People Helping People
An ArtPrize Collaboration:
Photographer: Adam Bird
Writer: Jessica Young
Designer: Danielle Kendra
Project Managers: Maribeth Groen and Kristina Bird
People Helping People is a collection of narrative portraits celebrating a few of the outstanding volunteers who are united in the common cause of improving our community. They are the unsung heroes among us.
When combined with their personal stories, these portraits remind us that there is no one type of person, no age group or chosen few who control the evolution of our community. Each person and organization is different, with their own story and their own reasons for why they do what they do.
I definitely have a soft spot for at-risk youth, and I love digging in the dirt. When I was a kid in the seventies, my parents did the “back to the land” thing. I grew up on boxed potatoes and marshmallow fluff, then my mom and stepdad went crazy, and we got a cow and chickens and a giant garden. I loved it! I love it all. If there is something that you really love, and you want to give yourself and your time, see if you can find that match.
I work from home for a company that is small. Volunteering lets me give back, but it also gives me an outlet and helps me meet new people that I might not meet in my daily life or in the work I do. It gives me different perspectives of individuals and the city where I live. When you have a group of people that will go the extra mile, it keeps the community centered. It’s the electricity of the city. It’s like fire. It’s just fun to be involved.
In West Michigan, there are a lot of opportunities to be a part of a lot of different things. For me, I didn’t really know what my passion was until I got into it, but now it’s my purpose. I get back a connection – the inclusiveness of being part this community. I could never give back enough of what I’ve gotten from BLEND, but it’s inspired me to want to connect every young professional of color to this community. I want them to build a life here. When you become truly committed to a cause, it doesn’t feel like work.
To me, it’s a no-brainer. It just makes sense. Food and farming is more than simply creating a product that a customer wants. It’s actually a relationship that we farmers have between us and the land and us and the community. The community relies on the land, and everyone is responsible for investing in it. A community is only as strong as its membership. It’s not just up to a few people or a few organizations. It’s the responsibility of all of us to work together for the common good. Everyone needs to give a helping hand.
It’s very important to me to build a community that I want to belong to and make sure my daughter doesn’t have to go through the same challenges that I have gone through. I was born and raised in the Philippines. I dealt with the struggles of having your degree from another country and English as your second language. I started mopping floors at KFC, and now I own my own business. I know that things can get better, because I’ve experienced it. Maybe it starts with just me, but I’m able to give opportunities to someone else – and then there are two of us who are able to make a difference.
It all started 12 years ago, when I lost my wife. I was alone, and that’s what motivated me to do something. I joined CASA. 3 years later, one of the boys for whom I advocated lost his foster home – so I became a foster home. The social system is doing all it can do to handle the welfare of these kids, but the one thing that is very difficult to handle is nurturing. Kids who have been institutionalized in the system miss one of the most important ingredients that all of us seek, and that is love. Someone who isn’t just taking care of them, but someone who cares for them. That’s my job.
I’ve learned a lot of responsibility and patience. I’ve learned social skills. I was a home-schooled 12-year-old who was very shy. I wasn’t one to strike up a conversation with somebody I didn’t know. My first puppy was placed with a client who was blind, and I got to meet her and talk to her. It was really cool for me to see what all my hard work had led to, and it has helped me gain confidence. Without me, these dogs wouldn’t be able to help people.
To me, it’s a family affair. I live in the Baxter community. My twins went to childcare at Baxter Community Center, and that opened up my eyes that I could give something back directly. It’s a great place for rebirth and regrowth. There is a revival of greatness in our community – physically, mentally, socially. We are planting seeds in the youth and informing everyone about the positive changes, traditions, and contributions of African and African American people.
My parents completed just eight grades in school, and my father had an alcohol addiction. Having enough to feed our family was difficult. After I retired from Steelcase, I felt a nudge to give back and began helping with food programs. Nearly seven years ago, I was diagnosed with Multiple Myeloma cancer. I have days that aren’t the best, but helping people and encouraging others can turn a down day into a good day. I grew up with faith in God, and that faith has continued to grow as I’ve grown older. With the additional time I have been given on this earth, it is my responsibility to give back and bless others.
Five years ago, I was diagnosed with cancer. The moment when I hit the surgery table, I felt regret for the first time in my life. It was a hard-hitter. It wasn’t like I the regret that you get when you eat too many cupcakes. It was earth-shattering, life-changing regret. That regret was that I hadn’t given enough. That I didn’t do enough in the world. You only have one chance, most of the time, to make a difference. So, you need to make it count.
Growing up, I was in a lot of tough situations whether it was being homeless or just needing somebody to talk to – wishing I had a mentor. Once I made it out of homelessness, I set out to find out who is homeless in our community and how I could help. I’m just one person. I don’t have more time than others, but I know that I can help. It’s like if you’re walking and you see a hole in the ground, you can’t just walk by. You know that if you don’t cover that hole with a lid, somebody is going to fall through.
Well House was the first place that I started to regularly volunteer. Before I went there, I struggled a lot with anxiety and depression. Through volunteering, I’ve become really close friends with the staff. It’s been a huge jumping off point for me to feel better and to give back to the community. Knowing that everyone has a story is something that has helped. You never know what someone is struggling with, and it’s easy to judge people – particularly the homeless population. Feeling the passion and being connected to a place helps you be stronger, to overcome any obstacle.
People may have a below average income, but they still deserve to have affordable homes, and save money, and do things for their kids. I see families that work and work just to make ends meet. They get overlooked, and it’s not fair. They come to us, and they don’t have anything else. Their happiness keeps me going. I treat people how I want to be treated. I always give my very best. I never make promises, but I tell people that I will do all that I can – and that’s what I do.
I think the great thing about tutoring is the relationship-building that goes along with it. It has encouraged my learners to hone their skills and shows them that I am interested in them as a person. I love to see the progress. My first learner had graduated high school but didn’t know how to read. I told him to meet me by the reading room at the library, but he could not find the room because could not read the signs. Over a two-year period, he went from not a non-reader to reading at a fourth grade level and he was able to get a better job where he could use his new reading skills.
I was looking for something in my life. Something was missing, and it created this unsettled, frantic feeling. I signed-up to do disaster response without knowing how to do anything. I could use a hammer and that was it. I fully admit that I was scared. We were in rough areas where they had bullet proof glass on the inside to protect workers, but those spaces became my second home. I realized that I was completely capable. It empowered me to trust myself in every aspect of my life. When you feel confident and capable, helping people and reaching out is natural.