If the Baxter Neighborhood on Grand Rapids’ southeast side had a live, beating heart, it would surely be located squarely inside Baxter Community Center.
The warm, brightly decorated and furnished building feels more like a home than a place that could easily feel institutional, as it is housed in a former school. Established in the late 1960s, programming at the center has grown to meet the needs of the community, and every service offered at Baxter boils done to one thing: love.
Executive Director Melanie Beelen explains that love fuels the work that happens when you enter Baxter’s doors, whether it’s love for neighbors who need food and clothes, children and teens in need of a strong educational foundation, or those in need of healthcare.
The center is hosting its 11th annual Opening Doors Celebration on Thursday, Nov. 20 at the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel. Tickets are $75 per person and can be purchased here. This year’s theme is “All for Love” to recognize the “genuine love for all those who enter our doors.”
At the Opening Doors celebration, two local individuals will be honored with the St. Francis Award, one well known in West Michigan and one from the Baxter Community. Two women will be honored this year, Nadia Brigham and Barb Hoekwater.
Bingham is being honored for her work in the community to ensure access to quality early childhood education, while Hoekwater is being recognized for her role in Baxter’s history. She and her husband, Mearl, helped start an annual spring Fix Up Day at the center over 38 years ago and the couple were champions of the center and the neighborhood at a time when many white families were leaving for the suburbs, Beelen said.
Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan is a sponsor of the fundraising event. BCBSM also recently presented Baxter’s Wholistic Health Clinic with $15,000 in grant funding to help underserved and uninsured individuals gain access to health care services.
The Baxter neighborhood’s boundaries are Wealthy and Franklin Streets to the north and south and Fuller and Eastern Streets on the east and west. Over 33 percent of households fall below the poverty line, 29.7 percent of residents are unemployed, and 99% of school-aged children qualify for the free or reduced lunch programs at their schools.
Baxter Volunteer Coordinator Sonja Forte said the stable, consistent presence of the center means a lot to nearby residents. She said many of the youth program participants return as adults to volunteer their time at Baxter.
“It’s not something that you leave,” she said. The organization also attempts to be nimble when they see solvable problems, which fosters trust.
“If there’s a need, we figure out how to address it,” Forte said.
Baxter has four key pillars that guide the services they provide:
- Child Development Center: Baxter is nationally accredited, a distinction held by only five percent of child care centers in Kent County. The center cares for children from infancy to age 12 and has payment assistance available for parents.
- Wholistic Health Clinic: On-site primary health care, dental, and vision is available for children and adults. In 2013, 1,386 people received clinic services, including individual and family counseling services.
- Marketplace: Baxter’s marketplace provides a food and clothing pantry, senior technology and fitness classes, free tax preparation, and a gardening and greenhouse program that includes canning and cooking classes. Last year, emergency food and clothing resources were distributed to 7,225 people (802 families), with 526 holiday baskets distributed, and 346 families receiving gifts through the Toys for Tots program.
- Mizizi Maji Youth Mentoring: Mizizi Maji means root and water in Swahili. Students ages eight through 18 are matched with adult mentors to help with schoolwork and to develop life skills.
Beelen said she is inspired to come to work every day. She gets excited about students in the mentoring program discovering their voice, developing staff and serving the basic needs of the community through the marketplace, and the ability to give children a head start at the child development center.
“Out of every program, there are stories,” she said.
Want to learn more about the work Baxter and other non-profits are doing in West Michigan? The center is featured in Ripple Effects: Ten West Michigan Nonprofits Serve, Inspire, Transform, a book by West Michigan writers Deb Moore and Betty Epperly. The book can be purchased at Baxter and will be available as part of the silent auction packages that can be bid on at the Opening Doors celebration. Get tickets to the fundraiser here.