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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.

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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.

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Guest Blogger: Jane W. – Youth Caseworker

I am sitting at my desk on a Monday morning, and thinking back over the past couple of weeks. I realize that we have been exceptionally busy.  A new class of GED students, a new cohort of the Culinary Leadership Academy (CLA), and a new paid externship for one student at the Community Media Center.  Starting always requires extra effort: enrollment paperwork needs to be filled out, documents need to be copied, schedules outlined, and relationships built. So starting all of them means we were juggling a lot more balls than normal.

Once a month, Steepletown welcomes new GED students. We have what is considered continuous enrollment, which is unique in the GED world; however, it offers students the chance to re-start when they are ready and when they need to.  Everyone coming to Steepletown’s GED Program has met some kind of road block in regards to their education: traditional or alternative high schools haven’t worked; family or personal crises have blown their worlds apart; culture or language add a layer of difficulty their capability to learn; a family’s lack of emotional or mental resources let them down; and the types of coping strategies chosen by young adults have a cause and effect that is unforeseen by them.  Regardless of why and how they have arrived at this roadblock, they need a re-start. They deserve a re-start.  Most likely they will need several re-starts, which is the beauty of continuous enrollment.  They have the opportunity to re-start without having to wait, because waiting is just one more roadblock.

At least three times a year, a new CLA cohort forms.  Whenever a student who has met program and educational goals and shows a spark of interest in something – anything – that could become a career, we work to set up externships.  Why? Because for young adults, a road block in their education means a road block to a job or a career, which is road block to the rest of their lives.  So when young adults are studying for their GED, we want to hook them into career exploration and job training.  That is why Steepletown keeps building partnerships to provide sector specific training (see SECTOR SPECIFIC TRAININGS blog). It is also why Steepletown provides opportunities such as the Elevating Voices workshop (see ELEVATING VOICES blog).  We want to preempt another roadblock.

So, I guess I’m hoping for more busy weeks.  So, check back here to keep updated on what is happening.  Maybe follow our tweets, or come to the Five Star Fish Fry and become a partner in this work!

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Today another group of underemployed and unemployed adults begin a five-week industrial sewing training here at the Steepletown Center.   This initiative is largely the brain-child and passion of Camille Metzger, owner of Blue Marble Threads.  Camille moved her business into the Steepletown Center about four years ago.  Over the past couple years she has been telling me about the need for a trained workforce in this industry, so I connected her with GRCC’s Director of Workforce Training at the Tassell M-TEC.  That conversation and some initial grant funding led to the launch of the industrial sewing training last October.  And it has received tremendous reviews ever since!  Read the article featuring Camille from M-Live

One of Steepletown’s GED students was part of the initial group that was trained in the fall.  While her current focus is on completing the GED, she plans on pursuing a career in the fashion business and also plans on using the training she received to attain employment and further her skills.  With literally thousands of young adults in Kent County who have not completed high school, this strategy to integrate GED completion with sector specific training is greatly needed.

A similar initiative is the Culinary Leadership Academy at Steepletown.  Working under the guidance and instruction of Kitchen Sage’s Chef Tommy FitzGerald and Chef Justin Stermin, those in the CLA have the opportunity to earn their ServSafe certification, earn a stipend while in the training, and finish with an externship at a local restaurant, leading to full-time employment.  While the young adult may not end up as the head chef at one of Greg Gilmore’s establishments, the skills, confidence, and social network that will be gained are invaluable to what lies ahead.  The CLA is currently accepting applications for the next cohort; check out the Culinary Leadership Academy for more information.

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Guest Blogger – Erika Purcell-Williams

The rent is due. Another bill comes in the mail. Your phone won’t stop ringing with calls from bill collectors. On top of all that, you still need to fill up your gas tank while prices are low. What’s next?  Although balancing utility bills and rent can be a bit overwhelming at times, there are different methods you could use to help you manage all your bills each month. Check out a few simple tips below that will help you balance your bills…and help you maintain your sanity:

  1. Prepare early: Collect all of your bills from the past month and add up the total amount you owe (that’s right, find your bills from DTE, Consumers Energy, Comcast, your phone service provider- everyone that sends you a bill on a monthly basis.) Add all those bills together. Make sure that you set aside that total amount of money by the end of each month. This will ensure you that you will have enough money to make payments towards all of your bills for the upcoming month.
  2. Apply for assistance programs. There are many programs available, but in order to learn about them, you have to start by applying for assistance. The first stop? The Department of Human Services, known as DHS. You can apply for various assistance programs online using the “MI BRIDGES” application.  Check out this link for further information:
  3. Enroll into payment plans with your utility provider. Many utility companies offer payment plans for low-income customers; you may want to call their Customer Service hotlines to ask about this option and learn whether or not you could quality for a cost reduction.
  4. Don’t wait to ask for help! There are a number of assistance programs available throughout Kent County; some are public (anyone living in Kent County can access them) and some are private (you have to meet special criteria in order to receive the help). However, timing is the most important factor! Don’t wait until you receive a shut-off notice, a week before a bill’s due date, or days before rent is due to ask for help. Start applying for assistance programs as soon as you learn about them. Remember, many programs receive HUNDREDS of applications throughout the year; make sure you give yourself a chance to receive assistance by applying as soon as you can.

While these steps are simple and straightforward, following through with these steps by making calls and asking about assistance programs as early as possible may lead to great financial savings, reduce your stress, and could make managing your monthly bills much easier. Any questions? Stop by the First Floor Front Office at Steepletown Neighborhood Services and talk with Sarah, Shirley or Dennis to learn about assistance programs in your area.  You can also dial 2-1-1 on your phone for other assistance information.

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Guest Blogger – Jane Wolterstorff

The week between Christmas and New Year’s Day can be a conundrum for the HOY program.  The natural inclination of our students is to follow the school schedules that take two weeks off from studying during the holiday season.  Since the GED prep program at Steepletown is not a traditional school, we know learning can take place every day and we are committed to providing as many learning opportunities as possible.  So, the Youth Advocates and the Educational Coordinator put their heads together and decided to run some special events.

A Holiday Open House in the GED Lab was set for Monday December 29, during regular lab hours:  9:00 am to Noon and 4:00 – 6:00 pm.  The students were invited and encouraged to bring their families with them to decorate and eat cookies along with apple juice or hot chocolate.  Many students and their families had received Thanksgiving and Christmas Gift Baskets from The Parish of the Holy Spirit, so thank you cards were made from construction paper, glue, stickers, and markers.  It was amazing to see the students’ drawings along with the delightful scribbles of their little ones. If all that wasn’t fun enough, out came Apples to Apples, a game described as “hilarious, surprising and outrageous comparisons from a wide range of people, places, things and events.”  Although playing the game was fun, loud, and competitive, it also provided a wonderful opportunity to see the students’ personalities and senses of humor on display due to the relaxed atmosphere.  Because the game is filled with nouns, verbs, vocabulary, and synonyms a whole lot of fun learning was taking place without their realizing it.

Tuesday December 30th during lab hours, the students created their very own Roadmap to Success by drawing or using Microsoft Office to set goals for studying and completing the four tests that lead to earning their GED Certificate. Does that sound a little bit like a New Year’s Resolution?

All in all, the two days of special events turned out to keep many students engaged in learning in a fun, relaxed manner as well as deepening the relationships among all of us.

15-12 GED Blog-2 15-12 GED Blog-3 15-12 GED Blog-4 15-12 GED Blog-1

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Guest Blogger – Melanie

Unique Film Opportunities

The Community Media Center (CMC) and Steepletown Neighborhood Services partnered together to implement a project called Elevating Voices. Jen VanderHeide, Elevating Voices Project Coordinator, and some of Steepletown’s staff member’s organized a week long opportunity for the Honoring Our Youth (HOY) participants. The events were scheduled for Mon. Dec. 8 – Thurs. Dec. 11 to meet for 2 hours each day. Also that week, we welcomed our December group of new HOY participants; coincidence or not? The decision to merge the two groups, and have our new participants launch into a project right away, yielded a great outcome!

On Monday, our new participants were prompted by, “What’s your story?” to generate some brainstorming about a message they wanted to share with the community. Then, they were briefed on the current Hollywood industry. Students were taught “Techniques of Interviewing” in preparation for the following day when the interviews took place. Tuesday, the students learned to use the tripod and the video camera and began directing their stories on film with some technical assistance provided by Gretchen Vinnedge from the CMC. Wednesday and Thursday were exciting days as the students crafted their masterpieces using editing software, Final Cut Pro, on MacBooks brought in by the CMC.

This project was a unique opportunity for our participants. Steepletown has had a video published in the past that shares our students’ stories,  but these four videos were written, directed, edited, and produced by pairs of participants new to Steepletown. Not only did our participants enjoy the project but it gave the staff an opportunity to see the creativeness and personalities of each individual. That’s not always something we get to experience the first week of working with new participants. To see the finished product of the four students click on their name

Barbara                      Jacob                      Jessica                      Nubia

The students were also connected with an opportunity outside of Steepletown. Gretchen invited each of our participants to join the Youth Channel of Grand Rapids and several have expressed interest in meeting with this group every 1st and 3rd Saturday of the month. We look forward to these participants joining their community in sharing information that is important to them. A great big thank you is extended to the Elevating Voices through the CMC; Jen VanderHeide and Gretchen Vonnedge especially!


14-12 Elevating-Voices-WEB

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On Christmas morning I’m in the kitchen washing the dishes and the radio played Amy Grant’s Song, “Grown-Up Christmas List”.  The words really hit home as I was thinking about the situation of a long-time Steepletown employee whose son was killed by gunfire just a few days before Christmas.  Another senseless loss of a young life who had so much wisdom and love to share with others.

”No more lives torn apart,
And wars would never start,
And time would heal all hearts.”

This thought was juxtaposed with the recent memory of Jerry the Flower Guy’s memorial celebration which took place at Fifth Street last week Monday, December 22nd.  He died quite suddenly a couple weeks ago of cancer. His life was heralded as redefining what it means to be a street-wise entrepreneur.  I was struck by the very simple yet extra-ordinary journey of his life, as he was known to be quite a “dumpster diver” in search of flowers that still had joy to bring to others.  And with his five-gallon bucket in hand he would journey into area West Side businesses to bring laughter, a smile, and simple friendship.

“And every one would have a friend,
And right would always win,
And love would never end.”

As we put away the Christmas decorations and find ourselves flipping the calendar to 2015 there might be a tendency to think about those things we didn’t get for Christmas this year. Yet its true meaning lives on in our lives every day, in actions that bring about healing, hope and friendship. This is Steepletown’s Grownup Christmas List.

Holiday Cover