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.

Boys in Ballet

It's not too common to hear a man describe himself as a ballet dancer. For a long time, ballet has been seen as a woman's activity. It requires grace, poise and delicacy-all typically feminine traits-and the ballerinas get much of the attention while the male dancers fade into the background. But that is beginning to change. More parents are signing their boys up for ballet class. Male athletes are using ballet as a cross training activity to increase their endurance, flexibility, and overall muscle mass. As society progresses and people become more open-minded, the negative stereotypes surrounding men participating in ballet are diminishing.

While on assignment for Rapid Growth Media, I had the opportunity to photograph the boys ballet class at Michigan Ballet Academy. Encouragingly, this class has grown every year as more and more boys become interested in ballet. Ballet truly requires an enormous amount of strength and focus, something from which young boys could greatly benefit.

Taste the Heat

It's the mid-winter itch. You're tired of staying at home, too cold to leave your bed. The air in the house has become stuffy, and you long to open the windows and feel the sunshine. But there is no sunshine. Just cold, gloomy, Michigan winter. A vacation somewhere exotic is exactly what you need, but those are expensive and require time off of work. What if you can get out and experience something warm and fresh without leaving Grand Rapids? I'm talking about a tour of local restaurants serving international cuisine. You might still need your coat, but once inside, the spicy flavors will make you forget you're in Michigan.

Chez Olga is one of the only local places you can go for Creole and Caribbean food, making it a very unique and important spot in Eastown. Serving up fried plantains, pate, creole chicken, tilapia, and goat, Chez Olga brings the heat while offering a much spicier and different menu than what most Grand Rapidians are used to. Chez Olga herself, Olga Benoit, came to the United States in 1993, fleeing civil war in Haiti. She didn't immediately delve into the restaurant business, never having received any professional culinary training, and didn't view herself as a chef. But through sharing her cooking for church and school events, she fortuitously began building a culinary fan club who convinced her to get into catering and, eventually, start her own restaurant.

Surprisingly, Grand Rapids is a haven for authentic taco stands, one of the best being Tacos El Cunado. There's four locations in Grand Rapids, each with its own take on the menu, catering to the nearby population. The downtown market location is perhaps the most popular. It features a more Americanized menu with combo meals and a few vegan options in place of the more "adventurous" meats. The Bridge Street location is a walk up take out place, and the Burton St. and Grandville Ave. locations are more authentic Mexican where you can order tacos de tripe, cabeza, and lengua if you feel up to it. Although the owner, Mario Cascante, is Costa Rican, the menu is purely central Mexican cuisine.

One more stop on the list is Curry Kitchen on Fulton St. An Indian restaurant featuring a long list of vegetarian dishes, rice, naan, and a stellar all-you-can-eat lunch buffet, and for the meat-eaters, Tandoori chicken, beef, lamb, and seafood.

The restaurant scene in Grand Rapids is changing. Foodies want to be surprised, to experience something different every time they eat out. They want to be more connected to the food and the land and community that created it. Eating out is an experiment, an adventure. It's the perfect thing to make you forget the dreariness of winter and give you something exciting to look forward to until the sun shows its face again.

Winter Adventuring

Seasonal Affective Disorder is a thing, and unfortunately for we Grand Rapidians who live very far north of the Equator, it's in full swing. Days are shorter and gloomier, the sun is practically non-existent behind a wall of clouds, and the extreme cold and snow causes us to hide in our beds binge watching Netflix, our only comfort in this withering winter wasteland. But what if the problem isn't the weather but rather our mindset? We bond over complaining about the cold, creating a very negative attitude toward winter. Frequently we begin our moroseness before it even really gets cold. Instead of collectively commiserating, perhaps the best way to survive the harsh Michigan winter is to adopt a more positive attitude, enjoy the beauty of winter, and celebrate the things we can only do during this time of year. 

Hiking is generally thought of as a summer activity, but it's a great way to enjoy the outdoors in winter as well. From snow shoeing, skiing, snowmobiling, running-there's plenty of ways to be active during the coldest season. West Michigan has one of the highest concentration of trails in the nation, so there's plenty of natural scenery to choose from. But if you're going to brave the winter weather, you'd better be prepared. Proper clothing and gear are very important factors in not being miserable while outside. One way to gear up is to get fat tires for your bike. The bigger tires, usually around 4 inches wide, allow for a more balanced, stable ride on tricky terrain. You'll have no problems riding right through slushy, snowy ground, and gliding over roots and rocks. 

If you need a little extra motivation to leave your bed, consider signing up for a spring race. Grand Rapids has quite a few spring/summer races that offer quite the challenge. There's the Gazelle Girl Half Marathon, a race for women in April, the Fifth Third Riverbank Run, the largest 25k in the U.S., and The Fred 200 Mile Relay, 200 miles of relay running all on the Fred Meijer White Pine Trail.

Whatever your interests, find your motivation to get outside and enjoy winter in Michigan. It might be abhorrently cold, but it sure beats sitting inside counting down the days (58 to be exact) to warmer weather.

For a list of trails in West Michigan, check out this article by Rapid Growth Media.