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.”

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.”

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.”

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.”

After launching in March, Kickstart to Career Newaygo County is officially underway this fall! Kickstart to Career is a children’s savings account program designed to build aspirations, encourage savings, increase financial education, and assist with college or career expenses. In addition to an initial $50 deposit from the Community Foundation, students can earn additional contributions each year and families and friends can make deposits at any time. ChoiceOne Bank will also partner with schools to offer financial education at every grade level.

“Not only will this help with learning about savings and dreaming for the future, but research shows that children with savings accounts also have better math and reading scores and higher rates of enrollment in college,” said Todd Jacobs, vice president and chief philanthropy officer at the Community Foundation.

Kickstart to Career will impact students entering kindergarten from 2018 through 2027. It will serve more than 7,000 students total and include more than $3.4 million in deposits from the Community Foundation over the next 10 years.

In August, Community Foundation and ChoiceOne Bank staff attended school open houses to talk to parents about the program. Parent packets will be distributed this fall with more information and a form to return. Savings accounts will be open and ready for deposits in December.

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.

After more than 40 years, Bob and Bonnie Erber are still full of enthusiasm for Fremont, the town that won them over with its safe neighborhoods and friendliness.

“At a restaurant it takes 10 minutes to get to the table because we have to stop and talk to everyone,” said Bonnie.

“Neighbors step in to help,” said Bob. “People are doing it because they care for you. There is a very special place in the world for people who go out of their way to give.”

Moved by gratitude, Bob and Bonnie sought ways to give as well. They are longtime Rotary members, active in their churches, involved in city and school projects, and have volunteered with many organizations through the years.

“I love to volunteer,” said Bonnie. “It’s my number one thing to do.”

“We like teaming up with the community,” added Bob. “We’ve been given a lot, so we want to give back.”

Through the Erber Family Fund at the Community Foundation, the couple has given scholarships to local students for years. They recently decided to direct their fund toward Promise Zone scholarships to help even more Newaygo County graduates build brighter futures.

“We’ve been so blessed,” said Bonnie. “There has always been food on our table and a roof over our heads. We want to give somebody else a chance to have what we’ve had.”

“Did you ever think you would make a movie?” asked the Artsplace’s Lindsay Isenhart as she helped a teenager with her latest art project at the pottery wheel. The young woman shook her head and then described the short stop-motion animation film she helped to create over the summer.

“I’m excited about coming here every week,” she said.

The teen is part of an innovative program called Positive Impact Through the Arts—or PITA—that gives young people in the court system a chance to be creative, build skills, and head in a new direction.

Funded in part by a grant from the Community Foundation, PITA is a collaboration between the Newaygo County Council for the Arts and Newaygo County Juvenile Services. Participants range from first-time offenders in diversion programs to those in intensive probation. As part of their probation plan, they attend classes at the Artsplace and learn how to work with clay, make glass beads and jewelry, and more.

The classes also feature opportunities to learn about patience and persistence, safety and planning. While they create, students build social skills, self-esteem, and positive relationships with the adults who lead the program.

“Sometimes this is their only opportunity for socialization,” said Brenden Ruser, probation officer. “They get to be themselves without judgment here. They realize they’re good at this.”

“They can feel really positive about what they’re doing,” added Marianne Boerigter, NCCA executive director. She said that some PITA students even begin volunteering at the Artsplace. “The most unlikely kids will come in early to help Lindsay set up. They’re having a positive experience with adults; there’s consistency. They’re becoming part of the community in a positive way.”

At a recent Circles Newaygo County meeting, Shirley spoke up about the challenges of finding housing. A few days later she was surprised to learn that community leaders were already working on ways to address concerns she had raised.

“I always doubted that people would actually help,” admitted Shirley. “To actually know that people care gave me hope—a secure hope.”

Shirley is a Circle Leader—the title given to participants leading their own journeys into self-sufficiency. Circles uses a relationship-based approach that builds networks of support around families as they move out of poverty.

“It’s not a rescue program,” said Michelle Marciniak, Circles coordinator at TrueNorth Community Services. “We show you the resources that are out there, but it’s up to you what you do with those resources.”

Circle Leaders go through an intensive 12-week training and then begin personal development work. They are paired with volunteers called Allies who serve as mentors and encouragers.

“So many people who are struggling are so isolated,” said Paige Greve, Circles coach at TrueNorth. “They don’t have those cheerleaders.”

“Being an Ally is not you changing the person,” added Michelle. “You’re really just being a friend.”

Other volunteers provide childcare and meals for weekly meetings and serve on resource teams. Their support and the hard work of Leaders is already yielding results. Circle Leaders have celebrated milestones like receiving driver’s licenses, reliable cars, and new jobs. All have paid down debt. Many, like Shirley, have been empowered to speak up about their struggles and ideas.

“Small steps at a time are changing things,” said Shirley. “And I know I’m not in it alone.”

When someone thinks of a donor at a community foundation, the picture that comes to mind is probably not a teenager starting college. But when Julee Tellkamp was packing to move into a dorm last fall, she was also preparing to create the Dan and Jackie Tellkamp Fund at the Community Foundation.

Named for Julee’s parents, the fund will support youth who want to raise animals for the Newaygo County Agricultural Fair, something Julee has loved and been involved in for years.

“Raising an animal is a lot of work,” said Julee. “It teaches you responsibility. It pushes you out of your comfort zone.”

“I always encouraged kids to get involved,” she continued. “But the number one issue is that it’s a lot of expense up front.”

Knowing that the cost of purchasing an animal kept some young people from participating, Julee began thinking about how she could help. She decided to use the Community Foundation’s Build-A-Fund program to create a fund and grow it toward the minimum balance over five years. Her initial gift last summer came from the sale of her market steer.

“I saw it as an opportunity to impact the fair,” said Julee. “I would like to see more kids be able to be involved. I would like to give them the same opportunity I had.”

Brian and Diane Karsten may live in Grand Rapids now, but Fremont still holds a special place in their hearts.

The couple moved to the area in 1990 and became active members of the community. They were youth leaders at their church, where Diane was also instrumental in starting a youth mentoring program. Brian, a financial advisor, served on the school board and still works in Fremont for part of the week.

“Fremont has always been very good to us,” he said. “We’ve been blessed beyond our wildest dreams by being there.”

“And we believe you’re blessed to be a blessing,” said Diane.

In addition to their volunteerism, the Karstens decided to give back by starting a fund at the Community Foundation. They created the Karsten Family Fund scholarship through a stock gift, with a focus on supporting students who are deserving but may not be at the top of their class or receiving other awards.

“These are kids who worked just as hard or maybe even harder,” said Diane. “It shows them that somebody cares, even though they may not be in the top 10.”

“And the fund will live forever,” said Brian. “After we’re gone, our kids and grandkids can choose to give to it if they want. It will go on.”

“It was important to us that the money would stay in the community,” he continued. “Fremont supported us and our business. It’s a great community.”

Lois Brookhouse passed away on March 24, 2017, her 91st birthday. We were honored to spend time talking with her in late 2014 for this story.

Lois Brookhouse remembered the hospital guild meetings that her mother held at their farm between Fremont and Newaygo and the strong smell of disinfectant that would linger in the air long after. Guild members would gather to cut bandages of all shapes and sizes for use at the hospital. “Since they met at our house, all us kids had to help, too,” said Lois. By fifth grade, Lois was heading to the hospital to volunteer, a habit that she continued for more than 60 years.

Being involved in the community was as natural as breathing. “It was important to us,” said Lois. “This is where we live.”

That belief in the importance of community and generosity has become part of a family legacy. Lois’ grandson Jason Brookhouse grew up watching his parents and grandparents serve in their church, volunteer in the community, and help others. He and his wife, Kristin, started a donor advised fund at the Community Foundation as a way to give back.

They felt comfortable giving through the Community Foundation because of its reputation as a leader in the community but also because Lois had already paved the way.

In honor of her parents, Lois created the Nicholas and Pauline Boeskool Memorial Scholarship. Education has always been important to the family. Pauline was secretary and treasurer for the old Butler School board, and Nicholas taught woodworking for years. Six of Lois’ own children attended college, and the scholarship she started in her parents’ names will help other youth people have the same opportunity.

“We were brought up to help one another,” said Lois. “It’s the right thing to do.”

Throughout their 56-year marriage, Charles and Marilee Whitman have always tried to leave things a little better than they found them.

“We never wanted to leave a town and have people say, ‘Whew, I’m glad those Whitmans are gone,’” said Charles. “I always tried to give back more than I took.”

Charles and Marilee came to West Michigan from Ohio in the early 1970s. When they moved, Charles asked Marilee if she wanted to live a bigger city like Grand Rapids. The answer was quick and clear.

“Marilee said, ‘get me to a small town!’” he remembered with a smile. The couple ultimately settled in Fremont.

“This is home,” said Marilee. “It’s a good place to be from.”

Along the way, Charles got involved in the Jaycees and Rotary. The couple is active in their church, and when their son joined Boy Scouts, Charles got involved there too.

“It’s a fun organization designed to teach leadership,” said Charles. “People have gone through the scouting program and now they use the qualities they learned in their day-to-day life.”

The Whitmans’ belief in the positive impact of scouting, along with their dedication to their local church, led them to create a fund at the Community Foundation to support both organizations. They also have a life insurance policy that will go to the Community Foundation.

“Life is good and God has blessed us,” said Charles. “We spent a lot of time sharing our time and efforts with the community and now we’re able to share some of our resources too.”

Harold Kalsbeek was a man who liked to stay busy and enjoyed figuring out how things worked.

“He had a good work ethic,” said Harold’s daughter Jane Vogel. “He kept busy all the time. Even into his 90s he went out to his workshop every day and puttered.”

“He wouldn’t hesitate to tear things apart to see how they worked,” added Jane’s husband, George. “He would fix things I would never have thought to keep.”

Harold liked old cars, camping, travel, and reading National Geographic. He was part of a disaster relief team through his church and enjoyed building bird houses from leftover pieces of wood. He liked playing cards and looked forward to morning coffee club in town with friends.

He was 95 when he passed away in 2015, and aside from his travels, Harold spent his 95 years in Fremont.

“He liked the people and what the community had for families,” said Jane. “As he was reaching his later years, he started thinking about what he wanted to leave behind. I think he wanted to give back to the community because he enjoyed being here and he wanted to help out.”

In early 2015, Harold created the unrestricted Harold Kalsbeek Family Fund at the Community Foundation. It will be used to meet critical needs in Newaygo County, no matter how those needs change in the future.

“My hope is that it will help wherever it’s needed,” said Jane of her father’s fund. “He liked it here, and he wanted different programs to be able to continue. He just enjoyed helping.”

After a divorce, Ann found herself struggling to pick up the pieces. She got her diploma and found a job, but she didn’t have a car to get there.

“It was hard keeping the faith and believing that things would get better,” she said.

But recently Ann got a call from Sheri Byers of Classis Muskegon Ministries and its Fremont Service Committee’s car ministry. Ann’s application had been approved, she had gone through all the steps, and now there was a car waiting for her.

“I just cried,” said Ann. “I can’t tell you how much of a relief this is and the pressure it takes off my shoulders.”

For more than 20 years, the car ministry has provided quality used cars and repairs to people who need them to get to work.

“We do this because we feel like it’s a calling,” said Sheri. “People here are working hard and trying to get by. We feel it’s our responsibility to help.”

The service committee is made up of 12 dedicated volunteers from several local Christian Reformed churches. They meet monthly to carefully review applications. The ministry also partners with a variety of local agencies, mechanics, and auto body shops. Financial support comes from the Christian Reformed Church, local congregations, and the Community Foundation.

These partnerships all combine to offer more Newaygo County residents self-sufficiency and the opportunity to build a better life.

“I’m so glad there’s an organization like this with people who care,” said Ann, looking at the car that had just become hers. “I’m just so grateful.”

For more information about the car ministry or to complete an application, contact TrueNorth at 231.924.0641.

If anyone understands the importance of a healthy heart, it’s Nancy Deters. She had a pacemaker, a defibrillator, and then a heart transplant in 2000. Her husband, Lee, and daughter Kim both had heart problems as well.

It was in their memories that Nancy chose to use her donor-advised fund at the Community Foundation to place AEDs—automated external defibrillators—at Fremont Christian School and the former Providence Christian High School.

“An AED would have kept Lee alive,” said Nancy. “A defibrillator would have saved him. They’re wonderful things.”

The grant from the Lee and Nancy Deters Family Fund has helped to put more local people within life-saving distance of an AED. It’s a gift that honors Lee and Kim and gives back to the community where the Deters raised a family and built a business.

“It’s such a nice community,” said Nancy. “People look out for people.”

“She gives back,” said Nancy’s daughter Kathy of her mom. She smiled and added, “I’m always telling her, ‘You should go on a trip or something,’ but no.”

“It’s because God has given me so much,” explained Nancy, who identifies her faith and the prayers of friends and neighbors as her anchors through times of illness and grief.

“It seems like the more you give, the more you get back,” Nancy added. “When you count up your blessings, there are more blessings than problems.”