Housing Journey

Duane Gives Back

After being chronically homeless for three years, Duane is happy to be living his new life safely housed. It wasn’t an easy journey to get to this point, however. Through Duane’s hard work and support from TrueNorth Community Services, Duane was able to change his situation for the better and now even gives back by helping those who are in the same situation he used to be in.

When Duane was homeless, he would utilize the tent city during the summer and the local shelter in the winter. He would stay with a family member or a friend temporarily from time to time but that was never the best situation for him. Duane worked two jobs to help get him on his feet, but even while doing everything he could, he didn’t believe he deserved to have a place to call home. Duane says, “And I think I didn’t deserve it, and that was wrong… I was working two jobs trying to get myself [on] my feet so I can get somewhere in life.”

Through encouragement from his caseworker at TrueNorth and seeing his hard work pay off, Duane began to have more hope for a healthier future. Duane’s determination paid off when he moved into his new apartment the day before his birthday. When reflecting on how he felt when he first walked into his new home, Duane says, “I wanted to jump up and down and make all kinds of noise and throw a big old party. I worked hard to get this, you know. Ya, I was pretty excited.”

After being housed, Duane’s personal life improved as he had fewer worries and was reconnecting with his family. “I don’t have many worries. It’s great having a place to live,” says Duane. “I have some stress but not too bad, it’s a lot easier now that I have a place.” Having a place to call home enables Duane to focus on his relationships and his future. Now, Duane has a stronger relationship with his siblings because they have less worries about his well-being now that he lives in a safer, healthier place.

Giving back to the community has also been important to Duane even when he was homeless. Duane had started volunteering at HELP Ministries before he found housing. After volunteering for a while, he was offered a job and continues to work there today. Duane has also spent time volunteering at the homeless shelter he used to stay at. He doesn’t want anyone else to be in his previous situation, which is why he continues to volunteer at the shelter to help others get back on their feet.

Today, Duane has been living in his new home for over 2 years. He continues to work and volunteer and is still grateful for the support he has received to get where he is today. Duane says, “I don’t want to live the homeless life again so I’ll do what I can do to keep my apartment and find resources. I don’t want to see anybody else homeless either. No going backwards, it’s always forward.”

Youth Programming

An Exciting New Name Change

TrueNorth’s Newaygo County Out-of-School Time programs, Engage! at Patricia St. Clair Elementary and David C. Outwin Middle School, and R.E.A.C.H. at White Cloud Elementary and White Cloud Jr. High, are now part of 21st Century Community Learning Centers (CCLC) Project FOCUS (For Our Children’s Ultimate Success) programs. Their new official name is Project FOCUS Rural Grit.

Michigan’s Nita M. Lowey 21st Century Community Learning Centers funding is through a competitive grant application with the Michigan Department of Education and is part of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). In partnership with White Cloud Public Schools and Hesperia Community Schools, TrueNorth applied for the grant in March and received notification in June that the grant proposal was awarded. The grant will provide $245,000 for each district’s afterschool program for just over $2.5 million for five years. 

The purpose of the 21st CCLC program is to provide federal funds to support the creation of community learning centers that provide academic enrichment opportunities during out-of-school hours. The program helps students meet state and local academic standards in core subjects and offers a broad array of enrichment activities that complement their regular educational programs. The program’s success lies in strong partnerships with the school districts, as all work together to provide a caring, safe, and supportive environment for children after school. The funding also allows for a six-week summer program in both districts.  

“The 21st CCLC funding will be a huge asset for our rural communities. Providing structured out-of-school time programming for students will give them the much-needed homework help and enrichment experiences they may not get otherwise. It can definitely be a game-changer in the trajectory of the lives of these students,” said Hesperia school board member Mark Kraus, who is also part of the Project FOCUS Rural Grit Collaborative Advisory Committee. 

For more information or to apply for Project FOCUS Rural Grit at Hesperia or White Cloud, please reach out to Danielle Siegel, Youth Programs Director, at dsiegel@truenorthservices.org or call (231) 942-0641, ext. 109.

Being Neighborly

Being Neighborly with Coffee Connections

Coffee Connections, a new initiative of Community Connections, has been taking being neighborly to the next level. For many seniors in our community, it can be challenging to find opportunities to interact with others and spend time outside of their homes. To help those experiencing social isolation, Coffee Connections was created to be a welcoming place for individuals to gather and enjoy time together, right from their homes.

TrueNorth has visited three locations, multiple times, bringing coffee and other beverages, chairs, and a welcoming atmosphere. Having been run since June, dozens of seniors have begun to form and strengthen new friendships.

Coming right to individuals’ apartment buildings decreases a lot of barriers for seniors. Many have difficulties getting out on their own, and without activities and other social events happening in their building, there would be no avenue for them to get to know their neighbors.

Renee, who comes to Coffee Connections and other TrueNorth programs, says, “Before the pandemic we used to do all kinds of things, but now, we’ve all gotten used to being alone.”  Now, they can come out to their building’s front lawn for welcoming conversations and interactions.

Just having the groups get together has helped spark a more friendly, inviting atmosphere at these buildings. People walking by get curious when they see the groups meeting and are invited to join. Regulars hand out extra flyers to other residents and encourage them to come. 

The conversations vary greatly, but one aspect remains the same; each person is welcomed and encouraged to be involved. From just talking about life and learning about community events and resources, to showing the group their latest sewing project, there is space for everyone to feel more connected.

Both Coffee Connections groups continue to grow and are excited to welcome more and more people. To learn more about Coffee Connections and other Community Connections’ initiatives, email Jackie Knight at jknight@truenorthservices.org.

Dee Hankins Motivates

Out-of-School Time students & staff

Dee Hankins had been in 12 different foster homes in the first 12 years of his life. Statistically, almost 50% of African American males placed in the foster care system drop out of high school, and are almost 10 times more likely to end up in a prison than to ever step foot on a college campus. This was not the case for Dee. With help and encouragement from high school educators and a college sponsorship program called United Friends of Children, he graduated from California State University, Long Beach. Shortly after that, he realized his gift for public speaking, and his story, were a perfect match to show every student they can have a chance at a successful future. 

Project FOCUS Program Director, Donna Grodus, initially became familiar with Dee and his story through his presentation at the National Out-of-School Time Conference, BOOST, she attended. She knew it would be impactful to have him speak and engage with Project FOCUS students. 

For three days in June, Dee spoke to over 200 Project FOCUS students at two large gatherings, encouraging them to focus on their resilience to rise above challenging situations. While visiting the students, Dee also had the chance to participate in some of their regular programming, and he was duly impressed. Then, he presented a master class to the collective Out-of-School Time staff members at the TrueNorth Service Center. 

“I wouldn’t have been able to wait for school to be over if I had something like this… it was amazing and really eye-opening!” 

Dee shifted his message a bit when talking to the Project FOCUS staff, hoping to encourage them in the amazing work they’re doing and the lasting, positive impact they’re having on students.

“This organization really touched me, and spoke to me… I want to take the essence back home with me and share this with people.”

Summer Hunger

Hunger doesn’t take summers off

“I’m hungry!” is the worst phrase a parent can hear, particularly when they can’t afford enough groceries to last them through the month. Yet, it happens all too often. With school aged children home for summer, and have little to no access to the free school meals, demand and need for our Hunger Prevention Services have increased. Our walk-in Food Pantry and twice-a-month Feeding America Mobile Food Pantry visits continue to see high, and often record numbers of local people accessing them to keep themselves and their families fed.

“We are experiencing an 180% increase in pantry usage from 2020” said Mike Voyt, our Hunger Prevention Director. This, coupled with an increase in grocery cost of almost 6%, on top of an 11% increase from the previous year, is proving to be too difficult for many local families to overcome.”

One new service we’ve added is free summer meals for kids under 18. Every Thursday, to-go meal kits will be made available to parents with children at home. Kids will receive a week’s worth of breakfasts and lunches, and a gallon of milk. This service will be offered through mid-August, and is already going a long way in relieving that particular need in the homes of families we serve. 

Celebrate the school year

Tools for School

For single, working parent Eric Puff, TrueNorth Community Services’ Tools for School program has had a positive impact on his family and in the community overall. Having a one stop shop for school supplies and additional resources not only relieves some of the stress surrounding the start of the school year but also helps area children, like Eric’s son Johnny, become excited for the upcoming school year.

“The availability of school supplies when you’re spending all sorts of money on everything else–you know food for lunches, outfits for the first day of school, second day, third day, fourth day, fifth day, all that stuff is amazing,” says Eric. “It’s super convenient, super helpful at just the right time.”

Eric and his son Johnny have been participating in Tools for School for three years. While the format of the program has shifted year to year due to the pandemic, the impact has remained the same. Just having a high-quality backpack that will last the entire school year helps make the school year more manageable. 

Tools for School is also a celebration of the upcoming school year. Eric’s son Johnny lights up every year when he receives his backpack. Eric says receiving his backpack is “definitely a high point” for Johnny as he gets ready to go back to school.

You can help area children like Johnny celebrate the new school year by giving to Tools for School. Your gift will level the playing field for all of our students by giving them everything they need to succeed. Giving to Tools for School means that you are investing in the next generation and their well-being. You are not only providing school supplies and resources but you are also encouraging area students to grow as individuals. 

Tools for School is “one of many programs that TrueNorth has that has an astounding impact,” says Eric. Join Eric and our community’s celebration of the school year by giving today to ensure our children thrive this school year and beyond.

Garden of Growth

Holton Project FOCUS plants away!

When Lexi Freed, the Project FOCUS Site Coordinator at Holton Middle School, presented the idea of buying a raised bed and starting a garden with the students in her program, one of them suggested approaching Mr. Kamrowski, the woodshop and geometry teacher about getting his help with building their own garden beds from scratch.

Kamrowski was happy to get involved and within a few days of receiving the supplies, he and his students in his Geometry and Construction class were hard at work building what would end up being two, roughly, 3’ x 4’ raised wooden garden beds.

“As our garden plan progressed, we had our participants research what types of plants pair well together and how we should go about planting them,” said Freed. “Students made ‘garden graphs’ based on what they found and started adding in plants that were not on our initial list! Everyone was shocked to see how quickly our plants germinated. Our squash had gotten so big that we had no choice but to transplant them into small pots until they were able to survive outside.” 

Freed and her students filled the beds with topsoil and planted seeds in late May. The garden project will include some potted plants and an herb tower as well. The plan, for now, is to transplant the seedlings into the garden beds, tower, and pots, when they resume programming for Summer Learning. Participants will continue to tend to the garden over the summer and have the opportunity to bring fresh herbs, fruits, and vegetables home to their families.

June is Homeownership Month

Learn what CNH has to offer


June is National Homeownership Month. It celebrates the value owning a home brings to families, communities, and neighborhoods across America. By becoming a homeowner, people get one step closer to the American dream.

Homeownership is part of the core mission of the Center for Nonprofit Housing. CNH offers individual counseling or coaching sessions along with group educational workshops to help potential homeowners achieve their goals. These sessions are done by HUD-Certified Housing Counselors at no cost. Topics include – mortgage delinquency and default and how to avoid it; rental and homelessness; pre-purchase education; financial literacy; post-purchase financial management; homebuyer education; fair housing; and predatory lending and how to avoid it.

“During National Homeownership Month, we’re working hard to debunk several of the myths about homebuying,” said Lori Murphy, one of our HUD-Certified Housing Counselors. “Myths like needing a 20% down payment or an absolutely stellar credit rating in order to purchase a home, keep many people away from this essential part of the American dream. Many people are also under the false assumption you can’t get a mortgage if you have student debt.” 

If you or someone you know needs more information on the ins and outs of becoming a homeowner, connect with one of our Housing Counselors by calling the TrueNorth offices at (231) 924-0641 or click here. 

Newaygo Middle School Junior Honor Society

Students receive Youth in Action Award

For their outstanding volunteer service, the Newaygo Middle School Junior Honor Society received the Youth in Action Award at this year’s Community of Efforts celebration, TrueNorth’s annual volunteer recognition event. Newaygo students from grades seventh through ninth have been instrumental in supporting multiple programs at TrueNorth, making an impact in our community and in their own lives.

Middle school teacher and coordinator for the chapter, Jaimee Harkness, says, “Volunteering at TrueNorth has opened their eyes to seeing the needs in our community and understanding that giving back and paying it forward creates a sense of community and pride knowing they helped create a better life for someone.”

From helping collect, sort and display toys and other gifts for Children’s Christmas Programs to packing Weekend PowerPacks for students like themselves, Jaime’s students have helped thousands of individuals and families. The middle schoolers also helped with the WZZM13 Spirit Challenge, sorted coats for Coats for Kids and painted bowls for our annual Empty Bowls fundraisers.

Jaime’s students especially enjoyed volunteering for Children’s Christmas Programs. When setting up for the event, the middle schoolers also packed over 2,000 Weekend PowerPacks, helping over 4,000 area children and families in just one day. Having the opportunity to help create a better quality of life for members of their community has taught Jaime’s students empathy, leadership and social skills, self-esteem and responsibility.

Jaime’s students were not expecting any award for their volunteering. “We really appreciated the recognition of our volunteer work by receiving the Youth in Action Award,” says Jaime. “It was a pleasure to have the students see that their volunteer work does not go unnoticed.”

Youth volunteerism helps empower our community’s future leaders. Jaime’s students have gone over and above to create positive change in the lives of their neighbors, showing that you can make a difference at any age. 

Jaime encourages educators like her to get their students involved in the community through volunteering. Through her years working with the National Jr. Honor Society, Jaime has seen her students grow immensely. She says, “Volunteering in the smallest ways make a bigger impact than you know for the people you are helping but also the students who are volunteering!”


Out-of-School Time Programs

Students build bridges at S.T.E.A.M. Challenge 

Every year, students in our Out-of-School Time Programs take part in the S.T.E.A.M. Challenge utilizing skills and knowledge they’ve learned regarding Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts & Mathematics. This year’s event took place on Saturday, March 11th, and approximately 150 students from our various sites took part.

Bringing students from four counties together, this event, themed “Building Bridges,” took place at Hesperia Community Schools. In addition to the day’s highlighted competitions, the students rotated through activities such as creating boats that float out of only aluminum; creating buildings using jellybeans and toothpicks as their foundations; and making inchworms out of construction paper and then propelling them in races using straws and their own lung power.

For the main challenge, students built bridges out of either popsicle sticks or balsa wood, depending on their grade level, and entered them into the challenge. Judged on structure, creativity, thought process, and integrity – the winners were those bridges that could hold the most weight! There were LEGO challenges, both 2D and 3D student-created art exhibits, and lots of other fun, hands-on activities. 

“Some students took the theme not only to mean bridges over water, but building bridges amongst students, communities, and friendships – which was really cool!”

– Danielle Siegel, Youth Programs Director 

“Our participants began brainstorming their bridge structures weeks in advance, and it was impressive to see their designs transition from paper designs to strong wooden bridges. The anticipation and excitement on our participants’ faces as the weights were added to the bridges was one of the highlights of the day, and I was extremely proud of the staff and students for their hard work and dedication,”

-Donna Grodus, Project FOCUS Director