Where Their Hearts Reside: The Women Who are Transforming the Heartside Neighborhood

By Kayla Sosa | photography by Two Eagles Marcus

For decades, the Heartside neighborhood of Grand Rapids has been seen as a developing area with many residents who struggle with homelessness or a mental or physical disability, or both. The neighborhood makes up a significant portion of downtown, encompassing some of the city’s most popular nightlife spots, historical landmarks and the center of contemporary arts.

Within the Heartside neighborhood, there are a handful of organizations that are doing the “boots on the ground” work to help make the area a viable neighborhood for its residents and the rest of the community. Women hold many of the leadership positions within these organizations, and they have something to say about why their hearts reside here.

Regina Bradley

Resident Services Coordinator, Dwelling Place of Grand Rapids

Regina Bradley’s day-to-day mission in her work is all things relating to housing stability for the residents of Grand Rapids, specifically those who are homeless and have some form of a disability.

When residents are struggling to stay “on track,” Bradley steps in to provide assistance and guidance to those who are housed through Dwelling Place,

from connecting them with a doctor, helping them gain employment and obtain essential household items, addressing issues with neighbors, and helping them keep their apartments clean and safe.

In this work, Bradley has learned to “embrace and celebrate the small things.”

“I work with individuals who come with long histories of trauma from childhood, addictions, health disparities, pain that they carry with them,” she commented. “I had to learn that as much as I may want for someone to change, they just are not ready.”

Bradley said the hardest realization for her was that the people she supports could be her.

“I love the rawness and strength of my Heartside people. Life has hit them hard, and yet they still stand with a story to tell.”

In all of that work, Bradley has learned to remain consistent, roll with the punches and never take anything personally. She hopes to continue to empower people as well as educate others about the Heartside community.

Mallory Patterson

Impact Producer, Wrinkle Creative

Co-Chair, Heartside Neighborhood Association

As a resident and local business owner, the neighborhood is close to Mallory Patterson’s heart; so much so that she is helping to “lay the foundation” for the new Heartside Neighborhood Association (HNA). The HNA holds monthly potlucks that are open to the public to discuss what’s happening in the neighborhood, problem solve and connect.

“The best way to improve a community is to empower its residents to change the things they can, influence the decisions of people who affect their community and raise their voice when it’s important to speak up,” Patterson expressed. “I have seen people grow
and come out of their shells to make a really big impact on some pressing issues. Sometimes all it takes is a spark.”

Patterson said she gives her time to her neighborhood of more than four years because it’s currently at a crossroads; she wants to make sure her community gets the support it needs as the downtown area continues to develop rapidly.

“While I may not always live here, my heart will always be in Heartside,” she divulged. “It’s a special place with deep roots, a rugged history and a vibrant future, one I plan to be a part of. It’s more important than ever to support and uplift voices who are often left out of the conversation to make sure we grow together, not over each other.”

The next step for the HNA is to officially make it a 501c3 non-profit to create more opportunities in the neighborhood. Patterson: “Plant the seed, water it and watch it grow.”

Latesha Lipscomb, JD

Community Engagement Project Manager,
City of Grand Rapids – Design & Development Planning Division

Latesha Lipscomb works with the neighbors of Heartside to learn about the issues they face and solve them in the best way possible. Many of those problems are complex and require multi-faceted solutions and discussions within the community.

Lipscomb is the project manager for the Heartside Quality of Life Study conducted by the City of Grand Rapids’ Planning Department. Additionally, she is a longtime resident and business owner in the neighborhood.

“I have learned that when you give everyday people a platform, even in the midst of some troubled realities, they can and will provide positive solutions as invaluable feedback,” she expressed.

By including the community in the conversation about positive change within the neighborhood, Lipscomb says it has been a “game changer.”

“I have seen the good, the bad and the sometimes ugly growing pains of Heartside over the last few years,” she commented. “This neighborhood is in dire need of continued support, activation and development that takes the pulse of the neighborhood into consideration when critical decisions in design and development are being made.”

Abbey Sladick

VP of Communication, Mel Trotter Ministries

Abbey Sladick tries to spread awareness about the people of Heartside and the issues they face, as well as who they are, by telling the stories of people at
Mel Trotter.

“Every day I work to show people in West Michigan, through various mediums, that men, women and children who are experiencing homelessness were created in the image of God and that they have value and talents that make our community a better place,” she said. “There are several goals in sharing these stories: providing healing for the guests, help break down the stigma of homelessness, bring in donations, volunteers and prayer support for the programs and services at Mel Trotter Ministries so we can serve
more people.”

Sladick said because homelessness is such a complex problem in our city, she sometimes feels defeated. But when she’s reminded of the partnerships Mel Trotter has made with other organizations in Grand Rapids working on the same issue, she feels hope that we can make a “greater impact, together.”

“I think the greatest impact I can make in my work is to keep the issue of homelessness on the forefront
of everyone’s mind, not just during the holidays,”
she said.

Rev. Kelly VanBrouwer

Associate Director, Heartside Ministry

United Church of Christ ordained minister

At Heartside Ministry, Reverend Kelly VanBrouwer not only does administrative work for the church, but also works directly in the community. She supervises programs and staff, volunteers, fundraising and connecting with other churches. She also oversees the advocacy program, provides free counseling and is the owner of the ministries’ therapy dog, Bean.

VanBrouwer said her favorite part of all her work is the relationships she continues to build with the neighbors. The ministry has seen positive changes through the work it has done, from the free GED program which saw over 55 graduates this year, to the drop-in art studio where anyone can come in to create with paints or pottery and more. More than 100 people visit the ministry’s community room daily, to get out of the weather, use the restroom or grab a cup of coffee. Neighbors can also receive free counseling, dog therapy and resources for anything they might need. Additionally, there is a worship service every Sunday in the chapel. VanBrouwer said she feels called to this service work.

“In these places, I find hope and grace and mercy,” she said. “I barely have to open my eyes to see God incarnate. Every day, I get to be in relationships and create spaces for the people that our society has shoved to the edges. It’s in these people that I find our joint humanity and where I feel home.”

Many of the neighbors experience similar problems, and in working with them, VanBrouwer has seen a “togetherness” form between the community members and a strong resilience within themselves and supporting each other.

“There is a deep understanding that they share with each other that creates this recognition of the human-ness in each other,” she explained. “When you need one another to help keep you warm as you try to sleep on a doorstep in the middle of January, you aren’t concerned about their mistakes or their cultural heritage or their sexuality. You recognize the shared humanity in each other.”

Johannah Jelks

Art Gallery & Studio Coordinator, Heartside Ministry

Johannah Jelks operates the art gallery and studio at Heartside Ministry, where many neighborhood residents spend time creating art, whether it’s through the use of fiber arts, ceramics woodworking, printmaking or more. She also hosts Heartside Artists bi-monthly showcases by partnering with local businesses in the area.

“Everything in my work is an extension of encouragement for the Heartside neighbors and artists,” Jelks said. “What I find most challenging is the need for diverse representation in volunteers for the Art Gallery. It is so important for the Heartside artists to receive different experiences and perspectives in the art studio… many of our Heartside artists overcome very difficult challenges using art as a therapeutic expression.”

The studio and gallery is dedicated to providing a space for showing artists’ unique responses to the experiences of their lives, as well as offering guidance and opportunity. The art therapy program “specifically encourages the neighbors to feel open to express themselves whether in grief, stress or start positive new chapters.”

In ArtPrize 10, Heartside artists were able to display their art in an entry titled, “A Family Affair” at Site:Lab and the Heartside Gallery, and interact with visitors about their work.

“This has been a life-changing experience both professionally and personally,” Jelks said. “I have been truly inspired by the neighbors we serve.”

Jenn Schaub

Director of Community Building and Engagement, Dwelling Place

In Dwelling Place’s Neighborhood Revitalization Department, Jenn Schaub helps to solve housing problems by working with all the parties involved: residents, organizations and businesses. Dwelling Place oversees about 600 apartment units within Heartside.

One of the most recent projects Schaub has been involved in is getting new lighting on South Division Avenue.

“We’ve been advocating for better lighting in our neighborhood, and are excited that the City of Grand Rapids has committed to installing new lighting along a portion of South Division in the next year,” Schaub said.

Schaub said in order to create solutions for everyone, everyone has to be involved in the conversation.

“Our residents are both tender, fiercely strong and creative.” Schaub said. “The buildings in our neighborhood are beautiful and the organizations are full of heart and our businesses are dedicated and unique, so Heartside is extra awesome. We have an amazing history as a neighborhood caring for people and being the epicenter for good in Grand Rapids, and that is what makes us #heartsidestrong.”

Annamarie Buller

Manager of Resident Experience, Downtown Grand Rapids Inc. Board Chairwoman, Dwelling Place

At Downtown Grand Rapids, Inc, Annamarie Buller is focused on the conversations around Heartside. She is involved in the Quality of Life Survey and oversees Goal 2 Alliance, a plan to create a Downtown neighborhood. At Dwelling Place, Buller also chairs the Resident Engagement Committee, which helps to ensure that residents of Dwelling Place “can become more involved in leadership roles in their properties and the neighborhoods and cities where they live.”

The heart of solving complex issues like those that affect Heartside is through developing and sustaining relationships within the community. Through these relationships, she said she has met and worked with many people who are passionate about making change and committing to the sometimes long and challenging process to actualization.

“…We must stay passionate but also patient, knowing there is always much to be done and there is no one solution that can meet all of the community’s needs,” Buller said. “Problems like public restrooms, fresh food access and substance abuse…are complicated issues that require multiple collaborators and resources to address fully.”

Alysha Lach White

Illustrator and Founder/Creative Director of Little Space Studio (111 S Division), Co-chair of the Heartside Neighborhood Association

After the Heartside Neighborhood Association dissolved in 2011, Alysha Lach White, along with Patterson (page 14), is one of the people involved in starting the HNA up again and managing the process of making it an official non-profit. Why does she care so much about this specific community? She says she wants to change the decades-old narrative Grand Rapids residents have been telling or hearing about the Heartside neighborhood.

“Stigma is a tough barrier to engaging people who don’t understand our neighborhood and its many layers,” Lach White said. “It’s hard to get people outside of the neighborhood to shop, experience art and culture, and support fellow downtown neighbors when all they focus on is the homeless and drug activity. Yes, these things are a reality of our area, but we are so much more than that.”

Lach White has learned over the years as a small business owner that it is essential to treat each human in the neighborhood with “dignity and respect.” When a homeless person approaches her for help, she does her best to offer them the information and resources they may need.

“I try to help as many people as possible understand that though it is uncomfortable for a homeless person to ask for help, whether it be for money or food, you can still greet them pleasantly and be kind,” she expressed. “Even if you have nothing to offer but a smile.”

Lach White hopes people change their stereotypes or biases about Heartside, and see it as a whole; instead of seeing it only for some of the struggles it encompasses, and also recognize the beauty it contains as a home for many unique individuals. With small businesses, emerging artists, low income and market rate housing, nightlife and shopping located right in Heartside, Lach

White says: “There is so much to appreciate here! Give it a chance with a fresh perspective.”

Suzanne Reinink

Human Resources Director, Dégagé

Suzanne Reinink started volunteering at Dégagé 15 years ago with her family. They started out by doing bingo and birthday lunch events, to now offering meals and games on Christmas morning. Seven years ago, Dégagé asked Reinink if she would join the staff as Program Manager, and since then she has taken on other roles.

“We felt and feel strongly that we are called to show God’s love by serving and walking alongside others; that everything we have is not for us to keep and hoard, but to share,” she said. “This includes our time, talents and treasure.”

Dégagé offers both immediate and long-term programs and services for the homeless and disenfranchised people in our community; this includes immediate needs like a shower, laundry, a hot meal and a haircut, to long-term needs, such as the overnight shelter for women experiencing homelessness, called the Open Door Women’s Center.

“Our patron advocate is available during the day to assist women in setting goals and searching for affordable housing,” Reinink explained. “They are given fresh linens, hygiene services, a hot meal, prayer and vital support during a turbulent time.”

Currently, the shelter can hold 40 women, and Reinink said there is usually a waiting list.

“I’d like to see more women’s shelters, more temporary shelters/housing for families and young adults,” she said.

Dégagé also offers assistance with I.D. services, helping people track down important record documents, like birth certificates and social security cards. The Resource Office gives individuals one-on-one support in the housing process, referrals for health, dental and vision needs, and more. The Dining Room serves over 60,000 meals a year to patrons along Division Avenue. They also offer community vouchers which work as cash for certain goods and services, for people to give to panhandlers in lieu of money.


KaylaTuckerOnlineBio
Kayla Sosa is a journalism student at Grand Rapids Community College and editor-in-chief of The Collegiate newspaper and website.

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