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Last month I was given a front row seat for a very short performance by one of Steepletown’s newest employees-in-training.  Pam Arrington, who is an AARP senior employment trainee, practiced the 90 second pitch on her business idea that she was giving that evening for the one hundred ideas initiative of Start Garden.  Pam brought in an assortment of handbags that she made with material that was repurposed or “upcycled” as the material consisted of old t-shirts, pants, and other clothing.  Her pitch to me actually landed her another opportunity that exists within the Steepletown Center.

Last week Pam started the GRCC Industrial Sewing training that takes place in the lower level of Steepletown.  The tuition for the class is $950, of which $400 was paid through a scholarship.  For the balance of the payment, Pam contacted the Women’s Resource Center who signed her up as one of their participants.  This affords her additional coaching and support, and the Women’s Resource Center paid the other $550 for Pam to take this training.

After one week in the training, Pam sees the likelihood of finding employment doing something she loves, which is sewing.  In addition, her entrepreneurial spirit has been encouraged to continue pursuing her aspirations in the fashion apparel world.  For more information on the GRCC Industrial Sewing training, contact the instructor Camille Metzger at bluemarblethreads@gmail.com

“It is not true that people stop pursuing dreams because they grow old, they grow old because they stop pursuing dreams.”
― Gabriel García Márquez

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From Two to Ninety-Two

Last week Steepletown was further introduced to both ends of the age spectrum. On Monday, March 5th, the Steepletown Preschool opened its Early HeadStart classroom for two year-olds. The reason for opening this classroom is that it offers one more resource for the many young parents who are in Steepletown’s GED Program and who need access to quality, affordable child care and education. With the classroom just across the street from where these young parents prepare for their GED, coming to school has taken on a new meaning for both mom/dad and their child. This duo-generational model of education has been largely touted by the Aspen Institute as a best practice as it significantly increases the motivation of the parent to complete their academic goals. This EHS classroom now brings the number of 2-4 year-olds served by the Steepletown Preschool to 56 children.

On the other end of the spectrum, another employee-in-training through AARP has joined the staff at Steepletown. Steepletown is a host agency and provides employment training for seniors based on their employment goals and interests. The second person Steepletown ever hired was Eileen Kochevar, who was assigned to Steepletown by AARP shortly after she turned 55 years-old. In 2010 she retired after serving as the Assistance Coordinator at Steepletown for nearly 15 years. Our newest recruits do a variety of things, such as providing clerical support; managing client intakes and records for the Steepletown lawn care service; offering information & referrals over the phone for emergency services; doing building maintenance; and assisting in business development. A senior employee-in-training can be at Steepletown for up to six months, at which time employment has to be offered or they are assigned to another host agency. Besides Eileen, Steepletown has hired four other seniors over the years. Mike Pannill continues as Steepletown’s Lawn care Supervisor and Sheila Booker is the current Assistance Coordinator.

While these programs may seem like disparate parts of Steepletown’s work, they are really intended to support the young adults that are in Steepletown’s workforce development program, as childcare and economic stability often come up as issues. There are various volunteer opportunities in the EHS classroom; contact Elizabeth@steepletown.org. And for information about AARP’s senior employee-in-training program, contact the AARP Senior Community Service Employment Program (SCSEP) at 649-0310.

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Guest Blogger: Emilio Zamarripa

In Loving Memory

On January 24th, 2018, our Steepletown family faced an unforeseen tragedy that left staff and participants in a place of brokenness and despondency. Our beloved friend and colleague, Nathan Beals, took his life after lifelong battles with depression. For those of you that had known Nathan can most certainly recall his love and spirit comparable to his size and stature. With his heart on his sleeve and sweat on his forehead, Nathan advocated for this community. Nathan didn’t work tirelessly to empower the young men of the JobStart program. Rather, he LIVED to do so. And many of us will never understand the depth of darkness he regularly faced, nor the energy and focus it took to show up every day and continue putting the needs of others before his own. But we recognize and value Nathan’s life mission, and will continue to value his legacy.

As time passes, we grow to understand that Nathan is at peace. He is with his Lord, in his heavenly kingdom, where all of his desires and wants have been relieved by Jesus. Nathan would sing passionately from his office songs of praise. It seems that he did this to fuel himself if he were having a rough day. Little did he know, he was helping to refuel the spirits of anyone within an earshot of his voice. His love was extensively contagious.

As an agency and as a community, we are still dealing with this loss. We have sought resources to help us process our heartache and grief, and will continue to practice the strategies learned. In a recent publication in on MLIVE, it was stated that 2017 suicide deaths in Kent County have surpassed a 20-year high. Therefore, we will advocate and support those struggling with similar mental health issues. We will be ok, and we will continue to serve our communities to be as healthy as possible.

We would also like to extend our deepest appreciation for the love and support that has poured in from our friends, colleagues, community partner agencies, stakeholders, and others. You’re thoughts and prayers go further than you know. We cannot thank you enough.

Nathan’s joyful spirit, boisterous laugh, and fatherly warmth will be missed. But in so many ways, we continue seeing Nathan’s spirit in our work.

So thank you, Nathan. For everything.

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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.

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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)

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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.

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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:  nathan@steepletown.org.

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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.

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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.

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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!