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Democracy is best realized through conversations, not advertisements nor soundbites.  This was the reason that 26 of us from the Early Learning Neighborhood Collaborative went to Lansing this past Tuesday.  Our agenda was to meet with as many legislators and political leaders as possible to share with them the amazing story of this collaborative, which next month celebrates its fifth birthday.  In total, 14 legislators and 2 chiefs of staff sat at the table with us.

Eric Foster, who has been training members of the collaborative on advocacy tools and strategies, congratulated us on our first ever Legislative Day and framed it well by asking “how are the children?”  He shared how the Early Learning Neighborhood Collaborative is the only organization that has visited Lansing that is dedicated to early childhood education.  In addition to telling the ELNC story, our agenda was to gain support for a pilot program for three year-olds that the ELNC CEO, Dr. Nkechy Ezeh, has been advocating for in Lansing.

We also went to Lansing regarding a transportation issue.  State funding for early childhood education has allocated $155 per child for transportation, yet the policies on how these funds can be used limits them to a traditional yellow bus as the sole means of transportation.  Since the partner sites for the ELNC are largely place-based this is not practical.  Most of the legislators who met with us that morning are on the Education Subcommittee, and we encouraged them to revisit the legislation in order to allow greater flexibility on the allowable modes of transportation that reflect the preferences of the families in our neighborhoods.  The message was well received, and as one representative stated, “we are on board with this.”

In the first four years of the ELNC’s history, 1,056 children have graduated from preschool.  There are now 17 ELNC preschool classrooms at five partner sites, and 2 infant/toddler classrooms at one site.  These are children who could have easily fallen through the cracks if the seven organizations of the ELNC had not come together in May of 2010 and crafted a vision on how local communities can address a need in their own neighborhoods.  Steepletown is very appreciative of being a partner of the ELNC, which has provided the support for two full-day 4 year-old classrooms and two half-day 3 year-old classrooms at the Basilica Center.  On May 26th Steepletown will be holding a special graduation ceremony for the 64 children from the surrounding neighborhood who have completed a year of preschool.

Lansing Legislative Day - Steepletown & ELNC

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Guest blogger, Kate


Did you know that lost time in the classroom in Preschool creates poor attendance habits in Kindergarten and 1st grade?

Did you also know that low attendance in Preschool will make it more difficult for students to learn important reading and math skills in Kindergarten and 1st grade?

At Steepletown Preschool we are striving for outstanding attendance for all of our students by missing no more than 12 days of school for the 2015-2016 school year. Steepletown Preschool has made it a priority to focus on attendance by creating an attendance challenge for each classroom. Students who have perfect attendance get their names put in a drawing for a weekly and monthly prize.

Our hard work has paid off! 15/16 students in the Lilac Room have 90% or higher attendance from September- February.  This is the highest attendance rate of any of our Early Learning Neighborhood Collaborative (ELNC) Preschool sites, with a total of 14 classrooms.  To celebrate, the ELNC was given tickets to the Van Andel Arena a few weeks back to watch them setup and dump loads of dirt for the Monster Truck Rally.   ELNC provided transportation and gave the tickets to the Lilac Room for their great attendance. One Adult and one student in the Lilac Room was also given a ticket to watch the Monster Truck Rally on that Friday night. Thank you ELNC for the opportunity to celebrate the hard work that the Steepletown Preschool Staff and families have been doing to make sure each child arrives to school every day.

16-04-17 Attendance Pic116-04-17 Attendance Pic2

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Guest Blogger: Melanie

At the end of January, I was notified that GED Testing Services (GTS) was recommending a new scale for passing the GED and that they were also recommending the decision be retroactive to January 1, 2014. I was so excited- especially about the retroactive possibilities. Michigan finally published their decision in late February and approved the GTS recommendations!
There was one student in particular who really stood out. She is a mother to a 2 year-old and has been a participant at Steepletown for over a year. Often, as she was preparing for her GED tests, she would have to bring her young son with her to the GED lab. This student had taken her last test, Mathematical Reasoning, the morning of October 1, 2015 in anticipation for the graduation ceremony Steepletown was hosting that evening. Her score came back at 146, not passing at that time. Although she was sorely disappointed, she didn’t abandon her studies completely. She took some time to find a part-time job before the holidays and continued working on some math skills at home using Khan Academy and her GED Academy account. As she worked out childcare she was able to return to the GED lab on a more regular basis.
Once the score change was confirmed, I texted her twice and emailed her, without reply, before asking Emilio, our Youth Development Director, to knock on her door. Shortly after, as in minutes later, she was standing in the lab, surrounded by her peers, as we congratulated her and began discussing what was next. We were celebrating a few months late, but the sentiment was the same. We are so proud of her and genuinely hope the best for her and her young son.
We can’t wait to FINALLY host the graduation ceremony with her, as well as 4 other special GED graduates (maybe more!) and their families this Thursday, April 7th, 2016!

16-04-05 GradInvitePic

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It is that time of the year and we’re not referring to Valentines Day.  It’s Tax Time!  For over 10 years Steepletown has partnered with Heart of West Michigan United Way of Kent County and the Kent County Tax Credit Coalition to offer VITA Tax Preparation.  VITA (Volunteer Income Tax Assistance) offers free income tax preparation for Federal, State and Local returns.  We will e-file your Federal and State returns and provide paper copies for your City return.  Volunteers from Chemical Bank, GE and Grand Rapids Community College are certified through the IRS to prepare basic returns.  Here are the needed information points:

Location:  Steepletown Center, 671 Davis Avenue NW, Grand Rapids, MI  49504.  Use Main Entrance (Under White Canopy)

Dates:  TUESDAY – February 2, 9, 16, 23, March 1, 8, 15, 22, 29, April 5

Time:  Sign Up begins at 5:30.  You must be signed up before 6:30

Service:  Walk Ins Only.  NO APPOINTMENTS


WHAT DO I NEED TO BRING? Click to follow the link.



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It is with great joy that we celebrate this season of grace and gifting- grace that “the dawn from on high has broken upon us” bringing light into our darkness, a grace that manifests itself in Steepletown’s presence here on the West Side.  The gifting continues throughout the year in efforts that transform lives and bring hope.  Steepletown wishes you and your families a Merry Christmas and a joy-filled New Year.

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Guest Blogger: Erika Purcell-Williams, Programs Director

It seems like there’s a new story on the news each evening about someone being in need, some family losing out on an opportunity, or some group struggling to stay in business. Sometimes, it may seem as if we encounter even more people around the holidays that have pretty significant needs or simply need a helping hand. Considering that there are so many organizations throughout our city that seem to help others, the possibility that the economy may have had a larger effect on someone’s wellbeing larger than what we believe, the growing number of people that seem to be in need of something, all the changes that are taking place throughout our neighborhoods…the list could go on… Sometimes, it’s easy to ask the question: “What can I do?”

If you ever find yourself asking that question, just know that there is an actual, solid, proven answer that can bring results every single time, regardless of the length of time that has passed, the type of issue that exists, who is affected by the issue, or the magnitude of the situation.

What is this incredible answer to the long-standing question of “What can I do?”

Simple: volunteer your time.

That’s right; your willingness to give of your time, your skill, and your talents can make a huge impact all throughout Steepletown, throughout the families within our community, and across the city of Grand Rapids. No, you don’t have to open a special boarding school, you don’t have to raise $1,000,000,000 to benefit a charity, you don’t have to conduct ground-breaking research, and you don’t have to go on TV every night to speak about your cause. While all those methods are appreciated, your willingness to simply spend a small amount of time to help out with the programs offered here at Steepletown can open up a world full of possibilities for a person. Maybe you enjoy reading stories to young children, or maybe you rather work one-on-one with a student to help them understand how to solve a math problem. Maybe you’re very good at organizing files and want to get into an office setting…or maybe you rather work in the great outdoors, helping seniors within the community maintain clean yards. Whatever your desire may be, we can create an opportunity for you to invest into the families of Steepletown and help to make this community a better place. Here are a few examples of projects that volunteers have taken on in the past:

– Cleaned up preschool classrooms and helped teachers prepare for the school year by setting up classroom spaces
– Helped with cleaning out storage spaces and getting rid of old files
– Set up a new GED lab through moving computers, furniture, and electrical equipment into a new space
– Tutored students in a variety of subjects (math, science, reading, etc.)
– Met with neighbors and shared information about available programs

Whether spending a full day on Steepletown’s campus or walking around the neighborhood for an hour, the volunteers that gave their time to complete the projects listed above surely made an impact on our community and helped to strengthen the bonds that exist within this area. Their time was valuable and truly made a difference in the lives of others. You have the ability and power to make a difference as well! Consider giving your time and volunteering with Steepletown today.

If you are interested, please contact Erika Purcell-Williams, Program Director, at (616) 451-4215 ext. 116 or via email at One hour of your time may extend a lifetime of possibilities for another person.


Exec. Directors Note:  If your time is limited, you can also get involved by helping donate something on our WISH LISTS from our prior blog “Giving Thanks and Reflections”.  Check it out and see if there is something that catches your eye.

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Steepletown is very appreciative of all those who have supported our efforts and initiatives of over this past year, whether as a donor, volunteer, or partner.  There is so much that is done that brings about change and transformation that honors the dignity of each individual, and which also restores a sense of hope.  It is what we are called to do…when asked by Jesus who acted as a neighbor to the man who was beaten and robbed, laying along the roadside half-dead (the Parable of the Good Samaritan) the scholar of the law responded:  “the one who acted with mercy”.   Mercy is allowing the suffering of others to touch our hearts.  Mercy is responding in a positive way to someone who is struggling.  Mercy is extending compassion and care where it is needed.   Mercy is something we all seek at some point in our lives.  “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.” (Mt. 5:7)  Even Pope Francis has announced a yearlong Jubilee of Mercy beginning on December 8, 2015.

This time of year is filled with many expressions of hope.  Whether it’s volunteers serving a turkey dinner at the homeless shelter; gifts being bought for children whose families are poor; or the anonymous envelope to assist a struggling family with their heating costs.  These moments and acts invite us to embrace our unquenchable longing for renewed hope.

There are countless stories of hope every day here at Steepletown.  Our starting point is gratitude, for we rejoice in God’s continued blessings. We also rejoice in the support of so many individuals which gives Steepletown encouragement and the resources to do this work; this too has been a blessing for so many children, families, seniors and young adults here on the West Side of Grand Rapids.  As we pause to give thanks for the many expressions of hope this time of year, Steepletown asks for your continued and prayerful support.  Since Friday is usually one of the busiest shopping days of the year, we offer a link here to our Christmas Wish list, which will further Steepletown’s efforts at making hope a daily reality.  Browse either the PRESCHOOL WISHLIST or the GED – WORKFORCE DEVELOPMENT WISHLIST and consider making a purchase.

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Welcome to Steepletown,

Take a look at our Annual Report.  Notice on page 2 that Welcome to Steepletown is literally on the “cutting edge”; this is by design.  In fact, this placement also suggests that Steepletown is “pushing the boundaries” so to speak in how nonprofits operate. However, I don’t think that we are “pushing out” as much as the Spirit is pulling us out into yet unimagined possibilities.  2015 STEEPLETOWN ANNUAL REPORT

2015 Annual Report Cover Pic

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They say “seeing is believing” so I jumped into the car on Monday, October 19th, for a road trip to New York and Boston. For two years I have wanted to visit a couple different programs that have been doing some remarkable work with “disconnected” young adults, defined as 18-24 year-olds neither working nor in school.  I am grateful that my wife Isabel was willing to call this a “vacation” as we also had some fun hanging out in NY and Boston.

In New York we visited the Queens Community House (QHC).  I learned about this organization in following the work of JobsFirst NYC, and intermediary organization focused on employing New York’s nearly 70,000 “disconnected” young adults.  Their goal is to employ 10% of this population over the next few years; their strategy is to work with established community-based organizations who serve as an on-boarding and training space in specific industry sectors, i.e. IT, healthcare, transportation & logistics, and food service/restaurant.

At the QHC I met with Sean Reyes and Candice Haynes, who are overseeing a culinary training.  It is both encouraging and somewhat sobering to learn that their realities and challenges are not much different than those Steepletown experiences in our own Culinary Leadership Academy, which we offer in partnership with Kitchen Sage.  One of their biggest barriers to successful completion is transportation, as a “double transfer” using the public transit system in NY (and that’s with an amazing subway system!) can mean nearly two hours of travel one-way.  My take away from the QCH is the need to get an advisory committee of restaurant owners/managers together to help in developing our curriculum for the CLA.  Especially for the smaller restaurant owners, Steepletown can serve as a quasi-employment agency by screening, training, and providing on-going support services for those newly hired.

In Boston I visited Roca, and organization that works with the most difficult to reach young adults, most of whom have been involved in the Corrections System.  I arrived to their site in Chelsea right at 7:00 am and was impressed to see several young men standing outside its doors.  After some quick introductions, I was invited to participate in their opening circle, which was part “checking in”, part instructional, part spiritual, and simply a way to reinforce the purpose for being there that day.  From there I went out on one of the crews, first picking up the day’s work assignments from the Chelsea Public Works Department.  After a brief conversation with a few of the participants on the crew I spent the rest of the morning with some of Roca’s key staff.  What was amazingly profound yet simple is that this organization is rock solid (roca in Spanish mean “rock”, which is the basis of its name) unwavering in its purpose, its messaging, and its expectation of these young men.  Everyone at Roca is trained in their TR (Transformational Relationships) model, which encompasses mostly CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) with some additional strategies. There was so much more to learn from them, but my honey was waiting to get on with the rest of the “vacation.”

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At Steepletown – #WeDoMathTogether

“I am really bad at math” is a phrase we hear when enrolling new students. Initially, my response was “me too”. Recently, I have changed my answer and say that “math needs to be learned and practiced” (quoting our Educational Coordinator, Melanie Grandy).  The GED Math test often feels like a towering, thunderous mountain that needs conquering and only the brave and courageous adventurer type can look math in the eye and say “I will beat you”.

In reality, the new math test implemented in 2014, is a formidable challenge. Really.  Passing means accomplishing College Ready math skills. The GED testing service states that approximately 45 percent of the math test focuses on quantitative problem solving and approximately 55 percent on algebraic problems.  The days of memorizing, recognizing and applying lists of algorithms are over. Now, the student needs to “understand and apply” mathematical fundamentals and apply them to real-world problems in context.

How do support and assist students in accomplishing this? Well, we found out that if “we do math together”, students are grasping, retaining, and mastering math! In the past month, it was not unusual to walk past a student filled computer lab to the small conference room, where two or three students and a staff (Emilio or Melanie) worked together for hours learning and practicing Quadratic Equations. It started with a staff or a volunteer (Liz) at the white board with equations at the top.  Then a slow progression of questions and explanations as the students each worked on the procedural steps in their notebooks. More questions, more explanations, sometimes frustration, then some laughter, eventually excitement as the answers to the problems turned out to be CORRECT!!! As time went on, one of the students would be at the white board, talking the other students through the multiple steps of solving algebraic problems. The staff just looking on (with some inner pride and satisfaction on their face).  Math is hard.  The majority of students take the math test more than once before they pass. But they pass.  They pass a difficult test and earn a huge sense of accomplishment and pride.

When you see a tweet or read on Facebook about a student passing their math test – hopefully you will understand the effort involved and degree of accomplishment. And we will continue to do math together.

We Do Math Together