy.

“Kids who are read to, talked to, and sung to when they’re young have a better chance of success,” said Peggy. Their hope is that the fund can provide books and learning materials for the area’s youngest residents. It’s also part of a long-standing Rossler family goal: Leave the world around you a little better.

“If you’re going to be part of the community, you have to contribute to the community,” said Tim. “You have to try to make it a better place.”

As a member of the Community Foundation’s Youth Advisory Committee (YAC), Emma Kartes spent her first year quietly observing. “Then I started getting more comfortable speaking up,” she said. “I learned about communication. I learned that when you take on a leadership role, it’s not just being in charge. It’s making sure everyone is supported and knows that I feel confident in them. I use that all the time now.”

Today, as a college student, Emma is using her skills as she majors in public and nonprofit administration. She is also involved with the Nonprofit Leadership Student Alliance on campus and has an internship with the Council of Michigan Foundations. She has consulted with organizations, written grants, and helped guide giving campaigns. In her internship, Emma provides leadership for statewide youth philanthropy programming.

“I always knew I wanted to do good work for a good reason,” she said. “Being in YAC helped me begin to professionalize my interest in the nonprofit sector.”

Growing up in Newaygo County also served as early inspiration. “Seeing how involved people were in supporting each other, especially youth, made me want to get involved too,” said Emma. “I feel very lucky. All the support I got from the community made me want to give back.”

Where some saw an eyesore, Newaygo County Compassion Home saw potential. While the hospice home began serving guests in 2018 at a donated house in White Cloud, they also began renovating a larger building in Fremont that had been empty for years. Today, it is a spacious, comfortable home where guests can complete their lives with dignity, surrounded by care.

“The end of life is part of living,” said Diane Rudholm, executive director. “We want to help people transition peacefully and gracefully. We want it to feel like home.”

Thanks to a devoted board and staff—including support dog Darla—the Compassion Home has served over 245 people, including more than 155 since moving to their new location in 2021. All services are free to guests and families, so the organization relies on donations and local support. “It’s a gift from the community to the community,” said Dr. Douglas Johnson, board president.

To provide additional long-term support, the Compassion Home created an endowment fund at the Community Foundation last year. “It will provide sustainability in the future,” said Diane. “It also provides another way for people to give. We are so grateful for the support of the community.”

Conservation is future-focused work. It requires deliberate, ongoing action. Habitats don’t improve overnight, and forests take decades to grow.

“Some restoration projects take a long time to show us the signs they are working,” said Kim Karn, executive director of Land Conservancy of West Michigan.

The Land Conservancy specializes in the long-term commitment that caring for natural areas requires. One of their newest projects is the McDuffee Creek Nature Preserve in northern Newaygo County. Multiple partners, including the Community Foundation,
supported the purchase of the property. Now, the Land Conservancy is also planning for amenities, like boardwalks and signage, and habitat restoration.

“Our goal is to manage the preserve with an eye toward creating and maintaining climate resilient and biodiverse landscapes,” said Kim. “We want to see the restored habitat thriving. We envision anglers, hikers, birders, and more using the preserve as a destination for nature exploration.”

While work like restoring the preserve’s oak savanna will take time, the Land Conservancy celebrates milestones along the way, like rare birds or insects returning to a once-degraded area. “How rewarding it is to know that we helped usher those conditions back!” said Kim. “To do so alongside members of the community, who volunteer their support in all manner of ways, makes it even more special.”

Four of six Gorsky siblings moved to Newaygo County in the early 1970s with their parents, Al and Loretta. They graduated from high school, then spread out across the country for college, military service, and careers. Yet this area kept drawing them back.

“We have kept these connections for the 50 years since,” said Therese Gorsky Cosan.

“We could go anywhere in the world, but we choose to be here because it’s special,” said Alex Gorsky.

Older brother Jim Gorsky used to visit but never lived here until several years ago. “I realized I had only scratched the surface before,” he said. “There are so many people to meet here, really goodhearted people.”

Several family members live here full-time now, and the others love to visit regularly. They all follow Al and Loretta’s example of seeking out ways to give back and get involved.

The Gorskys have been instrumental in the resurrection of Waters Edge Golf Course, inspired by their father’s vision and the prospect of creating jobs and recreational opportunities. They also created an endowment fund together at the Community Foundation as part of the family’s ongoing commitment to the area.

“We are so fortunate in this community,” said Alex. “But it’s because people have made the effort to get involved. Giving back is our responsibility.”

Hope College has always been an important part of David and Rhonda Byrne’s story. They met there and both of their sons chose to attend there. David and Rhonda were even married by the school’s chaplain, who offered advice the Byrnes have followed ever since.

“He told us as soon as we got married to start giving and to make it a habit,” said David. “That’s what we’ve tried to do.”

The couple has found plenty of ways to give. Even their careers—David is a lawyer and Rhonda is a social worker—are a way for them to help others.

They have also partnered with the Community Foundation in their giving. They like that it is an easy, locally-focused way to make an impact. “Every day we can see people who have benefitted from others giving and from the Community Foundation,” said Rhonda. “We know it’s well-managed and the Community Foundation makes it easy for us.”

In addition to joining Our Next 75, the Byrnes created a scholarship to help local graduates who want to attend their alma mater.

“I went to a scholarship luncheon while I was a student,” said David. “I remember meeting the people helping me go to college and I thought, ‘Someday I want to help someone else.’ We hope this scholarship encourages somebody to dream.”

The Crandell family has been a fixture in Newaygo County for 120 years. As owners of Crandell Funeral Homes in Fremont and White Cloud, they have helped friends and neighbors through some of the most trying moments of their lives.

“We’ve been caring for families in this community for four generations,” said Curt Crandell who, along with his brother Scott, owns and operates the business.

The Crandells have always made community a priority, through their work, volunteerism and with a scholarship they created for Fremont and White Cloud graduates. The whole family—including Curt, Scott, sister Julie, their spouses, and their children—contributed to the fund honoring their father Richard who passed away in 2018.

“It was a family decision to start the fund when Richard died,” said Phyllis, Richard’s wife. “We believe every bit of education you can get is important.”

Creating the scholarship through the Community Foundation helped the family continue a tradition of giving that is deeply local and long-lasting.

“It was important for it to be local and we like the sustainability of giving through the Community Foundation,” said Scott. “In the future, we hope recipients look back and realize that people cared about them and were interested in them being successful.”

Weary of third shift work, Timothy found a new job with Big Rapids Products. He was doing well and was even able to buy a house. However, unexpected projects strained his finances just as his truck’s tires were giving out. “I was starting to have problems getting to and from work,” Timothy said.

Timothy knew a little about Michigan Works! from his involvement in a program on the east side of the state for returning citizens, but that had been years ago and he wasn’t sure what resources were offered here. He met with a Michigan Works! West Central coach at his workplace and explained his situation. Timothy soon received word that the organization could help him get new tires.

“Now I have told other people to get ahold of them, that there is a lot they can help you with,” Timothy said. “I’ve recommended it to a lot of people.”

Michigan Works! offers services to help people find and keep good jobs and address employment barriers. In 2021, Community Foundation grants supported the program that helped with Timothy’s tires and another that offers work-based learning opportunities for high school students.

“We offer a wide variety of services and programs that can assist both job seekers and employers in our six-county region,” said Shelly Keene, Michigan Works! West Central executive director. “By having the ability to help remove barriers, we hope this has a positive impact on employer retention rates in Newaygo County.”

Every summer since 1949, Bill Alsover’s family relocated from their East Grand Rapids home to a cottage on Pickerel Lake. The old cottage was beautiful “only in our hearts,” said Bill, but all the neighbors had children of similar ages who swam, fished, and explored together.

“It was idyllic,” he said. “It was a humble dwelling, but we loved it here.”

The house is different today but the pull of the lake remains strong. Bill—now a Community Foundation trustee—moved to the area full-time over a decade ago and his children and grandchildren are frequent visitors. However, as Bill spent even more time on the lake, he began to notice changes in it and in neighboring Kimball Lake. There were more weeds and the water seemed less clear. One of the problems, a neighbor told him, was that “people use the lake now, they don’t really love it.”

“I have learned a lot about lakes and how sensitive and fragile they are,” said Bill. “They’re not going to fix themselves.”

In addition to encouraging lake health studies and working with the Pickerel Kimball Lake Improvement Board, Bill decided to create a fund at the Community Foundation to support projects that can improve the lakes and watershed.

“It’s been ideal to work with the Community Foundation. It gave the fund credibility,” he said. “We want people to know the fund is here and it’s another way to contribute to the health of the lakes.”

While the class of 2030’s graduation may seem far off, Kickstart to Career Newaygo County has been planning for it since before those students started kindergarten in 2018. The kids in this inaugural Kickstart class were the first to receive savings accounts at ChoiceOne Bank, seeded with $50 from the Community Foundation.

After graduation, students can use the money they’ve saved and earned for college, career training, and other related expenses. But the impact reaches far beyond just dollars.

“It’s about so much more than the amount in the savings account,” said Jackie Hite, Kickstart to Career assistant at the Community Foundation. “Our main goal is changing mindsets. Students start thinking, ‘I am going to college. I am going to trade school,’ instead of thinking they can’t afford it or it’s not for them. It makes it tangible.”

Along with savings accounts, the Kickstart program provides interactive classroom lessons on financial literacy and how saving today can help students prepare for the future. The Community Foundation also created an endowed fund to support Kickstart’s long-term sustainability.

“These kids are dreaming of a brighter future,” said Jackie. “We want to say to them, ‘Yes, you can and here’s how.’”

Jeanne Leaver and her husband Bill created a donor advised fund at the Community Foundation because they wanted a sustainable way to support the area they were born in and returned to as adults. It was here they learned the importance of giving back through the example of their families and neighbors.

“Bill and I both had times when we needed help and people were there for us,” said Jeanne. “Others in the community set the example and you don’t forget that.”

The Leavers worked to become informed about local needs and thought hard about the kind of impact they wanted to have. After Bill passed away in 2020, their practice of carefully researching opportunities fell to Jeanne. “I’ve had to take the reins on our fund,” she said.

One thing enhancing Jeanne’s new process is the Community Foundation’s catalog of funding opportunities, which gives donors a chance to get involved in grantmaking. During each community grant round, request summaries from the grant applications are shared with donor advised fundholders. Donors like Jeanne can then recommend grants from their funds to help fill the needs of local nonprofit organizations.

“Looking through the funding opportunities is a really enjoyable time for me,” said Jeanne. “I enjoy reading about what’s going on in the county.”

Now, as she travels around the community, Jeanne finds herself noticing the progress of the different projects she read about in the catalog. “I see something every day that those grants are doing,” she said. “So many areas of our lives are touched by the work of the Community Foundation.”

Reliable transportation is a necessity in a rural county where residents can’t hail a cab or take a bus when their car breaks down. In fact, transportation is one of our area’s biggest barriers to employment.

Classis Muskegon’s Fremont Service Committee—a partnership of local churches—helps fill the need by providing cars and repairs to local people trying to get to work.

“Some of us have no idea what it’s like to get up in the morning and not have a car that’s going to start,” said Sheri Byers, who has worked with the program for 19 years. She has seen clients finish work but wait eight hours to go home because their ride is on a different shift. Others can’t schedule medical appointments or look for better jobs because there’s no way to get there.

“For some, it’s been so long since they could just jump in their own car and go to work.”

The program works with local agencies to get client referrals and has a network of mechanics who source and repair vehicles. It’s supported in part by a grant from the Community Foundation.

Mary works in Fremont and recently received a car through the program. “It has made it 100 percent easier to not only get to work, but I could take a job change that led to more money because I can now drive to the office every day,” she said. “I have never been happier!”

Jeff Clark and Lori Tubbergen Clark were born and raised in Newaygo County. Their parents and grandparents spent most of their lives here too. Proximity to family is still one of the couple’s favorite things about the area.

But there’s also a strong sense of community that continues to draw them in.

“I was on the receiving end of giving and kindness from countless people,” said Lori. “I reflect on those times now and am inspired and privileged to be able to pay that kindness forward.”

“We are very blessed,” said Jeff. “For those to whom much has been given, much is expected. We live by that.”

One of the ways they’re giving back is through a fund at the Community Foundation to support the Promise Zone, which Lori was instrumental in creating as former superintendent of Newaygo County Regional Educational Service Agency. A tuition-free path to a credential or degree can be a “game-changer,” said Lori, “for many of our youth and our community.”

Helping to keep that promise for years to come is important to Lori and Jeff and a main motivation for their fund.

“The Community Foundation has a strong reputation among community leaders and donors as the voice of community philanthropy,” said Lori. “It provides a long-term sustainable way to support our commitment to our students and the Newaygo County Promise Zone.”

Roger and Becky Tuuk have grown to love many things about Newaygo County in their 40 years here—particularly the small town feel and easy access to nature.

“We like the outdoors, hiking, kayaking, and being on the trails,” said Roger, who serves on the West Michigan Trails and Greenways Coalition board. Supporting environmental causes through volunteer service is just one of the ways the Tuuks give back. They also utilize their donor advised fund at the Community Foundation to give to various causes close to their hearts.

Partnering with the Community Foundation is a natural fit for Roger and Becky, in part because of the unique perspective Roger has as a past employee of the organization. In the late 1980s, Roger was hired as the Community Foundation’s first full-time accountant and was one of just four staff members.

“Going from the corporate world to the foundation world, I saw what the Community Foundation can do,” he said. “It’s a great asset to this community and we feel fortunate to be a part of it.”

When COVID-19 hit, the Tuuks partnered again with the Community Foundation to support the Community Response Fund and help those most impacted by the pandemic.

“There can be such a disparity in our county and if there’s any way we can help, that’s what we want to do,” said Becky. “Things are not that important to us. Giving is important because we don’t need it all and other people may need it a lot.”

In less than two years, the West Michigan Research Station went from a field and a dream to a collection of neat green and white buildings and a hum of activity.

“In 20 months, we went from zero dollars in the checking account to where we are now,” said Andy Riley, president of West Central Michigan Horticultural Research Inc. Located on 68 acres in Hart, Michigan, the $1.5 million agricultural research station serves fruit and asparagus growers in Mason, Newaygo, and Oceana counties. It will host a Michigan State University Extension educator and MSU graduate students researching fruit varieties, invasive species, and more.

According to Andy, the microclimate of the three-county region is unique and boasts diverse crops thanks to its proximity to Lake Michigan. But unlike other regions, there was no station to address the needs of local farmers or for large-scale agricultural research.

“We were one of the largest fruit-growing regions without a research station,” he said. “Traverse City has one, Grand Rapids, southeast Michigan—but we didn’t. Now, our counties [can] be on the cutting edge.”

In addition to being a research hub, the station includes meeting and event space. Project leaders also look forward to offering educational opportunities for local students. The Community Foundation was an early supporter of the project, awarding a $50,000 grant in 2020.

“We’re so grateful for the Community Foundation’s support, for the support of Peterson Farms, and the people who donated,” said Andy. “Everything is always changing. Growers have to know how to adapt. This place is a problem-solving unit.”

As the pandemic started to take hold in March 2020, the staff at TrueNorth Community Services was sure of at least one thing: “As soon as schools closed, we knew it would have serious repercussions,” said Mike Voyt, director of hunger prevention programs. “We pride ourselves on being able to respond quickly to emergencies, but even we were surprised by the speed of the increased need.”

Knowing that school closures and layoffs would mean greater food insecurity, TrueNorth quickly tripled weekend food packs for students, reduced the waiting period for food services, and increased mobile pantry distributions. “We turned our multipurpose room into a food warehouse,” said Mike. “We filled the whole agency up with food.”

Just a week after closures began, double the usual number of families were being served at mobile pantries. Numbers increased again in September. By then, TrueNorth had already distributed 120,000 pounds of food—thousands more than in all of 2019.

While TrueNorth adapted to the increased need, they were quickly met with local support, including two grants from the Community Foundation’s Community Response Fund.

“It has been a stressful time, but this is what we do—we come together,” said Mike. “As soon as we got the word out, we started getting calls. I felt extremely proud to live and work here.”

“We’re not out of the woods yet,” he added, noting he expects increased demand into 2022. “But we can create a local food system where everyone has access to affordable, quality nutrition. We can recover and come out stronger.”

In the early 1960s, a phone call from Bessie Slautterback—the Community Foundation’s first executive director— with news of a scholarship helped clear the way for Art Sanders to start dental school. It also inspired a deep desire to give back.

“I made the commitment to myself then that if I ever had the chance to help other people, especially in my home community, I would try,” said Art.

He did exactly that through his career traveling the world as a dentist in the military. Now, he’s continuing the commitment by creating funds at the Community Foundation to support White Cloud, the hometown that gave him a strong start.

Through an estate gift, Art will create or contribute to funds for local students, the library, and efforts to promote diversity and inclusion. He feels that growing up in White Cloud gave him access to a quality education and a respect for differences. His years with the military and living abroad built on this foundation, broadening his appreciation for different cultures and views.

“Looking around the world, we all need to understand each other better,” said Art. “We all have a lot of stereotypes and prejudices that we need to look at and then dispense with.”

For Art, giving through the Community Foundation is a way to combine his gratitude for his hometown with the areas he’s most passionate about, like challenging bias and promoting education.

“I guess I’m some kind of idealist,” he said. “I think it’s very important to give back. That’s the way to improve our whole society.”

A trip to the symphony usually doesn’t involve getting to play along or being showered with confetti from the ceiling, but that’s what hundreds of local elementary students have experienced each year for nearly two decades as part of Link Up.

The Link Up program is run locally by the West Michigan Symphony Orchestra in partnership with Carnegie Hall. It provides a beginning music education for third through fifth graders and is supported in part by grants from the Community Foundation. Students learn about instruments, how to read music, and how to play the recorder. In a typical year, members of the orchestra visit classrooms and at the spring symphony concert, students bring their recorders and play along.

According to Karen VanderZanden, orchestra director of education, the decision to cancel last year’s concert because of the pandemic was necessary but painful. “Kids are usually very excited to participate in a concert,” she said. “They can see why live music is so wonderful.” But despite the challenges of going online, Karen and other program leaders found creative ways to keep students engaged. Recorders were temporarily swapped out for bucket drums and other percussive instruments. Lessons, activities, and classroom visits with musicians moved to virtual spaces. The annual spring concert was recorded and posted online for anyone to enjoy.

“There are so many inherent benefits to learning music,” said Karen. “Studies show connections to things like higher GPAs, lower dropout rates, and learning about teamwork. It’s rewarding to see students excited about how music can be a part of their lives. This year has been a challenge, but I’m glad we didn’t give up.”