Can-Do-Kitchen Makes Dreams a Reality

KALAMAZOO — Blanca Cardoza’s recipe for success almost went up in flames with her home.


A hairdresser and single mother, Cardoza had been working for almost two years from her home to perfect a salsa recipe which had been in her family for generations. An electrical fire this past summer which began in the basement left her with no home and no money to move forward with plans to produce and sell her salsa.


However, an $8,500 grant she received in October through the Can-Do Kitchen operated by Fair Food Matters helped Cardoza launch her salsa business – Fiesta by Blanca. Her three varieties of salsa are now being carried by Tiffany’s Wine & Spirit Shoppe, The Natural Health Center, and Harding’s Marketplace on Kalamazoo’s west side.


“It was really nice for me to be able to apply for the grant and get moving again,” Cardoza said.


Cardoza is one of the first four recipients of a “Launch-It” grant which is funded by $60,000 in Community Development Block Grant money through the city of Kalamazoo. The grant program began in September and will go through June, said Lucy Bland, Can-Do kitchen manager. Members of a selection committee are in the process of selecting the three final “Launch-It” grant recipients.


“The goal is to always have a scholarship program moving forward,” Bland said. “We were seeing how much people are limited by a lack of capital. That was just really holding people back. We wanted our services to be accessible to people who don’t have start-up capital.”


Space rental at the Can-Do Kitchen ranges from $15 to $25 an hour depending on factors such as the time of day and how long a client has been working at the facility. The kitchen can accommodate between 12 and 15 clients at a time and is open 24 hours a day. Bland said there are a lot of openings during the overnight hours.


The Can-Do Kitchen is mainly a shared use kitchen with an incubator component, designed to be a low-risk environment with low financial risk for people who have always wanted to start a food business or are looking for another career. Dips, spreads and baked goods such as granolas and energy cookies make up the majority of food products made out of the kitchen.


“It takes a lot of capital to renovate or build a facility,” Bland said. “Even if they have the money, they may not want to risk it on an idea that might not fly. We help them through the initial process of business planning. It’s pretty overwhelming and there are a lot of regulations.


“But the big thing people want to do here is test their product to see if people really want to buy it.”


The recipe Cardoza uses to make her salsa has been passed down from generation to generation and unlike some other salsas on the market, the Fiesta by Blanca brand is a pureed salsa which her grandmother taught her how to make as a young girl growing up in McAllen, Texas. Her three salsas come in mild, medium and hot varieties and include fresh ingredients such as pineapple, corn, black beans, peaches and cilantro.


While making an actual batch takes little more than one hour, Cardoza said prepping the vegetables and the process of weighing and packaging the salsa is time-consuming.

The reality, Bland said, is that in addition to perfecting their recipes, clients also need to plan for costs such as graphic design work, labeling and packaging. Many of them need to make a profit after the first sale which is not easy, Bland said.


“One of the things we’ve learned is that lot of people who are still in the early idea phase are not ready to come into the kitchen and start selling,” she said. “The goal is that businesses grow here as much as they can and we graduate them.


“There are a few different indicators that are used to figure out when they’re ready to go. The most important is that their financials show they can support such a move.”


Additionally, if a client needs more time, space or specialized equipment than is available at the kitchen, they will most likely be ready to move on.


So far the Can-Do Kitchen has had four graduates: Mike Kruk, who makes Mike Famous Michigan Bean Dip; Kara and Denise Steely, owners of the Dough Chicks, based in Kalamazoo, who make granola, energy bars and snack-size baked goods; Mukta Joshi, owner of the Kurry Guru in Portage, which makes Indian food; and Kathleen Fagan Riegler, owner of the Cheese Lady headquartered in Muskegon, which produces artisan cheeses.


Bland said she thinks there will be more graduates as the demand for locally-grown and produced food increases.


“People really want to know who’s making their food,” she said. “One of the challenges is competing with the big food companies. But, more people are seeing the see value of handmade produces and they like knowing what’s in it and where it came from.”






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Making a Case for Getting Outside

KALAMAZOO – A prescription for a kayak set Brother Yusuf Burgess on a mission to sever children and young people from the technology they’re tethered to.

Burgess, executive director of the Youth Ed-Venture and Nature Network, headquartered in Albany, NY, was the keynote speaker at an annual gathering of nonprofits and community leadership focused on developing healthier lifestyles for children and the adults in their lives. The theme of this year’s Champions for Healthy Kids Summit, sponsored by the Kalamazoo Nature Center and the YMCA of Kalamazoo County, was all about getting children and youth outside.

“I come from a family of seven. As a middle child growing up in the projects in New York City and Brooklyn during 1950’s, I had a brother who was a warlord and grew up with people identifying me as his brother.

“I grew up from there wanting to be cool. I couldn’t tell people in the projects that I enjoyed watching caterpillars turning into butterflies. I was a closet environmentalist.”

In an effort to distance himself from his father and life on the streets, Burgess joined the Army at the height of the Vietnam draft when he was 17-years-old. He was a radio operator there from 1967-1969 and came home with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

“From that point on it was about my transformation and getting back into the world I left. It was not easy to bring myself back from Vietnam,” Burgess said. “The turning point in my life was a counselor who wrote a prescription for a kayak for me. I got into this small kayak to master some of the things about the outdoors which allowed me to meditate and focus.”

It was while paddling that he discovered his passion.

“I take it very seriously when I see young people who are lost and those pressed into the urgency of the streets and running towards leadership that’s not appropriate,” he said.

His antidote to this is getting children and young people away from their electronics and into the outdoors to gain an appreciation for their environment and the importance of a healthy lifestyle.

More than four years ago leadership of nonprofits, local government and businesses identified the importance of creating a healthier community. Tangible proof of their efforts can be seen in the development of the Kalamazoo Marathon and healthy eating initiatives in local schools.

Steve Springsdorf, executive director of the YMCA of Kalamazoo County, said the summit is designed to encourage organizations that work with the community’s youngest residence to work for change that will result in healthier kids.

About 27 percent of residents in the Kalamazoo area are classified as obese.

“It is a problem in our community because the way our healthcare system is set up, everyone is paying for it,” Springsdorf said.

He recently made a presentation to the Kalamazoo Rotary Club featuring information from the Centers for Disease Control which showed that obesity rates in the United States have more than doubled for adults and tripled for children in the last decade.

In 1990 almost every state was experiencing some level of obesity among its residents in the 10 to 14 percent range. By 1999, a majority of these states were seeing levels in the 30 percent or greater range and ten years later those levels evened out at between 20 and 29 percent.

Although there are a number of diseases associated with obesity, diabetes is one that has seen the greatest increase as obesity levels have risen. In 1958 about one percent of the population or less than two million people were diagnosed as being diabetic. By 2008 that number had risen to about 19 million individuals.

Sedentary lifestyles and lack of access to healthy foods have contributed to a number of preventable obesity-related health issues.

“We want the Kalamazoo metropolitan area to be the healthiest region of its size in the nation,” said Chris Lampen-Crowell, owner of Gazelle Sports based in Kalamazoo. “Over the past year ‘On the Move Kalamazoo’ has been partnering with area champions to develop and initiate movement programs where there is a need.”

Burgess said his programs to get young people moving involve community gardening where they build growing boxes and use tools to plant and harvest; hiking trips in the Adirondack Mountains; fly fishing; and sailing.

One of the keys to the success of his programs is going to where the young people are and having the patience to work with them.

He mentioned the “Eating Well and Playing Hard” initiative which deals with urban agriculture and aligning that with summer youth employment.

“Most of the young kids I work with are 11-17-years-old. The older kids are mentors for the younger kids and we call them Environmentors. The whole idea is to get the kids outdoors and learning,” Burgess said.

During breakout sessions conducted by Burgess, representatives with various nonprofit and community organizations began conversations about opportunities to partner or share information. Springsdorf said this is one way of measuring the success of these summits.

“We look at how many people will step up and do something,” he said. “It’s really how many people at the end of the day will say they want to do something in the place where they can make a difference.”










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Support Group for Battle Creek’s LGBT Communityg

BATTLE CREEK – Larry Dillon said growing up here as a gay man meant suppressing feelings and hiding who he really was. It wasn’t until after he retired in 2000 from his teaching job with the Lakeview School District that he came out as a gay man.


Dillon doesn’t want individuals who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender to have to experience what he did and he was among a few who said the community needed an organization dedicated to LGBT residents. On November 14 an open house was held to officially open the Battle Creek Pride Resource Center.


The Resource Center is the result of an organization which formed four years ago to serve the LGBT community in Battle Creek and Calhoun County. The new center is located in what used to be the teen room at St. Thomas Episcopal Church. Financial and in-kind contributions totaling more than $5,000 were used to repair and renovate the new space and furniture and paintings were donated by a friend of the resource center.


“We’re similar to a lot of other communities as far as our LGBT residents go,” Dillon said. “We’re concerned with our young people and the potential for them to be bullied in the schools. We’re concerned about job discrimination and the ability to get a job. There’s still discrimination in housing and the LGBT community is still discriminated against in hotels and restaurants.”


Dillon said he and others launched a successful campaign to get an anti-discrimination ordinance passed in the city. He said people for the most part are supportive of the LGBT community and there have been very few cases of discrimination.


Battle Creek’s resource center is the eighth in Michigan, according to CenterLink, a Fort Lauderdale-based organization which was founded in 1994 as a member-based coalition to support the development of strong, sustainable LGBT community centers. The center is open from 1-8 p.m. four or   five days a week. Dillon said the hours of operation will increase as more people are available to supervise.


LGBT community centers play an important role in the life of LGBT Americans, according to the 2012 Community Centers Report authored by Centerlink.


“In some parts of the country, a local community center may be the only LGBT resource where residents can access social, educational and health services,” the report said. “ The 79 LGBT community centers participating in this report collectively serve more than 33,300 people each week and the 55 centers that reported 2011 revenue data have combined revenue of $106.8 million. Across the country, these community centers are vital players in the LGBT movement and provide an invaluable link between individual LGBT people and state and national efforts to advance LGBT equality.”


While the local resource center will advocate for the rights of the LGBT community at the national level, Dillon said the main focus will be on providing a safe and welcoming space.


“The organization is also here to provide social outlets for the LGBT community. A lot of gay people didn’t feel comfortable going to just any entertainment spot,” Dillon said. “We have social events just like other people would have and we organize outings .”


In addition the organization’s members have secured scholarships for young and old LGBT individuals and sponsor an annual Peace Prom where people can bring their same sex partners. He said the group is also planning various support groups.


“We have an Alcoholic Anonymous support group because LGBT individuals aren’t always welcomed in the regular Twelve Step program and we also have a transgender support group,” Dillon said. “There’s also going to be a drop-in center for students to come after school to do their homework.”


None of these support services existed when Dillon was growing up.


“I was born here and educated here and I graduated from (Western Michigan University) and became a teacher in Lakeview,” Dillon said. “I couldn’t be openly gay and be a teacher.”


He was married for 30 years and when his wife passed away he came out as a gay man.


“It was something I probably knew,” Dillon said of being gay, “but I pushed it to the back because I was happily married. Before my marriage it was difficult. I didn’t really want to be gay when I was young because I knew I would have to squelch my goals.”


He said he doesn’t have a good sense of the size of Battle Creek’s LGBT community.


“It’s hard to tell because a lot of gays are still in hiding and they don’t want to be publicly known, They’re afraid they’ll be put down or lose their jobs.   I know many, many people who are still in the closet,” Dillon said. “It’s amazing how you find out some people are gay.”


Ultimately LGBT individuals want to enjoy the same kind of life that straight people do. This includes access to housing and good jobs; a legally binding marriage; and the ability to adopt children.


“We want that house with a picket fence,” Dillon said.


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Shielding Those Who Protect and Serve

KALAMAZOO – Jon Priebe says the initial reactions he gets to his ballistics shield is “why didn’t I think of that?”


Priebe, a retired Lansing police officer who continues to work in law enforcement, has invented a bulletproof, transparent shield designed to protect the head and neck of police officers, especially those in a department’s uniform patrol division. The shield is the result of Priebe’s own experiences in that division. He established Citadel Defense Technologies with business partner J. Bryan LeGwin to produce the shield.


“While working patrol I was a Field Training Officer,” Priebe said. “In training new recruits I would teach them how to be safe and what to look for. Uniform Patrol has really one of the hardest jobs and yet they have the least amount of protection.”


The ballistics shield picks up where department-issue bulletproof vests stop. When Priebe first started his law enforcement career he had to buy his own vest as did Matthew Pinto, who was an officer with the St. Louis County, Missouri for 10 years, and is owner of a Kalamazoo-based manufacturing company which is producing the shield.


Pinto, co-owner of Pinto Products, calls the shield a “gamechanger” for law enforcement. He said he remembers older officers balking at having to wear bulletproof vests when they were first introduced and he said he expects some initial resistance to the shield similar to the reactions of veteran police officers to the vest.


The shield, which weighs 10 pounds, is made of a polycarbonate urethane laminate which is 7/8 of an inch thick and contains two light modules which each produce 1,000 lumens, enough to temporarily blind someone. Pinto says the shield will stop a handgun round up to and including a 357 magnum which was enough to convince officials with the National Institute of Justice to approve the protective device.


“It withstood five shots from a 350 magnum. None of them penetrated. That was the piece of the puzzle we were waiting for,” Pinto said. “Having it certified by the National Institute of Justice makes it eligible for federal funds.


“It’s designed to protect the head and neck,” Pinto said. “It won’t stop everything. It’s designed to offer an extra level of protection to patrol officers.”


A sheriff’s department in California has already placed an order for testing purposes. Pinto said the shield will retail for $1,599 which is less than other shields available.


Priebe was issued a patent for the shield in 2013, eight years after he began designing it. A mutual friend introduced him to Pinto. Their individual experiences and the number of officers who have died after being shot is always on their minds.


The level of sophistication of guns and ammunition and the information about how to use them so readily available makes the shield a necessary part of an officers protective equipment.


“In uniform patrol you have no idea what you’re walking up on like suspects or a barricaded gunman,” Priebe said. “As you’re walking up on a car most criminals all know that police wear a vest. With my shield it’s like walking up with two flashlights and bulletproof covering for the head and neck. Whoever is going to take you out has to overcome that also.”


The death of Michigan State Police Trooper Paul Butterfield on September 9 is a recent example of what the shield may have prevented. During a routine traffic stop Butterfield was shot in the head and found lying on the ground by a passing motorist.


Following Butterfield’s death, Priebe said he was called into a Michigan State legislators office to find out why the shield wasn’t in every police officers patrol car.


Officers who respond to crisis situations such as school shootings are just as vulnerable as Butterfield was, he said.


“If you had a school shooting and were to lock down the school, officers would immediately establish a perimeter and wait for the Special Tactics team to show up and that doesn’t work because kids are being killed,” Priebe said. “In the meantime you’ve got a team of officers going in with minimal protection to begin the search for the suspect.”


Pinto said any prudent police officer would approach a suspect or suspicious situation holding the shield which is almost exactly like holding a standard-issue flashlight because it’s designed to be held with one hand.


“If (Trooper Butterfield) had walked up to that car and had this and it was on he certainly would have blinded the guy.   Even if the lights had been hit, the bullet would have been stopped,” Pinto said.


“I can’t imagine how I’ll feel when this shield takes a bullet meant for an officer. You can’t put a price on that.”











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Art with a mission

BATTLE CREEK – ArtSensical sounds whimsical, but it’s also an initiative that’s based in the intentional.

“ArtSensical is a dynamic collaborative based in Battle Creek, that supports creating more public art, community building, tourism, and economic development throughout Calhoun County,” said Michelle Frank, facilitator of the project. “It is a catalyst for co-design and creation of place-making art that captivates all our senses.”


Frank said visitors to the various art displays can expect to see vibrant, playful and eye-opening murals, exhibits, “green sculptures”, special events and performances throughout the area.


Very little time elapsed between the announcement of the project two years ago and the creation and installation of art throughout Calhoun County. The majority of the pieces are totems located in places such as the Art Center of Battle Creek, a community garden on North Avenue, and Homer Middle School. The themes range from “You Are What You Eat”, apainted canvas that wraps around a tire-totem and features almost 200 different types of fruits and vegetables, depicting 3 drummers and a hound dog – creating music with their food, to “Flowers and Flags.”

There are eight totems with more planned, said Kimber Thompson, director of marketing for the Calhoun County Visitors Bureau. Thompson, who is also an artist, said she, Frank and Sabine LeDieu, a Marshall-based artist, created the ArtSensical project.

The totems, LeDieu said, are a good use of old tires. She said the goal is to have about 100 themed totems throughout the county.

“I think a lot of people are seeing them and commenting on them,” she said.

While creating art out of old tires may be daunting to many people, the founders of ArtSensical want residents to take the initiative and come up with their own art displays.

“We’d like to see the community grasp it and make their own art to beautify their own communities,”LeDieu said. “It’s very accessible, cheap and doable.”

Thompson said she and her ArtSensical founders came up with the name because it incorporates all types of art with all of the senses: traditional painting, music, taste (food/gardens), textures of fabrics/etc. for touch and even smell for some exhibits.

Current ArtSensical partners include Architecture + design, Inc. , Art Center of Battle Creek, BC Pulse, Battle Creek Downtown Partnership, Battle Creek Shopper News, Calhoun County, Calhoun County Arts Council, Calhoun County Visitors Bureau, City of Battle Creek; Humane Society of South Central Michigan, Kingman Museum, Leila Arboretum Society, Music Center, The Mylestone Project, Nonprofit Alliance; Public Works of Art and Scene Magazine


So far, ArtSensical has been supported with seed money from The Battle Creek Community Foundation through its “Livable Communities” grant; grants from the former Calhoun County Arts Council; and the Community Foundation Alliance of Calhoun County; Art Center of Battle Creek; as well as small businesses and individuals. Frank said this funding totals about $10,000 so far.

“We weren’t really chasing money,” said Frank, Principal Consultant, Experience Counts – A Search, Consulting & Project Management Firm, we just wanted to see more public art in our region.”

Not all of the projects will be art-related. The Art Center is planning to have an exhibit about recycling and a kinetic exhibit which uses all of the senses. Frank said this type of tactile will be especially good for people on the autism spectrum as well those with dementia.

The city’s Downtown Partnership will be doing a mural in Friendship Park. The Humane Society of South Central Michigan is planning a large-scale project on its property and the Kingman Museum will have a frog-themed totem.

LeDieu said she will continue to focus on art made from garbage and recyclable materials. She installed a large sculpture in front of Harper Creek Middle School called “Plastic Ocean” which is a giant world made of recycled steel and filled with empty plastic bottles.

“I work in garbage literally. Everything I do is environmentally focused to raise awareness of environmental issue and hopefully bring action,” LeDieu said. “I guess I got my passion from caring too much. This is my way of bringing my talent to make a difference. “

Plans are in the works which will be able to let people take guided tours of the art using their Smartphones. They will be able to access information about the piece they are looking at, its purpose and the artist who created it.

A major ArtSensical place-making project is being planned for June 13-20 at Leila Arboretum. The first-ever Battle Creek’s Fantasy Forest will feature artists armed with chainsaws, paintbrushes, pottery shards and other media who will turn dead trees into works of art. The trees were destroyed by the Emerald Ash Borer.

“Plans were quickly put into place to cut the trees down, but then we decided to turn the trunks into treasures with a unique art competition,” Thompson said.

Sixteen juried finalists will receive $500 each to come to Battle Creek to bring their creative vision to life. They will have 7-1/2 days to transform their designated tree into a work of art and the public will be able to watch the process. On June 20, 2015, the Top 3 artists will be announced and win: $5,000 Juried Grand Prize; $3,000 Juried 2nd Place Prize; and$1,000 People’s Choice Award.

“Traverse City has cherries and Grand Rapids has ArtPrize and this was a chance to literally have the community decide what they care about in our community and their neighborhoods,” Thompson said.

“It’s a little more vibrant and engages less traditional artists. All that we planned has not been realized yet, but we are continually working on incorporating new ventures as they are dreamed up and completed.”



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Farming for Good

KALAMAZOO – People do not forget the day their child is diagnosed with autism, said Catherine Pinto, the mother of a 22-year-old son with autism.


“He was less than two-years-old,” she said. “Back then they didn’t give you any hope. Now I see so much more hope.”


Pinto wants to increase that sense of hope.


Emotions aside, the harsh reality is that the cost of raising a child born without health issues from birth to age 17 is estimated to be between $212,370 and $490,830 depending on a family’s income level. Conservative estimates on the cost of raising a child diagnosed with autism are about $625,000 from birth to age 18.


However, the costs associated with raising an autistic child don’t stop when that child becomes an adult. Depending on where they fall on the autism spectrum, which gauges the severity of this medical mystery, that adult may always require certain levels of supervised care and the costs associated with that don’t come cheap.


This is among the driving forces behind a push by a Kalamazoo-based group, which includes Pinto, to establish a nonprofit working farm for adults with autism.


Pinto and Cindy Semark,who has 39-year-old son with autism, are forming an organization designed to give adults diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder the option to live and work in an agricultural community in Kalamazoo County.


“There are many people with autism who will need financial and living supports for the rest of their lives,” Pinto said. “Although we’re all shocked by the increase in the rate of autism, when you play that out 10 years from now there will be a tsunami, millions of adults with autism are going to be dropped into the system and out of the autism system.


“What we are trying to do is to get ahead of the wave and bring something to Kalamazoo that will address a desperate need.”


Autism is a developmental disorder that affects social, language and perceptual development, often with widely varying degrees of impairment across children.  The prevalence rate for Autism in the United States is 1 in 88 children aged 8, a 78% increase in prevalence between 2002 and 2008, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  In the State of Michigan, nearly 16,000 students with an autism spectrum diagnosis were enrolled in public schools as of 2011.


Rules relating to special education services in Michigan require public schools to provide services to students with ASD up to the age of 26.  Pinto said a new phase of life begins for them after the age of 26 when they are no longer eligible for programs and services from the public schools.

“Families are forced to try to piece together appropriate work/activity options for their young adults from a maze of inappropriate options,” Pinto said.

“Based on CDC prevalence rates and the approximate number of births/year, about 114,000, in the state of Michigan, we can predict that an additional 12,000 children per year will be born in the State of Michigan with an autism spectrum diagnosis,” Semark said. “ The lifetime cost of caring for a child with autism is estimated to be $3.2 million in 2003 dollars with most of the costs being associated with lost productivity and adult care.”


The founders of AACORN Farm — Autism Agricultural Community Option for Residential Needs – are hoping to be granted a tax-exempt, nonprofit status soon so they may begin raising the funds needed to build and operate a permanent-housing farm community for adults with autism in Kalamazoo County.


Dr. Liz Farner, a Kalamazoo-based pediatrician, said she sees the effectiveness of farm therapy with her autistic patients. She has been using this type of therapy since 2000.


Farner has been working with Pinto’s son, Tom, 22 and Semark’s son, Jeremiah, at Tiller’s International since 2012. Tillers provides the space free of charge.


“For Tom working with cows and pigs and goats and horses and chickens is so important to him and lets him take care of something that needs his care,” Pinto said. “No matter who you are or what your challenges are, there’s nothing like a sense of being needed.”


Pinto and Semark began laying the groundwork for their farm two years ago.


The holdup in the awarding of nonprofit status is due to an aggressive campaign the Internal Revenue Service began in the last few years to make sure nonprofits have the proper paperwork and documentation. Those that don’t could lose their nonprofit status.


In addition, a number of new nonprofits have come on line in response to the devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy.


Pinto said it will cost about $3 million to make AACORN Farm a reality. She said a minimum of 40 acres is required, but that between 60 and 100 acres is more realistic to house 600-square-foot units which will have a bedroom, bathroom and living area for each resident with a common area where meals and activities will be shared.


“Tom deserves a life that I’m not in charge of,” Pinto said of her son. “The problem is the life he wants doesn’t currently exist. That’s what I’m trying to give him.”


The living quarters at AACORN Farm will be designed to accommodate four residents who would live on the farm and attend day programming there or work elsewhere in the Kalamazoo area.


While urban areas provide the greatest opportunities for employment, these settings can also bombard the individual with autism with too much noise and activity. This frequently leads to sensory overload, increased anxiety, and agitation, according to AACORN’s business plan.

“One of the things about working in an agricultural setting is that it’s an atmosphere where there’s less noise and stimulation and it’s peaceful,” Pinto said.

The farm would employ agricultural professionals who would manage farm operations and work with the residents.


Money would be raised through the sale of the farm’s crops in addition to fundraising events and craft shows.


Similar farm-based programming for autistic adults is already happening in places such as Bittersweet Farms in Whitehouse, Ohio and Benjamin’s Hope in Muskegon. Pinto said they are using Bittersweet Farms as the blueprint for AACORN.


“Other people have options in their lives and people with disabilities should have them too,” Pinto said. “We want to create as many options as possible in their community. People with disabilities need to be supported in the decisions they make in their own lives.”























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O.K., this time I mean it…

I have stories to post…

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O.K., this time I mean it…

I have stories to post…

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I’m Back

Thanks to all for your kind words.
I will try to be more diligent about posting published stories and my musings.

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Spotlight on Nonprofits in Kalamazoo County

April 15, 2011

“It’s amazing what we’ve been able to accomplish.”


Pictured: (L-R) Connie Patterson, Robert Patterson, Martha Austin, Janet Loucks
Photo: Oakwood Neighborhood Association

On any given Wednesday afternoon Gail Camp may be found inside the Oakwood Neighborhood Center munching on cookies and catching up with her cronies over a friendly game of cards.

Camp, 62, is part of a group which has no official name or by-laws other than to be there for each other as much as time and good health permits. This group of senior Oakwood residents is symbolic of the close-knit nature of a neighborhood which is home to multi-generational families, many of whom never left.

“I was born and raised in Oakwood,” said Camp who is undergoing chemotherapy and radiation treatments for esophageal cancer. “It’s good for me to be here. I enjoy myself with them because they’re always happy.”

The neighborhood’s Senior Drop-In program is located in the Oakwood Neighborhood Association Center off of Laird Street.  The 2,288-square-foot building is divided into an office area, a community room, and the Family Resource Center which is where the seniors meet each week.

“That’s how we’ve been able to maintain our programming and services at such a low cost. All of the programming is done through donations and grants. It’s amazing what we’ve been able to accomplish.”

—Cheryl Lord, Oakwood Neighborhood Association

Cheryl Lord, executive director of the ONA, said the community room is available to be rented out for events and also serves as the location for workshops. She said the Family Resource Center is used for programs and services which include afterschool tutoring for the neighborhood’s young people and has computers available for employment assistance.

Funding for the ongoing operation of the many programs offered at the neighborhood center is always an issue, but Lord said grant money, fundraisers and volunteers help to offset the cost of many of the services offered. In addition, she said the City of Kalamazoo provides some funding to cover general operating expense.

“The volunteers are certainly key because everything is run through them,” Lord said. “They do the cleaning, repairs and upkeep of the neighborhood center. They also sort through the food in the food bank.

“That’s how we’ve been able to maintain our programming and services at such a low cost. All of the programming is done through donations and grants. It’s amazing what we’ve been able to accomplish.”

The Oakwood Neighborhood Association was founded in 1947 by a group of residents who wanted to offer activities for the neighborhood’s young people. Although the ONA still offers youth-oriented programs and services, Lord said there was a realization that Oakwood’s senior residents needed a support system.

The Senior Drop-In gatherings are also open to seniors who don’t live in the neighborhood and family and friends of those who do.

But to hear the group gathered for a recent Wednesday card game tell it, their support of one another transcends their standing weekly meeting.

“We have neighbors who shovel for us and plow our driveway because we can’t physically do it ourselves,” said Connie Patterson who was accompanied by her husband, Robert.

Robert Patterson said he finds a way to give back by making necklaces, earrings and bracelets which are used as prizes during the group’s Bingo games.

In addition to helping each other, members of the group said they also look out for each other.

Camp said she walks around the neighborhood four or five times each day and listens to a police scanner which is always on inside her home.

Janet Loucks, 69, who serves as the group’s activities director, recounted an episode which really let her know how closely her neighbors watch over her.

“One day a friend and I had gone out to lunch. I must have been in a hurry because I didn’t lock the door,” Loucks said. “My neighbors saw that my van was gone and when one of them went to the front door and realized it was unlocked she was panic-stricken that something had happened to me.”

In an age where technology has made it easier to shut the world out, members of the Senior Drop-In group said they value the time they are able to spend with each other discussing happenings in the neighborhood or sharing information and advice.

“We have people who just come and talk,” said Ruth Olmsted.

While nobody knows who’s going to bring the treats and who’s going to show up, Loucks said she knows what would likely happen if she and her friends didn’t have a place to gather.

“I’d probably be sitting at home in an easy chair taking a nap,” she said.

By Jane C. Parikh


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