By Kayla Sosa | photo courtesy of Jaime Counterman
Ele’s Place is a 30-year-old statewide organization, started by a Lansing family who lost their young daughter, Ele. After grieving, they wanted to help other families who are in the same situation. Today Ele’s Place has branches in Ann Arbor, Flint and now Grand Rapids, which is celebrating five years of service this year. In May, after the current Grand Rapids director stepped down, Jaime Counterman, a dedicated volunteer and co-chair of the Ele’s Place Grand Rapids community board, was asked to step up as director.
While Counterman has a degree in marketing and advertising, the bulk of her experience is working in the nonprofit world. She’s worked at Metro Health, American Cancer Society and Frederick Meijer Gardens in fundraising and administration management. She said she has to support the mission personally to work for them, and she wants to spread the mission as much as she can in the West Michigan community.
Women’s LifeStyle Magazine: How did you first become involved in Ele’s Place?
Jaime Counterman: A couple of years ago, I attended an Ele’s Place breakfast, because at the time I worked with a gentlemen from one of the founding families for Grand Rapids. The organization would have only been one to two years old at that point. I was not very familiar with Ele’s Place. At the breakfast, I was so moved by the program. Learning about how Ele’s Place serves kids of all ages who’ve had somebody die was an incredibly powerful experience.
At the end of the breakfast, I went to my friend and said, “Okay, I just cried. I’m throwing my money at you. What else can I do?” And that is how I was able to connect with Nicole, the director at the time. From there, I started my board service.
WLM: Why do you think the organization is essential to our community?
JC: It’s estimated that one in 20 children in Michigan will experience the death of an adult important to them. Those kids are going to have to figure out how to navigate grief and get through navigate life without a person who was important. If kids aren’t able to navigate that grief and express their fears and anger in an emotionally safe environment, it can have a really negatively impact their growth going forward.
We have seen a lot of positive results in engagement, behavior and experience, particularly in school environments. The program really helps them figure out how to express themselves and feel comfortable living in their life again without the person they lost. We are helping kids get their lives back, and I think
We have programming at our location (2000 Michigan St NE), but we also do classes in schools. The classes are very important because the kids are learning in their peer groups. We’re looking to be in about 15 different school systems in the area coming this fall— elementary, middle and high schools. We’re the only branch that’s going into elementary classes because we have a really big need for it.
WLM: What are you most looking forward to as director?
JC: There are a lot of opportunities for people to learn about Ele’s Place, and we have some really cool events coming up for people to do just that. There is a fall reception on Nov.15, which is Children’s Grief Awareness Day. We are holding our Five Year Reception for our fifth anniversary. And we are honoring one of the founding board members with a visionary award.
The fact that we’ve served over 500 kids and families in our five years and currently are serving more than 50 families is a testament to what we’ve done and where we can go.
I want people to know that there’s a need for services here, and they can engage with Ele’s Place in a meaningful way by coming out to these events. We have sponsorship and volunteer opportunities for companies that want to support us. There are a lot of ways people can help these kids.
WLM: What are some of your fondest experiences with Ele’s Place so far?
JC: I have met some incredible people who have come through Ele’s Place, even as kids themselves who now are coming back to Ele’s Place to volunteer. One of our board members is actually the brother of Ele. He was obviously deeply impacted by the Ele’s Place mission as an organization because it was his family that started everything.
WLM: Do you have advice for those working in leadership roles in the noprofit sector?
JC: I have been fortunate and intentional in working for organizations that I emotionally support, and it makes me want to do more. It makes me want to lead better and drive harder to move the mission. It really gives me a sense of purpose, and I would say for folks looking at nonprofit leadership, that there are a lot of challenges, just like in any field, but lean into that. The work that you do is so important. In many cases, you’re saving lives. Whatever that mission is, there’s somebody who is going to be directly impacted by it. Lean into that, and know that, when you’re giving that extra emotional commitment there really is somebody who is going to benefit.
To find more information about Ele’s Place, visit elesplace.org.