Author Alex O'Connor

This summer marks the end of an era at the Seidman Center as longtime GRPD officer Michael Harris is retiring after 25 years of service.  Harris, a fixture at the Boys and Girls Club, was one of three officers from the community engagement unit of the GRPD assigned to the organization.

For Officer Harris, this role was all about relationships- with fellow officers, with community partners, but most importantly, with the kids.

Reflecting on his years of service, Officer Harris emphasizes the role Officer Percy Brown, his mentor and predecessor at the Seidman Center.

“Before I came on as the Officer at the Seidman Center, I used to volunteer as a coach in the building. It was Officer Percy Brown who convinced me to come on the community engagement team and work with the young people at the Boys & Girls Clubs in an official capacity.”

It was this pivotal moment that determined the course of his career with the GRPD, a moment that Officer Harris describes as a “work of God.”

 “Building relationships between police departments and communities is so important,” Harris remarked. “I think I had so much success in this role because I can relate so well to these kids. When I see these kids at the club, it’s like looking in a mirror.” Harris went on to describe his upbringing in Grand Rapids and his deep conviction to give back to his community.

His decision to give back to our community’s young people was of immense consequence.

His long and successful career is a testament to the impact that meaningful partnerships between police departments and the community can have in the lives of young people. Throughout the years, Officer Harris designed innovative programs, mentored hundreds of children and leveraged his deep roots in the community to enrich the lives of our members.

Officer Harris’ sports programs instilled character values that continue to reverberate throughout the community. His programs promoted discipline, academic excellence and were committed to helping our members become well rounded individuals.

“We put teams together for both boys and girls of all ages. We got the kids national exposure, and many of them took their careers to the next level,” Mike said about the sports programs he led at the club.

Beyond the sports programs, Officer Harris made it his mission to build relationships between young people and the Grand Rapids Police Department through the creation of programs like Pathways to Policing. This program and others like it give the kids hands on training in police work and exposed them to the daily life of a police officer.

“It’s critical that kids understand that cops are just people out there trying to do the right thing and vice versa.” Harris said.  

While we are grateful for Officer Harris’ service to the Boys and Girls Clubs and our continuing relationship with the Grand Rapids Police Department, we are thrilled about Officer Harris’ new role in the organization. Officer Harris has agreed to come on as a part time youth development professional where he’ll continue the critical work he’s been doing for so long. And with Officer Harris departing his official role with the Grand Rapids Police Department, we are excited to build on the legacies of Officers Harris and Brown with the new officer that the GRPD assigns to the Seidman Center.

With the continued support of the GRPD, we will work together to build enduring relationships and sustainable programs between the police and our community.

Best wishes to Officer Harris!

Photos by: Kymara Stevenson

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Anyone working in youth development will agree that it is best done in person. However, professionals in every sector of the economy have been forced to adapt to an unprecedented crisis, and Youth Development Professionals at the Boys & Girls Clubs of Grand Rapids are no exception.

Unable to continue operations as normal, we’ve been tasked with developing newer and more creative ways to reach our members from afar. For us, that has meant pivoting to virtual programming using platforms such as TikTok, Google Hangouts, and YouTube.

While youth development via a remote medium isn’t ideal, it’s important to remember the roles that our staff members play in the lives of our members. We are mentors, coaches, teachers, role models, and confidants. Our Youth Development Professionals form close bonds with our members and help them navigate the tough road to adulthood. By bringing our programming online, we’re ensuring that those critical relationships continue unimpeded.

But sustaining relationships between members and staff isn’t the only reason that bringing programming online is important for our members’ development. Ensuring that our members have access to our need-based programming content is also a compelling reason.

The development and growth of our community’s young people don’t cease to be important because circumstances are different. We’re adapting to continue to meet our members’ needs. The fitness, character building, and academic programs that we offer remain integral components to our members’ journey to adulthood. Using pre-recorded and live video programming, we will work to ensure our members have access to these crucial resources.

Our development and programming teams continue to work to design and promote effective virtual programs, so any changes that are made to improve the service we provide for families can be found on our website and Facebook page.  

In this effort, we know we are not alone. Boys & Girls Clubs all over the state are also developing new knowledge in virtual programs, and we will be sure to work with them to share best practices and generate new ideas while also ensuring that our programs are tailored to our members’ needs.

Finally, when we get to the other side of this crisis, we are confident that many of the lessons we will have learned in remote programming will still apply. Our new virtual programming will be a dynamic addition to our existing programming in the club and will help us reinforce the lessons we work so hard to instill in our members every day.

As always, our ability to adapt to these unpredictable circumstances wouldn’t have been possible without the continued engagement of our community.

To learn more about our virtual programs, visit our Virtual Club page.

To support our work, donate today.

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Businesses are closing, schools have long since shut, and every day brings new pronouncements from state and federal authorities with new and more restrictive guidelines for how to stay safe. It’s a frightening time for everyone, and families in our community already under financial pressure are now facing an urgent and harrowing challenge that no one could have foreseen.

The Boys & Girls Clubs of Grand Rapids isn’t just sitting on the sidelines waiting for the storm to clear and the kids to return. We’re facing this crisis head-on by mobilizing our resources to help our community. Unable to feed dinner to our members as we do during normal operations, we’ve repurposed our food program to serve vulnerable community members. From 4:30pm to 5:30pm, Monday through Friday, our staff serves grab-and-go meals to at-risk young people and family members who might otherwise go without a full meal for dinner. 

Although we are still in the early days of this crisis, the Boys & Girls Clubs’ work has already had a significant impact. Through the first 13 days of our emergency food program, we’ve served 2,605 meals across our three clubs to low-income parents and children in our community.

Our impact isn’t just measured by the number of meals served, however. It’s also measured by the expressions of gratitude from our community. Indeed, community members are speaking out about the crucial support the Boys & Girls Clubs is providing for disadvantaged families.

“It’s getting harder and harder to feed all my children,” said Tanika, a mother of three. “We’re grateful for the Boys & Girls Club.”

“With a lot of us being out of work, and the schools being closed, it’s hard for my kids to get food. It’s so helpful what the Boys & Girls Club is doing for the community,” said Sarah, another mother of three in our community.

The meals we provide are an essential need for those who receive them. And while a public health imperative prevents us from implementing our youth development programming, there is no doubt our emergency food program is still fulfilling our mission to help our community’s young people reach their full potential.

Community members can be confident that we’ll be here throughout this public health crisis, helping to ensure that those most vulnerable to the economic disruption have a hot meal for their family. However, the essential meals we provide for disadvantaged families would be impossible without support from the community, and we’ll continue to rely on that support as we face this challenge together.

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It’s 3 o’clock and Jourale has just arrived. He’s the first kid in the building, and he’ll probably be the last one to leave. After dropping off his stuff with the staff at the door, he heads to the gym. He picks up a basketball and gets ready for his first jump shot of the day. He squares up, grips the ball, and launches. The ball soars with the impossibly high arc that is his signature and falls in the net with a swoosh. He smiles. It’s going to be a good day.

In a building full of talented and unique children, Jourale stands out. Already at 13, he carries himself with confidence, and, to our staff’s satisfaction, is always open to trying new things. It’s this willingness to stand out that is the hallmark of his leadership. His courage to be different shows our other members the value in new experiences, and they, through his modeling, find new interests and talents.

But if it is his courage and independence that facilitates growth amongst his peers, it is his resiliency that will allow him to be successful. He’s a fearless competitor on the court, and a tough individual off of it. Life isn’t easy for any teenager, but Jourale has been placed in uniquely challenging circumstances. And although there are missteps along the way, he continues to show up, lead by example, and set new goals for himself.

He wants to be a professional basketball player, but he’s capable of so much – things he hasn’t even realized himself. That’s why we’re here – showing him his potential. Jourale’s membership highlights how important the work we do is. He been gifted with innate talents, but he just needs people in his corner to show him what he can do.

All children are vulnerable – some more than others, but we provide kids like Jourale with a safe environment, mentorship, support, and opportunity. We show them the possibilities for their future, like the Pathways program that introduces our members, Jourale among them, to professional opportunities in policing and nursing. We leverage their talents by creating programs in performing arts, STEAM, and athletics. We fill gaps in education with our literacy and math programs. But most importantly, we give them a place to find themselves as they get closer and closer to adulthood.

But we wouldn’t have been able to do this critical work for Jourale and others without contributions from people like you. Our mission to enable all our members to reach their full potential can only be achieved with continued support from our community. So for all you’ve done, and all you continue to do, we express our sincere gratitude.

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Our programming team is continuously developing new, creative ways to recruit teens from the community. We know that our programs and mentorship provide crucial support, and the more teens we can draw to our clubs, the deeper the impact we can have. So Friday, October 11th, Seidman Center hosted its much anticipated Teen Party event.

In addition to aiding recruitment efforts, regular celebrations for teens support one of our core beliefs – to give youth opportunities to lead, share ideas, and be recognized. For each teen party, we empower our Keystone Clubs, an association of teen members working to develop leadership skills through community service, to plan and organize the event. From the food we provide to the activities we facilitate, the decision making and organization are all done by our teen leaders.

Responding to the requests of our Keystone Club, staff and teens worked together to provide our teen members with activities tailored to kids of diverse interests. Music and dancing, the headline event, drew the largest crowd, but henna and face paint provided by our art team gave our more artistically inclined members time to express themselves and build relationships with each other. Meanwhile, in the gym, Seidman Gym Coordinator Gene McCully facilitated a 3-on-3 basketball tournament that brought in 8 teams. After two hours of intense, hard-nosed play, first, second, and third place teams left the club with sore legs, pride, and bags full of candy. Staff from our Steil and Paul I. Phillips Clubs transported their teen members to the event at Seidman, helping to build ties between teens from different parts of the community.

We were grateful for the support from key community partners. Dre Inspires, a company run by a former staff member at Seidman, deejayed the event, creating a light show and dance floor that kept the kids on their feet for the duration of the party. Officer Mike Harris, whose connections to the community are the stuff of lore, reached deep into his address book to find Ms. Josie, a local caterer who graciously made tacos for over 100 people at a discounted price, to rave reviews.

Altogether, the celebration at Seidman Center brought in over 30 new memberships, a wildly successful turnout. But this is when the real work begins. Fun parties and celebrations bring the community in, but it’s the relationships, the mentorship, and the interest-based programming that help us fulfill our mission.

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It’s four months into our garden project at Seidman, and I still get the same question nearly every day.

“What’s that?” They say, pointing to our peppers or tomatoes. They run over, inspect the plants, feel the texture of the leaves, run their hands through the soil, and smell the plant and its fruit. They pepper staff with questions revealing that deep and sincere curiosity that only children have. How long does it take to grow? How many plants do we have? Have you eaten them yet? How do the tomatoes taste?

They ask about the compost, too. What’s in it? Why do we do it? How does it work? And, oh look, worms!

The compost and garden projects are a perfect example of successful programming. It’s a microcosm of our organization, encapsulating many of the essential elements that help us serve our community.

It introduces something novel and encourages our members to dig deeper, metaphorically, and, well, sometimes literally. These projects spark critical conversations about healthy lifestyles and good citizenship, two of our primary programming goals. It’s also a response to real needs in our community. Access to healthy, pesticide free, non-GMO foods remains a significant challenge facing urban communities, and our garden, however small, helps us raise awareness of this issue with our members. Our compost helps us show our members a more environmentally friendly and sustainable way to dispose of waste, too. Both of these issues are taking on increasing importance, and the earlier we bring them to our members’ attention, the better.

And through these programs, we’ve been able to reinforce ties with neighboring organizations, such as Urban Roots, which provided critical knowledge and materials at the onset of our composting project. Their support, and the support of other businesses and organizations, was crucial and helped us provide our members with the best programming possible.

Perhaps most importantly, these projects were fun. From painting our buckets to harvesting our vegetables, the project contained many different elements that catered to kids’ various interests. Next year we plan on expanding our garden project and diversifying our crop supply, and we expect participation to be even bigger. With a little luck and some rain, we will start a cooking class in the club with our very own, naturally grown vegetables to further encourage healthy lifestyles among our members.

We hope that community partners will be with us again next year, committed to supporting our mission and our work.

Visit our Donor or Volunteer pages to get involved.

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