To help out the community, the students, staff, and faculty at Ross College Grand Rapids North did a Socktober donation drive for Arbor Circle of West Michigan. During the months of October and November, the campus collected over 80 pairs of socks which were then donated to the organization.
Arbor Circle offers over 50 programs and services for youth, families, and adults who need supportive resources during tough times. Although there are some programs for adults, most of them are catered toward children who are facing challenging situations at home. Some of the services they offer include counseling, shelter, foster care, adoption, prevention, early childhood, and recovery services. When children face mental health issues or other challenges, it can impact all areas of their life, including school performance and behavior at home or in the community. The Arbor Circle team works closely with children and their families to provide support as they face challenges.
We sat down with Janelle Hill, the Community Engagement Director at Arbor Circle, to learn more about the organization and its misison.
Here is what she had to say:
Tell me about Arbor Circle.
So here at Arbor Circle, we offer a variety of services, but at the core, we focus on counseling and family development services. We do that all across West Michigan. We have our headquarters here in Grand Rapids, but we’re also located in Ottawa, Newaygo, Muskegon, and Allegan.
Arbor Circle started back in 1996 as a merger of existing organizations, and we’re actually celebrating our 25th anniversary right now as we speak. We had organizations that focused on different populations in early childhood programs, like our youth shelter, The Bridge, adult services through substance use and recovery, and then family-based services as well. So at the core, those services were created to better serve the family as a whole. We wanted to be more holistic about our services and address barriers, break them down, and make services more accessible for families and the individuals we serve.
I’ve been here at the organization since 1999, and what we were finding back then is that a lot of the families we serve have a young child who is receiving early childhood services in one place and then the family may have a teenager who came to The Bridge, and then they themselves may be in counseling. Oftentimes, they would be going to three different places and they were having to fill out different forms each time. We really wanted to be more comprehensive than that. We wanted to be a counseling and mental health home for the families we serve throughout the whole life cycle, from the time someone is young to the time they’re an adult. That has really been the core of what we do: to be able to serve people wherever they’re at in their journey. So we go to them and we do a lot of community-based work. We have had less activity during the pandemic, but we have outpatient services where people are coming to our buildings and we obviously have our shelter, too, which is our residential program. So yeah, just meeting people where they’re at with their needs and being there for them in their journey is really the core of what we do here.
My role is the Director of Community Engagement. So that’s a fun one. It’s really anytime we’re engaging with the community or the community is engaging with us. I just love the opportunity to meet new community partners and continue to work with people that have supported us for a long time. We’re embedded in the community because of the nature of our community-based work.
We actually worked with Ross a while back. We offered the Workforce Investment Act and so did Ross. It was all about helping students with workforce employability. We paired people who were part of that service, but now they’re part of Michigan Works. Over the years, we’ve had student graduates come work with us in some capacity or clients that become students. So it’s definitely a great resource and we’re happy to have Ross in our community.
We’re in the middle of our holiday giving time right now, and so the Socktober is perfect. It’s winter weather and people are asking for socks. We’re making care packages for people as well, so that’s one of the ways we utilize the socks. There’s just people all over who are in that spirit of giving and it’s just great to connect because there’s needs all over the place and we have a lot of people that we serve. Homeless shelters are always in need of socks. It’s something you don’t think of, but people just need socks. This is especially the case if you are transient and maybe you don’t have access to laundry facilities.
Do you have any memorable stories or memories of people that you’ve helped?
Oh yes. There’s been so many over the years. I worked in youth services for a long time before I worked at the administrative level and there are a lot of young people who would stay in touch with us or get back in touch years later. We had one young person who did a check-in with us. He was volunteering at Arbor Circle, but he stayed with us when he was 15 or 16. He came back in his twenties and did some peer mentoring for the younger youth. He was talking about how it was a pivotal moment for him when he stayed at the shelter during his birthday. The staff had provided so many things and made it an experience for him. Because, you know, nobody wants to be in a shelter for their birthday. But they made it a special time for him and he just really felt cared for. He was inspired to go on and work with young people. So he became a staff personnel at a community center for youth and was coming back to do some volunteering with our young people.
That one just sticks out when you think of the ripples. That stood out to him years down the road. We helped him out with job applications, basic needs, and stuff that we would typically do for a young person who is receiving services, but having, like, that emotional connection and having that memory made him feel this ongoing connection years later and he spoke of that experience, saying he wants to be that help for young people when they don’t have anything else. Those are like the ripple effects when you think of the nature of our organization and how much it can impact people if they work with us at a young age.
So, this is interesting, but the president of our organization received services when she was a child. We have a building on campus that’s been here for 55 years and she said when she was a young child she came here for services with her mom. Of course, as a three or five year old she wasn’t thinking that this was gonna be the place she wanted to work or become the president of someday, but the fact that years later she came back and became president just goes to show how much you can impact someone.
We serve over 12,000 people a year in some capacity and these are our community members. These are the people who are working at the pharmacy or bank. You know, it’s not some hidden population, it’s the people all around us who have been touched by these issues and are receiving these services. You just never know. You might even have a colleague that has received services at one point or another.
I think it’s also pretty neat how we’re kind of a hidden gem. We’ve been around a long time and the people who know about us are the people that we serve. They have wonderful word of mouth and most times that’s how people find out about us. I think we do a lot of hidden/embedded work. We work in schools and some of the kids don’t even realize that their worker was an Arbor Circle worker. They might’ve seen a social worker at their school, but didn’t realize why they’re there, or in some cases, perhaps they stayed at The Bridge, but they might not know it’s actually people from Arbor Circle. So that’s always interesting.
Our actual shelter is a licensed facility and it allows us to have youth for up to 21 days. So up to three weeks. It is meant to be shorter term. It’s not a permanent solution when young people come to us. Our goal from the moment they get to us is to find safe and stable housing for them so they know where they’re going. Over 90% are returning people. It is a shelter, but we try to be a prevention program more than a crisis center. We certainly respond to people who are in crisis, but the ideal is that if someone finds themselves in a situation where things are just not great at home for any number of reasons, maybe it’s not safe, it’s not stable or there’s financial or health issues. And sometimes, if they don’t get better either they’re gonna run away or they’re gonna get kicked out. It’s kind of the trajectory that people are on. The hope is that they’re coming to us before the crisis hits and we’re able to give them a safe place to stay where they have a case management team to figure out what’s best for them. We also involve their family or whoever is their designated support system in that process so they can map out their next steps as they’re transitioning back to home, or if home isn’t an option, then maybe we identify a friend or support system and we continue to offer case management and support even after they leave. Also, another regulation is that it only goes up to 17, not 18 years, so we can do case management counseling. If a 15 year old comes to us now and then later down the road they need to come back, then they can. The shelter isn’t permanent or ongoing but it does help them navigate their next steps. For example, we’ve had a 13 year old who comes back as a 15 year old and then comes back later that year. We don’t think of that as a failure. We just want them to think of it as a safe place where they can come when they’re feeling unsafe or struggling. We want to be an ongoing presence in a young person’s life.
How can people help?
Our funding is actually pretty diversified. We do have a state and federal funding contract to help with supporting the organization but then we also accept cash donations. We’ll never turn that down. People also do Facebook and third party fundraisers for us. Restaurants will sometimes give us a certain percentage of their profits. We also do a couple of fundraisers a year even though it is affected a lot by COVID, as you can imagine. The pandemic has affected how we’re able to gather stuff, so right now, it’s been a lot more passive where we have our website available, we do mailing, and we encourage people to contribute stuff. We mentioned our holiday donations. We have people that collect stuff for us. So right now it’s been a lot more passive, but definitely still a busy and fun time. We have people that do Socktober drives for us or collect hygiene items. We do have an adoptive program where families share their wishes and community sponsors step in and stuff. We have an ongoing Amazon wishlist of anything that you can imagine. We have 250 youth in a normal year. We break glasses every once in a while, we go through sheets, all the hygiene stuff, etc. Just the things you would have in a normal house. So there’s kinda that ongoing need. It’s also a good restock time for us. Like in June, sometimes we’ll be like, “Yeah, we’re out of toilet paper,” or “We need more towels,” or whatever else. We are a great team and we like to coordinate our efforts as much as possible. At our shelter it’s hard for our staff to have drop-ins, especially now with COVID. So we always like a heads up call or email. Those requests or inquiries come to me and then I’ll be like, ”Yeah, we can do that,” or I’ll connect them with someone who knows how to help them. We always try to use our resources carefully and make sure it ends up in the right hands for the people who need it most.
How has the pandemic affected you guys?
Since the pandemic started, we’ve had to cut capacity in the shelter. We have 17 rooms and normally there would be two beds per room, but for safety reasons, we couldn’t have more than one person in a room. Even though we lowered the capacity, we’ve still been able to meet the needs of people. It just looked a little bit different, and there were many who weren’t interested in the shelter component during COVID. So they might do the counseling component or the case management but without actually staying. We did find that there was an increase in family tensions because people were spending more time at home. It’s kinda gone up and down with the job market. Right now it’s pretty great, but at the beginning it was kinda tough. It was a struggle because a lot of hospitality places like restaurants closed down and the younger people worked there. At one point there was a lot of that where they were just coming in to seek employment support. So we were helping them the best we could. Now there’s less of that, but there’s still the concern with affordable housing and stuff. It’s an ongoing struggle and it’s so competitive right now. For example, if a family that has cash in hand, saying, “I want to rent an apartment,” [they] might be competing with people who have more money to offer, better credit, more rental history.
Through all the adversity, though, something positive that we’ve experienced is more people are starting to take advantage of our virtual services. They’ve been available for some time now and there was a lot of adapting that came with it, but we were able to launch it successfully. We also received some PPE support and grants which really helped get the technology set up so our staff could meet with the clients.
There’s some families that prefer online for a number of reasons. For some, it’s a transportation barrier. With virtual, we’re able to serve more of our rural communities where people may be limited in transportation and they may not be able to get to us unless they have transportation. If they have childcare barriers, we try to provide them some help with that as well, even though we don’t have an official childcare provider. The virtual services work well because some parents are concerned about childcare, like picking them up from the bus or even just the cost of transportation. This way they don’t have to worry about catching a cab or spending money to get to their appointment. For others it’s also a matter of anxiety or depression that hinders them. When someone is struggling with mental health, it’s hard just to get out of bed, so the idea of having to get out of bed, getting dressed, getting in the car, making their way to Arbor Circle, and then sitting in the waiting room is just too much for some people. I think that is one good thing has come out of it actually. Therapy has become more accessible to people and it just gives them more choices. I mean, there’s some people who really preferred it in person, too.
When we opened up groups again, people were really happy to come back. We spent more time outside, and we’re actually redoing our youth court. We have a basketball court area. We can spend more time outdoors, so families who come to us can have sessions outside and things like that. Just doing things that we didn’t think of before. It’s caused us to rethink certain barriers and how to tackle them in creative ways. Families and children definitely do make a lot of progress, but it’s still hard for them some days. They have to take little steps sometimes. The process to re-enter the world is definitely a tough one for a lot of people, but we do our best to make sure we’re helping them however they need, whether that means meeting them halfway or just being there when they need us.
How did the organization start?
So our current president has been with us since the beginning. She did not start the organization, but she’s been here ever since it started. At first, there were the predecessor organizations that came together, and each of those organizations had a president. She was one of the direct care staff at the time, so she has moved up. We both started at The Bridge, along with our vice president. A lot of us actually started at The Bridge and it was a great starting point for us. They were doing overnight shifts over there, as well as direct care with young people, and eventually moved into different roles. I think it’s really cool to look at someone who is leading an organization who can say they’ve been there. To really understand what clients are going through and to pay it forward is just really cool, in my opinion. We had two folks who came together as our first president and vice president back in 1996 and then the chain of command has actually been a really nice transition each time someone has left. Jerry was our first president, and then his vice president, Mary Alles, took over. After a few years, Mary Alles’ vice president took over, so Kristin is the fourth president and CEO of our organization in that 25-year history, but she was our vice president before she moved into the president role and has been with us since Arbor Circle started. I don’t even know how many staff we had when I started. I think we had 100, but we have about 300 staff now, spread out between all of our locations. A lot of them have long-term longevity with us and they move into different roles or they become supervisors in their leading teams because they’re really speaking from a place of expertise.
What is Arbor Circle’s vision for the future?
So I’m not sure if we will expand, but for sure we want to maintain what we currently have now and maybe even grow our relationships in those outlying communities. Our lakeshore locations, Muskegon, Ottawa, and Allegan, came to us as a merger in 2016 with Pathways, an existing organization over there. It’s growing and people are still learning about Arbor Circle. In those communities, they sometimes confuse it with Pathways or The Bridge of Muskegon because the buildings are kinda the same. Making sure that the people who have these needs know how to access them is really important to us. So just having some of that visibility and partnership is what helps us get our message out.
I do feel like we’re pretty well-established in our Grand Rapids community, but I think that strengthening those relationships for both the clients and community partners in the lakeshore area and continuing to serve those in need is really important. That’s been like the core of Arbor Circle from the beginning. We were innovative in early childhood services and mental health for young children and continued to respond to needs as much as we could. We have over 50 programs, and some of them are really specific. For example, we have jail services for young men of color. That was a specific grant we got to help out with reducing the recidivism rate. It was an identified population that really needed support to cut down the numbers because that recidivism rate was just so high and it was specifically on men of color.
In addition, the infant mortality rate in Kent County was really high, and it still is disproportionately high for Hispanic [and] Latino individuals and for African American mothers. So we started a program called Strong Beginnings for families. It’s for receiving maternal health and early childhood support for people in those populations. Our case managers and clinicians are men and women of color. We ended up starting a dad’s group a little bit later, as well. We really believe in taking action and using our skills and expertise to the best of our ability rather than relying on the world to solve these issues. So I’d envision we might have more evolved programs later down the road. One day we might not even need the program anymore if there will no longer be a disproportion in maternal mental health. So ultimately, being prepared to evolve and meet the community needs is our goal.
The age range for teenagers at the shelter is 10-17 year olds. We mostly serve the youth at the shelter. We do provide family services, but if someone is 18 or older, they would be working with the adult shelter system and we have community partnerships that we would either refer them to, or there’s times when either a young person stays with us and their family stays somewhere else, so we’re coordinating care. We do a lot of community partnerships and collaboration to help people get their needs met. We’re a foster care provider in Ottawa County, Allegan, and Muskegon. We’re not in Kent. It’s a contractual thing where some people are authorized to provide care in some areas. For long-term care, if there was abuse or neglect in a situation or if it was chronic homelessness, that would be something that another agency would be doing. It’s just their area of expertise. We would be doing more referrals or helping them fill out the paperwork that they need to access the service or going to a meeting to set up that service, but, yeah, that would be provided.
Why is the work that you do meaningful to you?
Yeah, so going back to those ripples and just thinking about the whole concept of meeting people where they’re at. Knowing that these are struggles that everybody goes through—struggles that you or I might have. Everyone has struggles, but some people have more resources than others. They have better support systems or privilege that comes with their identity or they have economic ability and resources. And we’re here for people who have barriers in one or more of those areas.
I was actually talking about this to someone a little while ago, but for example, if I got a speeding ticket, for me it would be like, “Oh, that’s a bummer. I shouldn’t have done that, I have to pay for this ticket and I’m moving on with my day,” but for others it may not be that simple. I’ve actually had this happen with a client where they got a speeding ticket and they didn’t have the money, credit cards, or any resources to pay for it. So they got arrested and went to jail because they had fines and a warrant. While they’re in jail, they could also lose their job and sometimes even housing. They might even lose their family because of that. They are then coming out with a criminal history, debt, no job, no home to stay in. This kind of stuff happens all the time for a number of different reasons. Maybe a slightly different scenario, but same idea. Whether it’s a legal issue or something else. Like, maybe you have a car accident, the water goes out, or something that brings a health crisis. It’s the same thing, like if I had a health crisis, I have health insurance and I have family that would support me if I really needed that support. This inequity and disproportion of resources is just debilitating for the people that things like that happen to. And I’m really proud of the fact that we have such a broad scope of resources that we’re able to support people in a lot of ways. And we still don’t do everything. We don’t provide housing—we have a short term shelter. I wish that we could offer housing to every family that came in. We also aren’t in the business of providing health insurance, but we’re in the business of offering counseling services for low-income individuals. Even though the shelter doesn’t have any costs, there’s a lot of free services that we are providing. The work we do hopefully balances out some of that inequity and at least it can help people navigate through those barriers.
Again, I think back to that young person who was able to say, you know, ”This was just a hard time in my life. This isn’t permanent.” You don’t have to say, like, “I’m a homeless youth and this is my identity. Like yeah, I am someone who experienced homelessness at one point or I am someone whose family members struggled with addiction and we’ve been able to overcome these challenges and move on and be like anyone else. I am a community member. I am a neighbor. I’m a volunteer and a contributing member of society,” and that’s what we wanna see: people being productive members of the community. That’s what they want, too. They don’t wanna struggle and they don’t want to have to rely on services or on others. They want to have coping strategies and support systems in place. We try to help people learn that. So it’s not that they’re dependent on us, but that they’ll learn what their triggers are, what their coping skills are, they can get to know about community resources, and know where to go the next time something happens so it doesn’t snowball into something that’s so hard to recover from. It’s just devastating when something bad happens and you don’t have resources to help you or when you work so hard to get somewhere and it’s all taken away from you just because you don’t have the proper resources in place.
And, you know, even with the mental health stigma, I feel like the pandemic has shined a light on it a little bit because so many people who previously didn’t have struggles maybe experienced certain struggles for the first time and they may be like, “Wow, now I truly understand these struggles and how it’s impacting my life and everything that I do.” Sometimes this results in them having more empathy because with some things, it’s kinda hard to put yourself in someone else’s shoes if you’ve never experienced that yourself.
Overall, I just want people to know that we are always here as a resource for them. I think it’s always good to get the word out and just let people know that we exist. Even if they don’t need help, perhaps they might in the future or they know someone who could use the help. We are right here in the communities of West Michigan and we are in a place where we would like to partner with more people. We’re open to new ideas and we’re just trying to get out there more and build partnerships because there’s different needs in different communities so we just want to respond to those in different ways.
For more information on Arbor Circle and to find out how you can help, you can visit their website at https://arborcircle.org/give/.