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.”

After 35 years teaching math at a large high school near Chicago and even more years as a tutor in Newaygo County, Dawn Anderson knows that algebra isn’t everyone’s favorite thing. Her goal as a teacher was that her own love of math would be contagious and encourage her students to love it too.

The same idea—that we can be inspired by the passions of others—also played out in Dawn’s childhood as a member of a Grant-area family actively involved in giving and service.

“My parents were great givers,” Dawn said. “They worked hard, they earned everything they got, but they were very fortunate. Seeing people give encourages you to give too.”

Dawn and her sister, Lynne Robinson, have both carried forward their family’s legacy through volunteerism and partnerships with the Community Foundation. Dawn currently serves on the board of the Amazing X Charitable Trust and is a member of the Community Foundation’s Our Next 75 donor group.

By giving of her time and other resources, Dawn hopes to play her part in making the community better.

“It’s important that we have the museum, that we have education, that we feed people here who are hungry,” said Dawn. “It all comes down to wanting to live in a nice place. What you give to others and what others give to help you makes it nicer. It’s a circle of giving and it helps everyone reach a higher level.”

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.”

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.”

Tom and Carol Bieberle bought property in Newaygo County when they were expecting their first child. They eventually built a home there. “We have a really nice community,” said Carol.

Getting involved in the community was always a priority. “In high school it dawned on me that one way to express myself was to do things, to give back to the community,” said Tom. “I like to be involved.”

He and Carol have volunteered at mobile food pantries, been active in their church, and even participated in an informal giving circle with friends at Christmas. They created the Bieberle Pathways to Self-Sufficiency Fund at the Community Foundation as another way to give back and empower local individuals and families.

“In my research I saw that the Community Foundation was doing what I want to do–helping people,” said Tom. “We’re not rich by any stretch, but we can help.”

The Bieberles created a field of interest fund at the Community Foundation to target a specific community need–empowering local families and individuals–in a variety of ways.

Dawn Ausema was a stay-at-home mom to three very busy daughters for 13 years. “The whole 13 years I was looking for work from home,” said Dawn. “And I couldn’t find a thing.”

She eventually took a job in Sparta, but the hours and commute made it hard to keep up with the girls. “I wasn’t around,” she said. “My husband works 14-hour days but he had to do all the running with the kids because I wasn’t there.”

Then Dawn saw an ad for Digital Works, a training program based at The Stream in Newaygo that prepares people for customer service jobs they can do remotely. She was hired by a company shortly after finishing and was promoted to team lead a few months later. She now works from home, sets her own schedule, and can be more involved with her family.

“Without this program, I don’t know if I would have ever been able to work from home,” said Dawn. “And that’s all I wanted for years.”

In addition to training people like Dawn for customer service jobs they can do from home, Digital Works also provides help creating resumes, preparing for interviews, and searching for jobs. The Community Foundation awarded a grant of up to $300,400 over two years to support the program.

 

Tracy Sanchez, director of Quest Educational Programs in Fremont, and her staff help their alternative and adult education students complete high school and plan for what comes next. “We’re working hard to get kids world-ready,” said Tracy.

“We have a lot of unaccompanied students,” she continued. “They don’t have a parent or caregiver to help them. And for some, school’s not really their thing so they don’t see themselves going on to college. We want to let them know there are options.”

With a $9,000 grant from the Community Foundation, Fremont Public Schools hired a career coach based at Quest. Stacy Shriver works with students on financial aid, job searches, and applications for college and trade schools.

“They don’t feel defeated anymore,” said Stacy. “A student can come in with no idea, no plan, and when they’re done they’re excited about going off to school or getting jobs.”

After receiving only one scholarship application from Quest students in the previous two years, the Community Foundation received 11 scholarship applications from Quest students in 2017.

For many families, a major unplanned home repair can throw them into a precarious position and potentially make their home unsafe. That’s why the Center for Nonprofit Housing (CNH) at TrueNorth Community Services helps local people obtain and maintain housing, including foreclosure prevention and housing counseling.

There is also a large need for home repair assistance according to Brad Hinken, who oversees CNH. “When something goes wrong, like the well goes out, it all spirals downhill quickly. We’ve replaced a couple of wells recently for people who didn’t have water for months. People would take water bottles to work to fill up so they would have water.”

With help from multiple funding sources, including the Community Foundation, CNH has put in new wells, furnaces, and septic systems for local families.

“When people haven’t had water for months, they get pretty excited,” said Brad. “People hit a barrier and they don’t know where to go. We help them find options.”

In 2017, the Community Foundation awarded a grant of up to $160,000 to CNH to support emergency home repairs, foreclosure prevention, and other housing assistance programs.