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.”

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.”

Grant Public Schools has the largest after school program in Newaygo County. For 30 years, school staff has sought to provide a safe place to spend time after school while also incorporating a wide range of fun and educational activities.

“Our main goals are to improve enrichment opportunities and have a local impact,” said Stephanie Dood, teacher and co-director of the after school program. “We want to make the biggest impact we can. This is not just a place to go to be watched. We’re a safe haven and a place to build skills.”

Each day, students can get involved in a variety of creative enrichment programs such as meeting with a reading interventionist, trying yoga, or listening to books in Spanish and English during read aloud time. A partnership with MSU Extension also incorporates science and environmental activities.

Another new addition has been theme-based Lego projects. In November, students used Legos to create open hand sculptures featuring the Community Foundation logo as a way to celebrate National Philanthropy Day and express gratitude for the Community Foundation’s support.

“If it weren’t for the Community Foundation, we couldn’t do this,” said Stephanie. “We couldn’t serve over 100 kids or employ over 30 people.”

The program’s impact also extends beyond students and families to local small businesses and organizations. They’re committed to buying food, books, and other materials locally whenever possible and are connecting with organizations like Camp Newaygo to offer workshops and new programming.

“We have so much gratitude for our local partners,” said Stephanie. “We’re connecting with people who know the area, understand the needs, and can be flexible.”

These partnerships and the efforts of the dedicated staff are allowing Grant to meet the diverse needs of students in innovative ways each day after school.

“My passion is figuring out what the need is and how to meet it,” said Stephanie. “It’s about creating exceptional opportunities. Every day we get two hours with a group of kids to do something amazing.”

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.”

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.”

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.”

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.”

Just before kicking off the 2018/19 school year, more than 100 teachers from Hesperia and Fremont schools gathered for a three-day training that immersed them in new tools to use in the classroom.

In a partnership between the two districts and the Community Foundation, Hesperia hosted a Kagan Cooperative Learning training for its entire teaching staff and Fremont’s middle school and upper elementary teachers.

Over the three days, teachers learned about Kagan strategies—called structures—and practiced them in small groups. In one activity, a group member fanned out a set of cards with different questions written on them. Another person picked a card and read it to the group, the next person answered the question, and the other group member checked the answer and offered encouragement. Structures like “Fan-N-Pick” not only provide an informal check for understanding, but they also actively involve the whole group in the process.

“It gets kids talking about what they’re learning,” said Vaughn White, Hesperia’s superintendent. “It’s not group work. It’s incorporating structures that get students talking and sharing what they’re learning.”

Using Kagan structures has been shown to improve student engagement, social skills, and classroom culture. Vaughn, who has experienced multiple Kagan trainings, has also seen it positively impact student discipline and test scores. For teachers, it provides tools that can easily be incorporated into what they’re already doing.

“They don’t have to change their lesson plans,” added Vaughn. “The structures fit in their plan. It’s not creating extra work. It’s not a draining thing. There’s no pressure. It’s a fun thing to support learning and development.”

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.

“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.”

For one group of local teens, last year’s summer job included trail construction and supporting the recovery of an endangered butterfly species.

The teens, many in foster care, were part of the SEEDS Youth Conservation Corps. SEEDS gives at-risk youth training and job experience in environmental stewardship and conservation.

“We’re learning to be more ecologically friendly,” said Jamie, a youth crew member. “I’m interested in the outdoors and had some basic knowledge already, but now I’m learning more skills to improve what I can do.”

“I’ve learned how to work with others, use my time wisely, and keep calm and not get frustrated,” added Jasmine, another crew member.

Locally, SEEDS works with the DHHS Michigan Youth Opportunities Initiative (MYOI), a support network for older youth in foster care. Other partners include Michigan Works! and the U.S. Forest Service. Local programming was funded in part by a grant from the Community Foundation.

“I like seeing how it helps the kids grow,” said Sarah Meeuwes, MYOI coordinator. “They’re building resiliency and self-esteem. It also gives them independence to have money to meet needs. Many of them have had to fight to get their needs met for so long. This gives them a sense of stability. And even though the work is hard, they really have a sense of accomplishment.”

A few years ago, Newaygo High School Principal Jackie Knight found herself growing concerned as she looked at a county expulsion list.

“I was very alarmed at the number of teens not being educated,” said Jackie. “These kids have to stay in school. We have to keep them longer.”

“When they’re expelled for 180 days, the likelihood that they’ll graduate becomes very small,” said Assistant Principal Sarah Rodriguez.

With the support of superintendent Dr. Peggy Mathis, Jackie and Sarah developed Project 180. The program is designed to help students facing expulsion stay on-track to graduate while also redirecting them toward more positive, connected lives.

Students work on creative projects at the Artsplace, attend counseling sessions with Arbor Circle, practice tai chi through a program of the Circuit Court, and receive academic support. There are also service projects, cooking classes, book studies, and college visits. The program is funded in part by a grant from the Community Foundation.

“It’s not all about academics,” said Sarah. “We have to address the social and emotional needs too.”

Along with the skills they acquire and the encouragement to stay in school, the relationships and connections students build through Project 180 have a profound impact.

“We found that we were still seeing them come into the office, but they were coming in just to check in and talk, not because they were getting into trouble,” said Sarah. “I look forward to this having a lasting positive impact on kids. They can look back and say, ‘There were people who believed in me.’”

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.