B the Change

Over the years, the greed of businesses has created and magnified many problems in this world. So conversely, couldn't businesses provide the answers to such problems, using their powers for good before profit? "We envision a global economy that uses business as a force for good," begins the opening line in B Lab's mission statement. B Lab, a non profit organization that audits and certifies "B Corporations", is striving to create a community of businesses that seek to have a better impact on their environment. For a company to become a B Corp, it has to pass the 200 point impact assessment with a score of 80 or higher. The assessment covers a multitude of areas that measure how completely the company is doing what they say they're doing, including environmental sustainability, transparency, and legal accountability. It's incredibly thorough.

Last year, 616 Lofts became a B Corporation, joining the likes of Gazelle Sports, Brewery Vivant, and Cascade Engineering, among others. And while this status adds a lot of responsibility and motivation in becoming a better company, it all starts with knowing and understanding the surrounding community. Having a good impact on the community means preserving and enhancing the culture that already exists there. You can't know how to do that without first knowing the environment, the people, the need. This means getting involved, listening, joining neighborhood associations... It's an enormous amount of work on top of the already challenging workload of running a company. You have to be really dedicated to your mission and have the perseverance to maintain that focus. 

The 616 Lofts team was in the studio a couple weeks ago for new head shots and a group photo. I love hosting groups, particularly this one, because they have this fun energy that lightens the mood and radiates in the photos. I've shared a few below. Find out more about 616 Lofts on their website.

An Obvious Answer

There's quite a bit more young adults dealing with homelessness in Grand Rapids than you might expect. Forced out of the foster care system at 18, kicked out of their homes, or disowned by their families, these young people are transitioning to adulthood while dealing with the terrifying uncertainty of having no place to rest their heads at night. This issue can quickly become a cycle where the same problems are repeated over and over, culminating in a lifetime of chronic homelessness. It's incredibly important to end this cycle before it can begin. 

Grand Rapids has quite a few organizations that provide services for these young adults. They can get a hot meal, shower, a temporary bed for the night, a place to store their belongings... However, permanent housing is still difficult to achieve, and it's the most obvious solution to preventing homelessness. Enter Well House, a nonprofit currently developing a shelter specifically for young people 18-24 years old. Following the housing first initiative, it provides immediate housing, no strings attached. This means residents aren't expected to meet any conditions, complete treatments, or provide evidence of sobriety in order to receive services. This method is especially effective because it provides much needed security first, then helps residents solve the issues that led to their homelessness. 

This new youth shelter is designed to provide a stable environment for young adults as they adjust to the responsibilities of becoming an adult. The "house parent" resolves conflicts and disputes. Residents pay a small monthly rent and are protected by a housing contract. This means Well House has to go through the proper legal procedures in order to evict a tenant. The set up is pretty similar to a standard rental agreement, but tenants also have the option of working for Well House, tending the farm or renovating houses. 

While it's a pretty simple and logical answer to homelessness, not a lot of organizations practice the housing first method. There's this stigma that people who are homeless deserve their fate and thus should have to earn assistance. But the housing first initiative has had a lot of success, not just in ending chronic homelessness but also in decreasing the number of drug and alcohol-related hospital visits. 

To learn more or make a donation, visit the Well House's website.

Farm to School

It's ironic but many migrant farm workers have a difficult time eating fresh produce. The job is demanding, frequently requiring workers to spend 12 hours or longer planting, cultivating, harvesting, and packing fruits and vegetables. At the end of the day, they generally don't have time or energy to cook dinner for their families and rely on fast food all too often. Though they're constantly surrounded by fresh, farm produce, they aren't able to eat it much of the time.

Migrant Head Start is a program that helps migrant families get better access to local, fresh, healthy food. Receiving grants from the state for buying fresh produce from Michigan farms, Migrant Head Start provides three meals a day to children in the Sparta early child care center. The money is also used to educate parents on the benefits of a nutritious, healthy diet. Field trips to local orchards and farms were also worked into the program as the children became more interested in their food and where it comes from.

The program is about to start its eighth year and runs from June through November. Many of the children who come to Head Start have never been exposed to fresh food before. This program helps teach them about the growing process and helps them develop healthy eating habits early.

ELL Schools on the Rise

The number of English Language Learner (ELL) students in the Grand Rapids Public School system is growing immensely. There are currently over 4,000 students at GRPS who are non-native English speakers in the process of learning the language. That's 25% of the student population. These students represent 55 different countries and 54 various languages, some even speaking multiple languages (other than English).

Many times, ELL students are facing barriers other students never have to deal with. Aside from not knowing the language or culture of the classroom, refugee students may also be dealing with trauma from war, violence, or economic ruin in their home countries. Frequently, these kids have moved multiple times throughout the school year, and lack the stability and comfort the American students have at home.

Despite the challenges they're faced with, the 5th grade ELL students at Cesar Chavez Elementary School were all smiles when I photographed them for a Rapid Growth Media shoot. Laughing and talking about their favorite school subjects, their enthusiasm was infectious. Gabriela Garcia wants to be an inventor, doctor, or a scientist while Kevin Valeramaldonado dreams of becoming a sports star, preferably soccer, or an engineer. Their stories are uniquely important and they each bring very different and diverse perspectives to the classroom. 

Little Free Libraries

Maybe you've seen them in Eastown or the Ottawa Hills neighborhood, or scattered throughout Northview, East Grand Rapids, and Baxter. With no late fees or membership cards, the only rule is if you take a book, leave a book. The official name is Little Free Library, and they're quickly spreading across Grand Rapids and the rest of the world.

Inspired by a love of reading and building connections within the community, Todd Bol started the nonprofit in 2009 in Hudson, Wisconsin. Anyone can register their box of books for a small fee, and the only real upkeep is maintaining a good stock of books. Neighbors and passersby can take a book, puzzle, whatever is supplied in the library, but they must replace it with something of their own. It's like a neighborhood water cooler, a place for people to casually stop and chat for a minute.

It might seem like a small thing, but it exposes readers to new titles, gets neighbors talking to each other, eliminates book deserts, and promotes the sharing economy. Millions of books are exchanged each year among the 36,000 Little Free Libraries throughout the U.S. and abroad. These little boxes of books are making a big impact on communities and literacy. 

Check out this link for a map of all the Little Free Libraries in Grand Rapids.