By Kayla Sosa | Photography by Two Eagles Marcus
The county of Kent is made up of 21 townships, five villages and nine cities. From Caledonia all the way up to Sand Lake, and Kent City down to Lowell, more than 600,000 people reside in the area. While many hands make this government function, there are a few key women working to make Kent County a successful place where all may thrive.
Human Resources Director
As a human resource director, Amy Rollston doesn’t so much work directly in the community of Kent County, but her work supports those who do. From pay and compensation, to contracts, to retirement plans, Rollston leads the charge in all of the-behind-the -scenes paperwork that needs to happen for everyone to be able to do their job.
Under the umbrella of HR, Rollston oversees retirement plans, compensation and benefit plans, hiring (and firing), diversity, equity and inclusion, learning and development and labor relations.
“We hire anyone from public health nurses, to corrections officers, to janitors and custodians, to executives,” Rollston explained. “Actually, one of the things that I like most about working at the county is the diversity of talent that we get to source and work with. It’s pretty cool.”
Labor relations is probably one of the biggest tasks Rollston manages, because the county works with nine labor unions. That means that employees are represented by a union and the county has to work with that union regarding employee contracts, pay and more.
“We’re helping to make sure that we have the best people to serve the community and that those people are well taken care of,” Rollston said.
Rollston said she decided to work for the county because she really cares about the work the local government does.
“I have a heart for public service and want to make sure my career is aligned with my personal values and making a difference in the community,” she said. “The county is probably one of this area’s best-kept secrets.”
Hilary Curtis Arthur
Court Administrator and Magistrate
63rd District Court
At the 63rd District Court, Hilary Curtis Arthur is passionate about all of her responsibilities as a court administrator and magistrate. A magistrate is someone who can perform judge duties for small claims cases, traffic cases or an arraignment. They are appointed by the chief judge, an elected official. As an administrator, Arthur ensures that the court facilities are working and running efficiently while overseeing human resources and legal compliance.
Even with a lot of responsibilities on her plate, she is happy to show up to the courthouse every day for work.
“We have a great team here at 63rd,” she said. “I have a super team of coworkers to work with, and that’s invigorating.”
The 63rd district court specifically serves all of Kent County except the cities of Walker, Grandville, Grand Rapids, Wyoming and Kentwood. Arthur’s primary passion is justice and bringing it to the public in the most accessible of ways.
“If we can look at our processes and how we deal with people and make it the most efficient and, really, the kindest process, that is our goal,” Arthur said.
One way that the court is doing that is moving to an “e-filing” process; essentially going paperless. Through this process, Arthur wants to empower people even when they are struggling.
“My hope is that as we make our decisions one-by-one under that umbrella, we are always looking at what is the best way to serve the population that our court serves and how we can ease the access to justice to empower people,” Arthur said. “Because in this court, the vast majority of people are unrepresented, they don’t have attorneys.”
Arthur said attorneys can cost, at a minimum, $150 per hour. Most people cannot afford a service that expensive, and as a result, they become unrepresented in court. Without literacy and cooperation from the court, these people can be left lost and underserved.
“About 15 percent of the population is functionally illiterate, which means they’re reading at a fourth-grade level or below,” Arthur explained. “We do see that people struggle with reading and writing, and expressing themselves in the written form … (We are focusing on) how to support them so that the technology is an assistant, not a barrier.”
For Arthur, justice and the community will always remain the anchor for her dedication to her work.
“Our culture, our society and our community is bigger than one person, and so sometimes I’m going to do things that are not beneficial to myself, personally,” Arthur said. “Like, currently I don’t have any children in school, but I am so happy to pay those school taxes because it’s benefitting our whole community.”
Twenty-six years ago, Helen Gutierrez made the move from California to Michigan and started working as the administrator of the Kent County-Michigan State University Extension.
The Kent-MSU Extension is an organization with employees from both the county and the university and provides educational programs within the community. There are 83 of these extension offices in Michigan — one in each county. Gutierrez said Kent County is the third largest office in the state. The idea of creating these extension offices began more than a hundred years ago.
“Back then, youth weren’t always afforded the opportunity to go to a university because a lot of them had to stay home and maybe help with farming, or helping to contribute to the economy of the family … and then people couldn’t travel to the university,” Gutierrez explained. “The whole concept of the MSU extension is that we would bring the university into the communities.”
The programs began as educational —and there still are plenty of educational classes offered — but many life skills are taught as well. These classes range from court-mandated classes for parenting and anger management to workshops for first-time home buyers; from certification for commercial landscaping to teaching nutrition to kids in schools. Most classes
As the administrator, Gutierrez oversees 30 staff members and, because her office has employees from two different organizations, she manages two separate financial systems, two sets of employees, two sets of policy procedures, and more.
She said the main goal of the classes is to provide an opportunity for growth.
“Our program’s whole emphasis is that there is a change in their behavior,” she said. “For example, with nutrition, that they know how to eat more healthy.”
Looking at the county as a whole, Gutierrez said health and nutrition is one of the top concerns for the population.
“You have a lot of the health industry in Grand Rapids,” Gutierrez said. “But you still have issues where there are families that are not eating healthy, and they’re facing these medical issues.”
With all the work she has put in over the past two and a half decades, and the work she continues to do, Gutierrez just hopes to leave the extension office “a better place.”
Deputy Administrative Health Officer
Kent County Health Department
As the Deputy Administrative Health Officer for the Kent County Health Department, Teresa Branson views herself as a “servant leader.”
“I take great pride in serving the community,” Branson said. “I come to work every day ready to serve and support staff.”
Branson started out as a public health educator. On just her second day, she was going door-to-door in the Campau Commons Neighborhood and listening to the needs and concerns of the moms living in the housing complex.
“I found out really quick that we could have a program to deliver to the community, but they could have very much have other needs,” Branson said. “If you can’t get to what those needs are, it’s hard to get people to receive what you’re there to deliver.”
While the health department is technically considered part of the Kent County Government, Branson wants county residents to know that it is the “community’s health department.”
“Maybe there’s a service that people need that we don’t provide, but we’ll find it for you,” Branson said.
Key focuses at the health department include in-home health, community clinics, the WIC (Women, Infants and Children) program, personal health programs (i.e., HIV testing), environmental health and health equity. Around 270 employees make up the staff that Branson and Health Officer Adam London oversee.
Branson said some of the top initiatives at the health department include a Lead Task Force, an Opioid Task Force, the Immunization Program, restaurant health inspections and the Health Connect program, which helped Grand Rapids’ “Hope Zone Neighborhoods” create smoke-free parks and gave residents more access to healthy and affordable food.
Moving forward, Branson said the department is challenged by “emerging public health issues” in Michigan, such as opioids, PFAS in Northern Kent County and lead in paint. Branson said the department has had a quick response to the issues and monitors them daily.
“We want to make sure that’s something that we can look back on and say, ‘We listened,’” Branson expressed.