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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.

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

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

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Guest Blogger:  Emilio Zamarripa, Youth Development Director

On the evening of October 1, 2015, a group of about 30 people gathered to celebrate three young adults for accomplishing a goal they had set for themselves in 2014. It wasn’t listed in the papers or shown on any news outlets. However, the reported impact of the event was monumental. Steepletown held its first GED graduation ceremony since GED Testing Services changed its testing requirements in January 2014. This testing modification has continued to be a challenge to thousands upon thousands of people all across the United States. However, these 3 students in Grand Rapids, Michigan were grounded in their decision to complete all 4 tests.

In years past, Steepeltown has held GED graduation ceremonies on a bi-annual basis. Ending the 2013 calendar year with 40 graduates within a 6 month period had the organization feeling fairly confident in anticipation of the new testing format. However, reality hit hard when by June 2014, Steepletown had no graduates. Morale was at an all-time low, and it seemed like staff was working hardest at merely keeping the students’ spirits up.  This unfortunate reality led to a decision to hold off on hosting another ceremony until more students earned the GED. Then, on July 23, 2014, Steepletown had its first GED graduate. Next person to finish was on September 25, 2014. Then there was yet another pause.

At this point in time, community members and stakeholders began to question the reason behind the low number of graduates. Could the tests really be that difficult? Are students not going to class? Is the GED worth it anyway? Why this? Why that?  Questions continued, and all the while, Steepletown students and staff remained focus on a solution. Just after turning the page from 2014 to 2015, another student passed her fourth and final test on January 28th, 2015.  So in just over a year, 3 students earned their GED at Steepletown. Not “just” 3 students. Three students. To put it into perspective, at this time, GED completion rates across the U.S. were down by almost 90%. So simple math tells us that these three young people are the top 10% of test takers for having accomplished this goal!

The months leading up to October 2015 were very successful. Although no other student was able to complete all 4 tests, many are fast approaching. Active students have reported that having seen the actual cap and gown they would wear for graduation keeps them motivated to continue their studies. Others say that it feels more realistic that they can graduate.  So in the late afternoon on the first of October, Steepletown recognized three students not just for their accomplishment, but for encouraging the dreams of others to do the same. With their families, these three students marched down the center aisle of the Basilica of St. Adalbert with heads high and glowing smiles. Each family was designated a pew, where they shared tears of joy, thumbs up, snapping photos, and a roaring applause when presented with Steepletown’s graduating class. Following the ceremony was a family-style dinner reception that offered families, and staff, time to reflect on the growth of their graduate and share stories of the process.

By the end of the evening, the sense of pride each of the graduates exhibited was felt by all. One graduate stated that he remembered the hardships of the process, and glad he found it within himself to continue. This is something that we as an organization can’t own; nor can the families of our students. The questions that had been raised when GED completion numbers were down didn’t represent the entire picture. Community members from all walks of life have come through the doors of Steepletown in search of success – defined differently person to person. And each of these people face various responsibilities and barriers. So to make a choice, and standing behind that choice, is a foundation of success that can only be owned by the decision maker. These three amazing young people are a catalyst for active GED students, currently pursuing their goal of GED completion. We are all looking forward to our next graduation ceremony in April 2016, and again every 6 months that follow.

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

Guest Blogger: Erika Purcell-Williams


Imagine months and months of Play-Doh being stuck in your fingernails, wiping up milk spills from the floor, cleaning toothpaste off of bathroom mirrors, finding crayons in odd places, and listening to high-pitched squeals at sunrise. Seems like a large order, right? Now imagine seeing the faces of children light up because they see you each morning, listening to belly-busting laughter, watching a child take pride in learning how to write their own name, and the innumerable hugs you receive throughout the day. When you have those type of experiences, all that cleaning and searching doesn’t seem so demanding.


Steepletown Preschool is preparing to hold their annual Graduation ceremony on Thursday, May 28,  starting at 6:30pm in the Basilica Center. On this day, staff, family members, and supporters take some time to reflect over the 2014-2015 school year, celebrating the growth and development of our students. While this year has truly been a learning experience for all involved, we take joy knowing that our students are on the right path to success. As we get to watch them walk down the aisle in their caps and gowns, we get to rejoice in their success, knowing that in the next few years, our students will be ready to participate in much larger graduation ceremonies and celebrations. Some of our students will not be returning to Steepletown Preschool next year, as they will begin kindergarten. While we certainly will miss seeing our students, we take pride knowing that our students are fully prepared for the rigors and expectations of school. Our students will not only have the skills needed to succeed, but they will also have the confidence required to shine within their classrooms.


As we take these final weeks to prepare for the end of the school year, staff members will probably take extra time to work and play with our students. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear even more stories from staff members about students playing games and having more fun than usual in class. Graduation reminds us all that we only have a small amount of time to make as big of an impact as possible on these children’s lives, and it has been a true joy for Steepletown to have the opportunity to work with our students and their families in such a close capacity.


It may seem as if we’re making a really big deal out of a preschool program, but the reality is that this event marks the starting point on their path to academic success. It may seem like the students are simply playing around and having fun, but you never know. The same child that played “Doctor” in the Imagination Station today may grow up to be the very surgeon that performs an intricate procedure on you tomorrow….


2015 Preschool Graduation Invite

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Guest Blogger: Emilio

April 1st. A date marked on the calendars of many in hopes of avoiding the shenanigans of friends who, on this one day, feel they have attained a Master of Arts in Pranking, and plan to demonstrate their skills on each other. Because of the extremes people sometimes choose to take them, I believe pranking has become more hurtful than hilarious. Home videos goes viral with titles like “OMG HE ALMOST DIED,” or “PRANKS GONE WRONG,” with images of a kid getting punched in the face. Steepletown staff wanted to bring back the old school style prank to show how a harmless pranks can rouse some great comedy.

Students in the Culinary Leadership Academy (CLA) have recently disclosed they are experiencing test anxiety as the ServSafe Certification test date is nearing. They all have continued to exceed expectations of the Chefs and their Youth Advocates not only in their academia, but in their workplace behaviors too. Like many youth and young adults, just the sound of the word “test” makes them cringe. Images of a timer, bubble sheet, and freshly sharpened #2 pencils are inserted into their brains. Noting says “TEST” louder than a freshly sharpened #2 pencil. So for a good laugh, and chance to just make it through an “Oh crap!” moment, we fabricated a ServSafe Entrance Examination.

As Jane and I stood in the front of the activities room trying our best to appear anxious and nervous, one by one the students came in and reflected the same concerned look we had portrayed. Everyone sat down at their own table. In front of them was an unfamiliar red folder with what seemed to be a stapled packet inside, and…..yes, a freshly sharpened #2 pencil. We discussed with them a “requirement” of foundational knowledge/benchmarks to be demonstrated before allowing them to participate in a study group with the Gilmore Collection prior to taking the ServSafe – something all of the students had all been looking forward to utilizing for last minute question and clarification.

“We are so confident in all of you,” Jane explains, “It’s just that. Well. It’s really important that you pass this test.” Looking around and seeing the faces of ‘Wait, what?!’ I declared to the group, “Ok everyone. No talking. The test starts….NOW.” Simultaneously opening their packets, it began…

Question 1. Which is a biological contaminant?
a) Bones in a chicken fillet
b) Ciguatoxin in red snapper
c) Metal shavings in a can of peaches
d) Tomato juice served in a pewter pitcher

Question 2. What is a TCS food?
a) Saltines
b) Bananas
c) Sprouts
d) Coffee

Question 3. What is todays date?
a) 04/01/2014
b) 4/1/2014
c) April 4th, 2014
d) April Fool’s Day!

Question 4. Who still thinks this is a real test?
a) Isiah
b) Alex
c) Derrick
d) Darrell

Question 5. Who is going to pass the ServSafe test?
a) Jessica
b) Caleb
c) No one
d) Everyone
By Question 3, we had some confused faces, but Jane nor I would budge just yet. After a few chuckles from a few different students, Darrell looks up and says, “Waaaaait a minute.” Immediately, the rooms bursts into laughter, followed by the expected “Ahh, man!! I forgot that that was today!”

The smiles and laughter were great, and the students were anxious to keep the prank going. So as a group, we decided to show some pranking love to our partners at Kitchen Sage. Isiah marched across the street to the kitchen where he confronts Chef Justin, presenting himself as highly upset for having his time wasted on a childish prank. Before I go further, I need to be rather candid about this scenario. Isiah has actually had a few meltdowns throughout this experience with the CLA, which have led to semi-heated arguments with others. So for him to be upset over taking a fake test isn’t necessarily expected, but plausible. With that said, Chef immediately takes a familiar approach to mediate the situation and calm Isiah. Before he can finish his sentence, the rest of the students walk in and go straight to their time sheets, declaring they too have had enough and quit. Jane and I walk in seconds after, and play as though we are trying to regroup everyone and apologize for the prank. Justin, who has been battling some flu-like symptoms, looks as though he is ready to either collapse or explode. I explain to the group, “Listen. We’re so sorry for pulling a prank on you all this morning. We thought it would be funny, and I think we can really argue that it was funny. But we can’t argue that it was funnier than pranking Chef Justin now.” Without moving an inch of his body, Chef Justin’s wide-eyed glare shifts from the group to me. Not sure of his reaction, the students wait until he processes the moment and finds words to express his emotion. Breaking a smirk and slowly shaking his head from left to right, Chef repeats, “You, you, you, you…” laughter erupts once again. We all start reenacting each other’s moments of being had.

Jane notices Isiah doesn’t seem as joyful as the rest of the group. For someone who typically wears his emotions on his sleeve, something didn’t feel right. She approaches him to check if something was troubling him. Isiah gazes at the ground and says, “Ms Jane, you know what? You’re right.” Having had so many conversations with all of the students, Jane was unsure of what she is being accused as being correct. “I can actually feel myself getting legitimately mad,” Isiah finishes. A few weeks back, Isiah found himself frustrated with how another crew member was behaving. He met with Jane soon after to discuss his irritation with what had happened, but continued into a frenzy of anger. Utilizing motivational interviewing, Jane worked to identify with Isiah what seemed to be his tendency to get himself angrier for unrelated reasons. At that time, it was only words spoken with Ms. Jane. But now, as Isiah had went on to say, “I feel it. It’s crazy that I’m actually getting mad when this was just meant to be a prank.”

That moment – that’s what took the joy of the day from strictly playful to personal. Yes, it is challenging to actively measure our awareness to our own emotions and behaviors. So for this young man to verbalize the sensation he was feeling is not only a great moment of self-reflection, but it also works to reduce some of the ‘grey’ in his life; and provides more options when faced with irritable times. Do old habits die hard? Yes. But that is why attendance has been at 100%. Is it true that we learn something new every day? I hope so. But what if that ‘something’ we learn is about ourselves? These young folks are getting a better understanding of their strengths and weaknesses, successes and shortcomings. Everyday. 365. Even on that one day of the year we showcase our already Mastery of Pranking.

CLA April Foll's Day Test

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Those who attended this year’s Taste on Wednesday evening understand better why Steepletown designated this as “The Year of the Chef”.  The food was incredibly good, but how it came about is a deeper testament to this designation.  Kitchen Sage, the “hearth” of Steepletown, reached out to some neighboring food venues and brought them both into the Taste and literally into the kitchen, working with the current students of the Culinary Leadership Academy.  It was these young aspiring chefs who took a leadership role at the Taste; of course with the guidance of Chefs Tommy and Justin! This partnership of Steepletown and Kitchen Sage is really focused on lifting these young adults out of some challenging circumstances to give them hope and opportunity that restores their place within our community.

At this year’s Taste the “Steepletown Neighborhood Recognition Award” also made its debut.  I believe we would all agree that there are many persons on the West Side who are deserving of recognition for their leadership and commitment to real transformation, and yet we singled out one individual who has been critical in the evolution of Steepletown’s presence and work on the West Side –  Mosignor R. Louis Stasker.  It can truthfully be said that without his support and leadership, many families, children and young adults would be living with less hope and certainly fewer opportunities to develop their potential.  Click to check out the recognition video played at the event.

Steepletown’s mission is “to promote neighbor helping neighbor live with dignity and hope”.  Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote, ”The first question which the priest and the Levite asked was ‘If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?’  But the Good Samaritan reversed the question: ‘If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?’”  Monsignor’s commitment to and care for the West Side exemplifies these words.

And now its your chance to help in a small way.  Go to this link to vote for Steepletown as part of Mercantile Banks’s Giving Together! Program:  If the link does not work, copy and past the following in your browser – You have only until Monday, March 23rd.