Below is a guest blog post written by Tom Rademacher
It began with a gentle reference to Chinua Achebe, one of Africa’s most celebrated storytellers.
It concluded with a profound quote from American writer Anne Lamott.
Not your typical luncheon.
But just the kind you might expect from Habitat for Humanity Kent County -- an organization that puts people first.
Upward of 100 men and women gathered recently to engage a trio of speakers – Kenyatta Brame, executive vice president at Cascade Engineering; the Rev. Doriane Parker-Sims, pastor at Kingdom Life Ministries; and Robert Torres, executive director of the Hispanic Center of West Michigan.
Together, they knitted a warm message of hope and comfort, expressing in individual ways how the entities they represent work in ways that help people belong to something greater than themselves.
“We believe in people and the planet,” said Brame, whose firm is known globally for its commitment to the “Triple Bottom Line,” which celebrates social capital and environmental capital as well as financial capital.
“At Cascade Engineering,” he said, “we believe in breaking down barriers,” and Brame backed it up with examples of how the company embraces the opportunity to return convicted felons who have served their time back into the workplace there.
Cascade is also cognizant of how a job alone can’t always pull people out of poverty: “It’s not always true,” said Brame, noting that other problems can surface and counteract the positive effects of a job. Think issues related to child care, transportation and family dynamics. To that end, Cascade has implemented a program that addresses those issues in point-blank fashion, and it’s resulted in a 98 percent retention rate among workers there.
Frank discussion also is encouraged at all levels, especially if it deals with race. “It’s at work that we create community, so why not take advantage of that?” said Brame. “We’re giving our people the opportunity to talk, move forward, strive for change.”
Brame was followed by Torres, who peppers his presentations with statistics. Among them was this startling revelation: That the Center he directs has been in existence for nearly 40 years, and yet “there’s not one dollar of legacy” reflected in sustainable engagement with the Latino and greater community at large.
Torres is committed to changing that, by increasing the Center’s leadership circle and its influence within Grand Rapids and environs. He’s also a stickler for education, and not afraid to walk into a room of 600 eighth graders and announce that “I can tell you right now that half of you are not going to graduate high school.”
He’s not a pessimist, just a realist who believes that winds of change are on the horizon, especially if his people develop initiatives that attract collaborators: “We need those from the outside saying that ‘We’re willing to invest in your community.’”
A man of humble beginnings, Torres was one of 13 children born to immigrants, and his early life centered around picking pickles, watermelon, onions and more. A U.S. Marine with two tours under his belt, he pledges allegiance to country as well as his familial roots, and believes more of us should be embracing diversity that lifts up core values and the common good.
Listening at his father’s knee while the family made tortillas at 4 a.m. to carry into the field, Torres recalls being told that a person’s influence is but one drop, but when combined with others, “it becomes a downpour,” and that “If we all work together as one community to bring economic and social justice to this great city of Grand Rapids, then we’ve created that downpour of opportunity.”
Parker-Sims expanded on that theme by expressing how important it is to seek change by “being very intentional…and not just with hand-outs, but with hand-ups.”
She’s heavily involved with a Kingdom Life Ministries outreach known as the “Deborah Project,” which seeks to support single-parent families through mentorship, education and spiritual wellness.
“It’s difficult to see people who aren’t spiritually revived, economically stable and able to have safe, affordable health care, transportation, education, medicine and basic everyday necessities,” she said, “so we developed a large program … showing mercy anywhere we could.”
In concert with that, the Project’s administrators “realized we needed to seek long-term changes to rescue people from poverty.” The answer: “Empower people on how to navigate systems.”
By that, Parker-Sims means teaching parents how to be advocates for their children in schools…how to find affordable housing…learning lifestyle skills for long-term success.
Sometimes, all it takes is a helping hand and the belief that people can change. One woman helped by the Deborah Project, for instance, was at her rope’s end, living with her two children in an auto. Mom had a job, but it wasn’t enough by itself to gain momentum. Enter the Project, which housed the trio while the mother climbed out of debt and now stands on the threshold of having her own place.
“Maybe we can’t change everyone’s life,” says Parker-Sims, “but we can try to change one life at a time.”
The luncheon ended by leaning on a quote from Lamott, reminding us all of life’s complicated tapestry: “I do not understand the mystery of grace,” she once wrote, “only that it meets us where we are, and does not leave us where it found us.”
Tom is currently the lead storyteller at Sabo Public Relations and continues to freelance write in the Grand Rapids community.