Posted by & filed under General.

Tommy FitzGerald is found of telling the story of growing up in a neighborhood that afforded him many opportunities, earning both money and the confidence that he could accomplish anything.  It was in this spirit that Chef Tommy started Kitchen Sage, to provide opportunities for misconnected young adults in the community to grow their sense of confidence and purpose.

In early 2014 Tommy had a conversation with Monsignor Stasker who invited him to resurrect the commercial kitchen located in the Basilica Center.  That kitchen had not been in operation for nearly 15 years and therefore needed many repairs and updates to be in compliance with licensing.  Tommy tackled these without any cost to the Basilica.   By that summer the first group of students were introduced to Kitchen Sage under the mentorship of Chef Tommy and co-founder, Chef Justin.

About a year into this initiative it became more and more evident that Kitchen Sage would benefit by being under the administrative guidance of Steepletown.  Over the next year there were many conversations between the Kitchen Sage Board and Steepletown Board leadership.  In 2016 Kitchen Sage dissolved as a separate non-profit organization and continued to operate as one of Steepletown’s primary workforce development initiatives.  Tommy continued as the Director of Kitchen Sage, and also began an Advisory Board of those in the food service industry to help nurture and shape this emergent social enterprise.  Also in 2016, under the umbrella of Steepletown, Kitchen Sage officially became a Proprietary School in the State of Michigan, elevating its status as a formidable training program in the culinary arts.

In his role as Kitchen Sage Director, Tommy continued developing community partnerships that have become critical in the support of this work.  He also played an integral part in launching the first ever Camp Kitchen Sage during the summer of 2017, which served 10 young adults who are all clients of Michigan Rehabilitation Services.   In 2017 there were 23 young adults who completed the Kitchen Sage training; 95% passed the ServSafe Manager Exam and earned this industry-recognized credential.

In November of 2017 Tommy decided to take a position at Mercy Health in Grand Rapids to continue doing purposeful food in our community.   His role at Mercy Health will further solidify the partnership between Kitchen Sage and Mercy Health, as last week three graduates of Kitchen Sage started full-time employment with them.    And so while Tommy is no longer involved in the day-to-day operations of Kitchen Sage, he will still be part of a neighborhood that seeks to support and grow the confidence and purpose of young adults in our community.  Steepletown is forever grateful for the vision and efforts of Chef Tommy.

Posted by & filed under General, Programs / Services.

When it comes to cooking, Chef Karen Chaffee falls in line with that rich heritage of grandmothers and mothers in the kitchen passing on their time-honored skills.  In Karen’s case, her family has been the Steepletown neighborhood, and more specifically the students in Steepletown’s Kitchen Sage culinary training.

Karen was out walking her dog a couple years ago when she was first introduced to Steepletown’s Kitchen Sage culinary training.   Learning that those in the training are young adults who generally have many barriers to gaining employment, she asked how to sign on to help.  Over time she became the Lead Instructor, also taking on the kitchen responsibilities of feeding nearly 250 preschoolers a day, which provides much of the hands-on training for the students in Steepletown’s Kitchen Sage program.  Her passion however doesn’t end with the expected 6 am- 4:00 pm schedule, as she has willingly mentored a couple of the students beyond the six week core training, providing that nurturing and familial instruction of a grandmother / mother.

On Tuesday Karen was recognized by the local chapter of the American Culinary Federation and awarded the Chef Educator of the Year Award.  This award pays tribute to an active culinary educator whose knowledge, skills and expertise have enhanced the image of the professional chef, and who, by example, has given leadership, guidance and direction to students seeking a career in the culinary profession. This person demonstrates the ability to help students define and develop their careers by using their skills and abilities to provide a strong foundation for their future success.  In 2017 there were 23 students who completed Steepletown’s Kitchen Sage culinary training; 19 of the 20 who took the national ServSafe Manager Certification exam passed it, earning this valuable credential in the food industry.

Karen has also recently taken on the chairperson role for the Diversity Committee of the ACF.  As she noted, the ACF is making inroads into a younger, more diverse audience of young chef professionals.

All of us at Steepletown congratulate Karen on her well-deserved recognition and for all she does for the community at large.

For more information on Steepletown’s Kitchen Sage training, go to Kitchen Sage page on Steepletown’s website.

Chef Justin Stermin (Grand Rapids ACF Chapter Secretary) with Chef Karen Chaffee (Award Recipient)

Posted by & filed under General, Programs / Services.

As we pulled up to one of our Senior client’s homes today, an older homeowner was on the top stoop of his steps shoveling.  After a quick introduction he expressed his gratitude for our arrival, as the temperatures were single digits and the snow was fairly deep.  He also shared with us that he has a pacemaker, and that he should not be outside in this weather.

And there it was- the ideal metaphor for a New Year’s Resolution.   After-all, isn’t our resolutions meant to help control the pace of our lives, to help consistently maintain our priorities so that our lives become more meaningful and purposeful, rather than filled with actions that are often fatal.

JobStart is a pacemaker for the young men who participate in this employment training initiative of Steepletown.  As we drove away from that house, one of the young men who was with me questioned what a pacemaker does although he had heard of them.   It was his insight that helped me make the connection….that the pace in our lives can become abnormal based on any number of factors, and that this pace can be fatal.  Perhaps not physically but certainly spiritually!  And so for these young men in JobStart, learning to integrate and normalize work as part of one’s daily priorities is an excellent pacemaker.

Many of us today are thinking about our daily choices and behaviors, looking to make those necessary changes to a life that is out of rhythm with our priorities.   New Year’s Resolutions- pacemakers for our souls!  And if you would rather hire the guys of Steepletown’s JobStart initiative to shovel your snow this winter or do your lawncare this upcoming summer, give Steepletown a call.

Posted by & filed under General.

Steepletown has been working on further developing its policies and practices as an organization to be more inclusive, diverse, and racially equitable.  Steepletown contracted with the Partners for a Racism-Free Community earlier this year and have been guided through its assessments and coaching.  Specifically there are six standards or areas that are assessed using what is referred to as the ICARE Essentials Assessment Tool. The purpose of this assessment process is to:

  • Help Steepletown build a racism-free workplace
  • Guide the development of an organizational plan focused on achieving racial equity
  • Help increase organizational effectiveness
  • Support staff retention.

The PRFC’s definition of “racism-free” is the following: “The individual and systemic condition achieved when all persons, regardless of skin color, feel welcomed and wanted in all places and treat others the same way.”  Steepletown’s Staff have also been greatly influenced by the work of John Powell in his book, Racing to Justice.  Mr. Powell speaks about “targeted universalism”, which basically identifies the disparate realities of urban core communities and the need to implement specific strategies that can impact these disparities, whether they be educational attainment, household income, or employment rates.

Last week all of the Steepletown Staff participated in focus groups to discuss their own experiences of racism and to identify any barriers that exist at Steepletown to achieving a racism-free environment.  These were very powerful conversations which will continue to shape the policies and practices of Steepletown.

If you are interested in learning more about Steepletown’s efforts, send an email to Nathan Beals:

Posted by & filed under General, News, Programs / Services.

KaBOOM! Nope, not the fireworks that fill our evening skies but a playground that was built in the former Pulaski Park on the corner of Fifth Street and Muskegon.   After several years of sitting idle, this vacant lot has been transformed into the vibrancy of children playing amidst the bright colors of yellow, orange, and plumb.  On June 16th Steepletown took the lead in the build-out of a KaBOOM! playground with the support of Amway Corporation and many volunteers from the neighborhood.  As Tim Collier, Director of the nearby Stockbridge BoilerRoom states: “As I think about our neighborhood and all that is happening in it right now, I see this park as an opportunity to foster community in our little pocket of the West Side, especially among the families who live here. As a green space, it’s a place of beauty. As a playground, it’s a place of joy and is a physical picture of the way we as adults value the kids growing up in this neighborhood.”

On Tuesday, October 3rd, a Picnic in the Park is planned from 4:00-6:00p.m. to celebrate and dedicate this newly renovated space.  The picnic will include family-friendly entertainment, games, food, and the presence of the GRPD K-9 Unit and horses of the Kent County Mounted Unit.  Monsignor Stasker, Pastor of the Basilica of St. Adalbert, will do a blessing of the park including the animals.   The picnic will also serve as a kick-off for neighbors to further develop a shared ownership and responsibility for taking care of the park.  This event is being co-sponsored by Steepletown, the Basilica of St. Adalbert, West Grand Neighborhood Organization, the Stockbridge Boiler Room, Grand Rapids Police Department, and the Stockbridge Business Association.

Posted by & filed under General, News, Programs / Services.


Steepletown through a workforce development initiative called JobStart is introducing some amazing talent to local employers who are eagerly in need of filling job openings!  JobStart is not a job…

It is first and foremost a work experience that offers the space in which to further develop and practice the skills, behaviors, and thinking that employers expect.

JobStart is not a job…

Although participants are paid every two weeks for the hours worked through Steepletown, there is so much more to earn:  GED or other academic credentials, sector specific credentials, a network of support, a driver’s license, support services, confidence and hope.

JobStart is not a job….

It’s the beginning of a different future, a new start on life!

This past Spring Steepletown was awarded grants from the Steelcase Foundation and the Wege Foundation to continue this important initiative in our community to address the economic disparities that exist for young men of color in our community.   Steepletown also welcomes Korey Anderson to the team as the JobStart Instructor.

Posted by & filed under General.

For those of you who know Chef Tommy FitzGerald, you would expect some type of knock-off from the 80’s era of film-making.  Camp Kitchen Sage though is relevant, timely and has proven to be an effective program for training older youth and young adults in basic employability skills.  And of course, like any summer camp, it was done in an atmosphere of fun and adventure.

Camp Kitchen Sage came into existence because of the vision of the leadership at Michigan Rehabilitation Services who were looking for something innovative in training their clients.   The thought that this could center around food and involve a work-based learning experience within the food service industry proved to be a recipe for success.  As Karen Awe, MRS Site Manager stated:  “Camp Kitchen Sage was an extraordinarily robust program that covered many topics younger individuals need to start thinking about.  Examples include: general work habits, team playing, problem solving, safety awareness, creativity, etc. Upon program completion, the personal growth and development that occurred was amazing.”

This past summer 10 young adults embarked on a summer camp unlike anything they ever experienced.  During the morning hours they attended fieldtrips to the farm of the Franciscan Sisters in Lowell, went to the downtown market and farmers’ market, built and planted raised-bed gardens, and stepped into the kitchen to prepare their own lunches.  After lunch they each went to their respective work-based learning sites, which included the David D. Hunting YMCA, Meals on Wheels, New Holland Brewery, and Lincoln Square of Holiday Retirement.  And for these hours they received a paycheck!


Posted by & filed under General, News, Programs / Services.

Guest Blogger:  Jane W., Youth Advocate

At Steepletown, earning a GED is only a step to what comes next for Kayla Carter.   When Education Coordinator, Melanie Grandy found out that Kayla had never attended a live musical, she reached out to Civic Theater’s Autumn Hubbard.  Hubbard, a former Steepletown employee found ticket donors making it possible for Kayla and a friend to attend Hairspray, Jr.

The generous donation of tickets has encouraged and inspired Kayla toward her goal.


“To be able to see Hairspray Jr. live as not only an amazing opportunity, but a great source of new inspiration for me  I’ve always had a strong love for musicals, but was never fortunate enough to experience one live…

Since I was very young, Music and the Arts have always been a passion of mine.  Seeing this musical only makes this passion burn stronger, brighter and helped me clarify my vision…

Maybe one day I’ll be on the Civic Theatre stage, or better yet, Broadway!”

Posted by & filed under General.

Dick Bulkowski, Executive Director

We build on the lives and memories of those who have gone before us.  That could not be more true than what has been experienced today here at Steepletown.  On the foundations of what was once a neighborhood playground a new KaBOOM! Playspace has been built.  In digging the footings for the larger play structures, the remains of the old wading pool of former days was unearthed about a foot underground. Now resting on top of those memories is some amazingly fun playground equipment that will continue to build more memories, nurturing yet another generation in the art of play and creativity.  It is what the human spirit needs to stay energized and hopeful!   Thanks to our new friends at KaBOOM! National and Amway Corporation for making this day possible.

Posted by & filed under General, News.

blogger:  Dick Bulkowski, Steepletown Executive Director

KaBOOM!  Nope, not the fireworks that are now filling our evening skies but a playground being built in the former Pulaski Park on the corner of Fifth Street and Muskegon.   This piece of land has been idle for many years and will now see the vibrancy of children playing amidst the bright colors of yellow, orange, and plumb.  This is the park that my Dad played at in the 40’s when he attended St. Adalbert School.  I played there as well in the early 70’s when I attended first grade at St. Adalbert.    Now two generations later my grandchildren who attend the Steepletown preschool in the Basilica Center will be playing in this same park after the KaBOOM! Playground is built on June 16th.   There are still opportunities to get involved:

  1. Come help Volunteer to Build the Playground. Call Janet Piccolo to volunteer on that day at (616) 822-8008.
  2. Buy a brick! To connect the sidewalk with the playground a path needs to be constructed.  To that end Steepletown is selling paving bricks that you can have engraved to be part of the pathway.  You can DOWNLOAD A FORM, fill it out and mail it in or GO ONLINE to purchase your brick.

I am buying a brick to honor my dad on Father’s Day to read:  Here played Jim Bulkowski, 1945-1953.  I am hoping others will take advantage of this opportunity to support this project and honor someone in their lives, especially as Father’s Day is only a couple days after the completion of the playground!

KaBOOM! is the national non-profit dedicated to giving all kids – particularly those growing up in poverty in America – the childhood they deserve filled with balanced and active play, so they can thrive. Since 1996, KaBOOM! has collaborated with partners to build, open, or improve more than 16,700 playgrounds, engaged more than one million volunteers, and served 8.5 million kids. KaBOOM! creates great places to play, inspires communities to promote and support play, and works to drive the national discussion about the importance of play in fostering healthy and productive lives.