The Neighbors of Benzie County
The Neighbors of Benzie County
The story of how a Michigan non-profit transformed from a charity providing basic needs, to a community nurturing the spirit of those they serve.
Maureen Van Glabbeek
The John L. Mulvaney Foundation
(a PDF version is here)
Many gems await discovery within Northern Michigan’s pristine landscape. Tourists and summer residents have hundreds of miles of beaches, renowned golf courses, and resorts at their disposal. Benzie County, in particular, boasts it is a “four season playground,” with more than 50 spectacular inland lakes, two natural rivers, more than 10,000 acres of national park and 59,000 acres of state land. (1) It is also home to one of the top golf courses in the world, Crystal Downs. In an area filled with such breathtaking beauty and wealth, it is easy to see why tourists are drawn year round, particularly in the summer. However, within this stunning community also lies a significant disparity. Just a short drive from a shoreline filled with picturesque summer homes and cottages is Thompsonville and Copemish, both small and weathered towns. Although rich with history, they are also home to many who are struggling to make ends meet. Until the early 1980s, car ferries and railroads were the main source of employment, but since that time, residents suffer high unemployment rates and a steadily increasing number of foreclosures. These are two of the most economically depressed pockets of the Benzie and Northern Manistee counties. In January 2010, Benzie County had the highest unemployment rate in the state of Michigan at 18.9%. (2) This is astounding when you consider at the time Michigan held one of the the highest unemployment rates in the nation at 12.5%. (3)
Yet, within Benzie County resides a gem tourists would not expect to stumble upon. This gem is a non-profit organization widely and affectionately known as BACN (pronounced ‘bacon’). They serve approximately 2617 people, “neighbors,” per month with a food pantry, clothing, utility assistance and a range of educational opportunities. The underlying current and energy encompassing their work is unmistakable. It is an environment rooted solidly in respect. BACN’s first Executive Director, Kay Bond says, “BACN is different than most charities. Most provide in the lower two tiers of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. They provide for very basic needs- food, clothing, shelter. We go to the second to the top tier, respect. The whole atmosphere then changes and moves from one of trying to fix other people and to one where you realize that everyone has gifts to give and needs to be met.”
Kay Bond started her tour of duty in 2007 and quickly became BACN’s mother hen, tough when she needed to be, nothing but loving underneath. She is a woman who is to the point and knows how to get things done, yet tears up easily when telling a story about someone BACN helped. Within minutes of speaking with her, you recognize a person operating from an authentic place of compassion. Her mantra “Everyone has gifts to give and needs to be met,” is now rooted in the heart of BACN’s day-to-day operations.
What follows is a remarkable story about how this small non-profit transformed from a charity providing basic needs, to a community nurturing the spirit of those they serve. In a span of just four years, BACN grew its operating budget from $35,000 to $360,000 (statistically a 900% increase!) as well as its volunteer base from 25 to 145 (an amount valued at $211,929 using the rate allowed by the IRS!) It took the collaboration and balance of a variety of moving parts to orchestrate such impressive progress. It took an Executive Director with a vision, the unfolding of a special relationship with a key investor, strong ties within the community, and perhaps most importantly, it took the neighbors and volunteers who are the very heart of BACN.
What it Means to be a Neighbor at BACN
“Good Morning Joe! Are you here for food and clothing today, or just food?”
Anne, the receptionist at BACN’s front desk, greets nearly every neighbor by name as they approach the sliding glass window in the reception area. She grabs Joe’s file and continues to chat with him as he walks through the lobby door and down the hallway. They talk about the upcoming winter and his snow removal job. Joe heads to the kitchen, which also serves as the receiving area, and waits to meet with a service coordinator. A number of neighbors surround the kitchen table, some sorting coupons from a large basket, others enjoying a cup of coffee. On most days, volunteers bring in snacks to accompany the coffee. There is laughter in the hallways and a positive energy flowing effortlessly.
Anne, a retired church secretary and book keeper, is a relatively new volunteer at BACN. She beams with pride when she says, “Volunteering at BACN is one of the best things I’ve ever done in my life. I wish I would have done this a long time ago.” Anne describes BACN as a family helping families. “I raised my two kids by myself, working three jobs to keep food on the table. There was no place like BACN then. I wish there had been.” She juggles the files, ringing phone, incoming neighbors and requests for copies with poise, balance and a smile.
“How Can we Help?” and “You Can Help Us, Too!”
Cheri, Coordinator of Services, is the person Joe will meet with next. While he waits; however, she helps the people preceding him. A young man comes in and takes a seat. His chronic back problems keep him out of work and he is struggling. He cannot afford the gas to get to his next doctor’s appointment. Cheri confirms his appointment on the phone with the office and gives the young man a gas card. He smiles with relief and thanks her.
Next, a woman enters with a haphazardly organized pile of bills. She cares for her elderly father but she is out of work and her utilities are in danger of being shut off. She repeatedly says, “I am so embarrassed. I don’t do this. I’ve never had to do this before.” Cheri is kind and reassuring. In this situation, it is easy to see that her background as a school counselor serves her well. She systematically works through the situation step by step and helps the woman address her most immediate problem first. Cheri then encourages her to visit the food pantry. The woman refuses. Again, she is too embarrassed to accept the help and says so. Cheri gently suggests, “but that’s what we’re here for, to help one another. You can help us too. Think about volunteering! You would absolutely love it!” The woman smiles and says she will consider it. She accepts the BACN bucks to use in the food pantry.
As she leaves, a blind man is helped into the room by his parents. He needs a new bed frame and mattress for his apartment. Cheri takes down the information and explains the process. BACN records the requests for furniture and matches it with donations in the community. Since the furniture is not stored in BACN’s facility, the goal is to connect the neighbor and donor directly for the exchange to take place. As this neighbor talks about his new place, his self deprecating humor comes through easily as he jokes about getting a big screen TV.
Cheri will continue with a full four hour volunteer shift, although most days it is longer. There is always something to do, opportunities to help. She will hear stories that sometimes make her heart ache and other times fill her with hope and happiness. Through it all, she listens. It is this very simple gesture that makes a very large impact on the neighbors. According to one of BACN’s original volunteers, “I’ve asked neighbors and they love coming here. It’s so peaceful, they say ‘I feel good when I come here. You listen.’”
While the rest of BACN is teeming with activity, Melody, the Clothing Coordinator, is training a new volunteer in the donation sorting area.
“Check the items over carefully and make sure there are no stains. I wouldn’t want to wear something with a stain, so why would anyone else? Those clothes go into a separate pile and we send them to Holland to be recycled.” Nancy and Sissy, both volunteers, continue to sort and hang approved items on a rack. They welcome the new volunteer into their conversation as she joins them in the sorting process. After some time passes, Melody exclaims “Oh wait! I forgot to warn you about pockets and zippers. Also, the hangers must all be in the same direction.”
“Uh oh,” the volunteer says sheepishly. “I have a feeling I’ve already made some serious hanger violations.” At this, the ladies burst into laughter. From that moment on, they joked as they worked, the phrase “hanger violation” popping up every now and again. This exchange, a genuine moment between strangers, is a beautiful example of how quickly and warmly a new volunteer is brought into the fold at BACN. The volunteers embraced her as a family member. Beneath this, a silent understanding they are collectively working towards something bigger than themselves, building an almost immediate bond between them. This is in part why BACN is able to sustain a large and loyal base of volunteers. An incredible 25% of its volunteer base is composed of individuals who previously or currently receive services from BACN.
The Food Pantry
In a food pantry large enough to resemble a small grocery store, volunteers engage in weekly and daily routines. Some unpacking produce from a local farmer’s market, others stocking shelves or sorting incoming food from local grocery stores. A few women prepare boxes and bags for customers’ purchases. The shoppers, residents of Benzie County, Michigan, chat with volunteers while filling their baskets. There are exchanges between them that might lead you to believe they have known one another for quite some time, or are quite literally, neighbors. Not unlike a typical grocery store, shoppers check out and pay. The only difference is currency. Here, shoppers pay with ‘BACN bucks,’ the amount determined by family size.
The room is buzzing with activity, but at the first lull when shoppers clear out for a moment, Donna, the food pantry coordinator, moves quickly around the room, motioning her arms for the group to join her. “Everyone gather around! I’ve got a feel good moment that I need to share with you.” The group comes together in what looks like the huddle of a sports team. Donna engages volunteers in a story about a 16 year old girl and her 6 month old baby recently living out of her car. This young girl, now residing in a motel room, came in for food. This presented a challenge. She had no means to prepare food, yet volunteers wanted to give her something with substance and nutrition. Remarkably, that very day, a microwave was donated. The “feel good moment” is this young girl did not leave empty handed. Volunteers gave her the microwave and food, but most importantly a little bit of hope and emotional support.
It is hard to believe that only a number of years prior, BACN operated its food pantry in the dingy basement of a small home across the street. Volunteers carried heavy food boxes of up and down a flight of stairs to sort and distribute. When a neighbor arrived for food, a coordinator yelled down the stairs, “I’ve got Sandra, family of 5!” and a box was carried to the landing. Neighbors went home with a pre-packed box regardless of a family’s personal preferences. The simple change allowing Benzie residents to select and pay for their groceries gives the process a whole new dimension of dignity. It sends an implied message, “We respect you as a human being. We care about your needs.”
Keeping Pace with Extraordinary Need
“They’re not supposed to find me, I’m supposed to find them. Is this even real?” - Kay Bond
Kay Bond sat in her office on a grey and blustery Michigan day in 2008, feeling defeated. The need for services increased an astounding 300% that year. Keeping pace with the need on a shoe string budget was mentally and emotionally daunting. While the rest of BACN celebrated the recent renovation of a 1,000 square foot pole barn on the property, Kay felt sick to her stomach with the knowledge they had already outgrown the space.
When Kay came on board as part-time Executive Director, BACN operated in a donated space on Hwy 31, a modest cottage with forest green exterior, the letters BACN adhered to the first two of three sliding windows. The cottage showed years of age, wear and tear to the floor and ceilings, not to mention some considerable safety issues. Clothing was displayed in main living and bedroom areas with the food pantry in the basement. Neighbors met with coordinators behind a drawn curtain, offering no privacy. Renovating the pole barn into usable space was the first big project Kay tackled. The extra square footage allowed BACN to move the food pantry out of the basement and into the main living area of the house. The clothing and housewares moved to the pole barn, a much larger space for shoppers to peruse and select what they needed. Office space was created in the bedrooms, respecting neighbors by enabling them to freely discuss their needs in private.
Kay focused not on her recent accomplishment, but on how much there was left to do. She worked tirelessly, putting in 50 plus hours a week on a part-time salary. Benzie County was suffering a steadily increasing number of job losses and home foreclosures. Three of Kay’s neighbors within a one mile radius lost their homes. Families battled high food and gasoline expenses, and utility shutoffs. Although Kay felt hopeless on that blustery day in December, she received a phone call that ultimately changed the course of BACN’s future. The call came from Brian Mulvaney, who owns a summer residence in Frankfort. She had never met him, knew nothing of him. He introduced himself and they began to talk about BACN’s goals, philosophy, and needs. As luck would have it, Brian and his wife, also named Kay, are the founders of The John L. Mulvaney Foundation. They felt it was important to support an organization in the area that fit with the foundation’s mission.
Brian recalls, “At a core level, I always feel a need to give back to a community where I live and have the privilege of enjoying the wonderful things it has to offer. Inevitably, there is another side that lies hidden, or maybe we just train ourselves to ignore it, and an opportunity to help. So I started with online searches for poverty and Benzie County and several other iterations. Eventually I found a small article in the Traverse City Record Eagle about Kay Bond and BACN and the struggles they were having. I liked what I saw and picked up the phone and called Kay. I introduced myself and described our foundation and then I just asked her to talk about what they were doing, philosophy, challenges, etc. After about 20 minutes, I said, ‘I think I can help’ and made a commitment for a grant to solve their immediate issue and push them into a stable position from which we could build on. As I recall, she was in shock and talked about how hopeless she felt coming into the office that morning. As I look back on it, it really was quite remarkable. In a 20 minute conversation, the destiny of BACN changed.”
Kay was overwhelmed, and still chokes up when remembering the phone call that day. She says, “They’re not supposed to find us, I’m supposed to find them. Is this even real?” This day marked the beginning of a kindred relationship between the John L. Mulvaney Foundation and BACN, one that would help Kay create an explosion of growth for BACN, ultimately becoming the second largest resource center in Northwestern Michigan, serving more than 10,000 households in 2011.
BACN’s Roots: Rewind 30 Years
BACN’s founding story began in the early 1980s when Benzie County’s Ministerial Association sensed a real need for a centralized organization to assist the “transient ministry,” individuals and/or families seeking assistance from one church, then moving on to other congregations for help. Gerri VanAntwerp, part of the Ministerial Association for many years, says “Many churches no longer had the staff, funds or wherewithal to serve the poor that beckoned at their door. The communities in Benzie County were small and decreasing each year. The area churches realized they could do the work best if they joined forces. It did not matter how each worshiped on Sunday. It mattered how we cared for our brother each day of the week. The Ministerial Association was wise in their ways and knew that the only way to care for the community as a whole was to come together if for nothing else, for this purpose.”
The Ministerial Association called a meeting of one clergy and one lay person from each area church to coordinate efforts. In October 1982, a typewritten request for participation stated, “In this time of increasing stress placed upon the residents of our county due primarily to the unstable economic situation, our churches cannot respond adequately if we attempt to meet these challenging needs alone, isolated from other congregations.” Interesting, how 30 years later, these very same words carry the same weight, if not more, for Benzie County.
Prior to the early 80s, the main industries in Benzie were the Ann Arbor Railroad and car ferries. Both industries have a rich history in the area, existing for 100 years and employing a vast majority of the area’s residents. When both industries became unprofitable, they received assistance from the state, which discontinued funding by 1983. The resulting impact to Benzie’s economy was significant and no major industry replaced it in the following years. Today, the main source of employment in the area is tourism, however, finding stable yearround work is difficult since many of northern Michigan’s businesses are seasonal.
Alice Hollenback, former head of Benzie Community Services, is credited as the person who ignited the spark of what would later become BACN. She suggested the clergy and concerned parishioners seek consulting advice from Virgil Gaulker with Love, Inc. This was a big investment of $300, and the original board remembers it as such. Alice continued with her work with Benzie Community Services as Benzie Area Christian Neighbors grew into existence. The original name, Helping Hands, was changed because another organization in Traverse City shared the name. The funds for BACN came from 10-12 churches, each required to pay a one time fee of $25 to join the organization. The 8 representatives who collaborated to form BACN became its board members. In its first year of operation, the board hoped to raise between $1,100 and $1,300. Little did they know that their grassroots effort would later become the second largest resource center in Northwestern Michigan!
BACN’s humble beginnings took place in a small room in the Mills Community House in a basement cluttered with storage items. They opened three days a week, and Naomi Crawford, one of the founding members of BACN, recalls, “ We would sit in a room and wait for the phone to ring to see if anyone needed any help. We were dumb at it, really. We just wanted to help people. We figured, if you offer it, it will come. Word eventually got around. One of the first families we helped, a gentleman came in who needed food. After talking to him, I realized that they had been baking bread and eating canned pickles for months, morning, noon and night. He had three children. I felt guilty to go home and make a meal. It made me wonder how many other people were living this way.” The stint in the Mills Community House basement was short lived. Within the first two or three months of operation, a board member, Cecily Williams, donated a cottage style home on Hwy 31 which would become BACN’s permanent residence until 2009.
In 2005, the Ministerial Association realized BACN outgrew its ability to properly manage the services offered and formed an interim board. It was the task of the board to formalize BACN’s mission statement and goals. In 2007, the board hired its first part time Executive Director to coordinate the efforts of the volunteers. This decision was ultimately the beginning of a new chapter in BACN’s history, as it marked the beginning of a tremendous amount of growth and impact in the Benzie Community.
Collaborating with The John L. Mulvaney Foundation
The John L. Mulvaney Foundation (JLMF) is perhaps somewhat unconventional in its approach to selecting and working with grantee organizations. While typically non-profits seek out funding from a family foundation, the JLMF is sometimes referred to as “angels of mercy,” because they sweep in at an unexpected and necessary moment, often taking an organization by surprise, as was the case with BACN.
The John L. Mulvaney Foundation (JLMF) is named in honor of Brian’s father. John Mulvaney was born on September 14, 1922. He served with honor in the United States Navy in both the Atlantic and the Pacific Theaters. During his service, John’s ship was torpedoed. What followed is a remarkable survival story; however, he sustained injuries that led to a lifetime of severe and debilitating back pain and surgeries. Despite these setbacks, he was always a man whose generosity towards others in need was never restricted by his own circumstances. John Mulvaney was a very private and quietly philanthropic man of strength, faith and character.
John married Ellen McKenna on May 22, 1948 and they had four sons, John, James, Raymond and Brian. John Mulvaney founded the Quality Seal Window Company which he owned and operated until his retirement in 1974. His sons recall drivers arriving with shipments in the morning after being on the road all night. Many mornings, it was not unusual to find Ellen serving them breakfast at the kitchen table. John & Ellen opened their home to these men, and through their actions, set a powerful example to their boys about how to treat people with kindness, compassion and respect. As a result, these are nonnegotiable and defining criteria JLMF uses to select the organizations it supports.
John’s strong will helped him through many tough obstacles in his life, the last being a battle with Lou Gherig’s disease, which he died from on February 16, 1997. Brian and Kay wanted to honor his spirit and did so in 2001 by founding the John L. Mulvaney Foundation and presenting it to Ellen Mulvaney at Christmas. Since the JLMF was founded, Brian and Kay seek out organizations primarily in areas in which they live now or have in the past. Sometimes grants fit a one time need, yet with many a longer term relationship is formed.
In 2009, Brian and Kay asked their niece, Maureen Van Glabbeek, to fill the role of Executive Director. She shares their vision of not only giving to organizations and people in need, but doing so in a personal way. Sometimes this takes the form of assistance in surprising ways not typical of most Foundations, for example, writing or PR support, advice and counsel, or even hands on volunteering. Sometimes non-profits struggle to commit time and resources to these areas when they are already stretching a slim budget.
As relationship unfolded between BACN and the JLMF, it gradually became obvious that this was a unique partnership. While it may seem counterintuitive, many non-profit organizations are not interested in forming a personal relationship with family foundations beyond the funding provided. This could be because the non-profits see it as cumbersome (i.e. just “one more thing” to have to keep up).
In the same way that BACN embraces its volunteers and its neighbors, it embraced the JLMF’s support in a real and genuine way. Perhaps these are the intangibles of human connection that are not easily put into words, yet the warmth, openness and deep appreciation with which the JLMF was received facilitated a stronger bond and in turn a deeper commitment to BACN. Additionally, Kay and the BACN family were responsive, receptive, and eager to partner towards their ultimate mission of creating a whole and healthy community. While the JLMF might be unconventional in its approach, so is BACN. The two forces combined would be a powerful step towards helping a community in need.
BACN’s Transformation from Charity to Community
BACN’s environment as described earlier in “What it Means to be a Neighbor at BACN” did not manifest overnight. It took time, patience and nurturing to become the community it is today. At BACN, there is an important distinction between what it means to be a charity versus a community. A charity meets a need to help make people’s lives better. Charity is necessary and important, but is also more of an immediate fix. Community, however, moves beyond charity to work collectively over time to improve people’s lives. Community encourages empowerment, personal relationships, focuses on the long-term, and develops interdependence. It operates out of a place of respect. Some of the other essential components in BACN’s transformation are trust, solid leadership, collaborative relationships, and a base of reliable, compassionate volunteers.
Respect is infused in the finest of details at BACN, for example the simple change over time from the word ‘client’ to ‘neighbor.’ Additionally, all of BACN’s signage is written in the positive. You will never see a sign that says “please do not….” Respect is found in the simple gesture of coffee and danishes in the kitchen. It is in the warm welcome at the front desk. It is a hello, a kind word, a smile in the hallways. It is in the humanity and sincerity behind those small gestures that differentiates BACN from many other organizations.
Respect is also demonstrated in the belief those in need also deserve to have input into their well being. Kay says,“Coming from my background, I knew that people in poverty have something to say. That’s why we need them as volunteers and on our board of directors. They know their needs. We don’t need to tell them.” Currently, BACN has one neighbor seated on its board and hopes to see that number grow.
If someone was just passing through the hallways at BACN, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to differentiate between the neighbors who receive services and those who do not. This is a true testament to the fact that the environment is grounded in respect. There also seems to be an unspoken understanding that everyone is on equal footing regardless of circumstance, whether they are a wealthy summer resident or a neighbor trying to feed their family that week. It is the mantra in action that “everyone has gifts to give and needs to be met.”
Some describe a much different BACN in its earlier days. One of BACN’s original volunteers observed, “When I first started [volunteering], I got the feeling that there was an initial judgmental attitude, not spoken, but that skepticism of ‘are you telling the truth?’ There was such distrust. There were even red flags on some of the files. That’s changed a lot. People are treated with more courtesy and in a respectful way, like they are family. Volunteers that were dissatisfied with that weeded themselves out. Those are the people that are no longer here. The majority [of neighbors] are truthful. You have to treat people based on the truthful people and not the small percentage that are not. The way they have been treated by other agencies, in some cases, they have learned to not be truthful. If people know you respect their opinion and believe what they are saying, in turn they will be truthful to you.”
It is now difficult to believe a time existed when volunteers discouraged neighbors from visiting too often, keeping close tabs on those who “came back all the time” or sometimes even turning people away. Neighbors are now encouraged to return as often as necessary. While ‘BACN bucks,’ are allocated per month based on family size, there are no constraints on shopping for clothing or housewares. In fact, some neighbors return often for nothing more than the social aspect, exchanging stories and conversation with others. In the past, some were uncomfortable with those who returned regularly for clothing, later selling the items in a yard sale. Today, BACN stands firmly behind the philosophy that “you have to give it away for more to flow in.” The clothing donations flow in faster than they can be sorted. If a family sells clothing at a yard sale, it is seen as another means of providing income and meeting a need.
Leadership also played an essential role in BACN’s growth and evolution toward community. According to Skip Comber, vice chairperson,“There is no doubt Kay has a compassion and a passion for the people we serve. The leader sets the tone. Today BACN is a healthier environment to be in. We don’t want to be just another social service organization without caring for and about the people. Kay is a pusher and a go-getter, it is hard for the board to keep up with her. We wouldn’t be able to help the number of people we are helping without her. We have got a board that is not satisfied with the status quo. We are always looking for new opportunities to help neighbors in the community. She is a driving force. Kay thinks big. ‘What else can we do?’ There is only so much volunteers can do without a strong leader.”
The board has both a clear strategic and fund development plans in place. They use consultants and other outside organizations as needed to continue to strengthen them in their mission. In BACN’s most recent fundraiser, board members showed their commitment with an additional $5,000 match to challenge the community to dig deeper and give more.
Collaboration is essential for the development of any community. With time and Kay’s persistent effort at relationship building, BACN was also able to expand its reach and programming by teaming up with the Father Fred Foundation, the Department of Human Services, Northwest Michigan Community Action Agency, Goodwill, Love Inc. Community Center and the Salvation Army. The collaboration strengthens the sense of community, and the sentiment “we are all in this together.” According to Skip Comber, “This shows how you can cooperate with various services in a region so that BACN doesn’t have to carry the full load. The ties within the community have been strengthened. When we started, we were a last resort and now BACN is one of the primary resources when people need help.”
Serving approximately 2600 neighbors a month is no small feat and BACN makes this happen with only 2 1/2 paid staff! Its loyal volunteers are the pulse and heartbeat of BACN. Their commitment and hours are invaluable not just from a financial standpoint (using the rate allowed by the IRS, volunteer hours are valued at $211,929!), but because they are the BACN community. As mentioned previously, 25% of BACN’s volunteers previously or currently receive services.
Diane’s remarkable story brings this statistic to life. She was a media buyer and PR manager in Touson, Arizona when she became a casualty of the bad economy. She reunited with an old high school friend and moved to Benzie for a fresh start. Diane braved the move with only two suitcases and scarce employment options. One Sunday, Kay Bond was a guest speaker at Diane’s church, talking about BACN and its services. Diane thought to herself, “I wonder if they can help me?” Shortly thereafter, she paid a visit to BACN. She was grateful to qualify for assistance, but also gave back by volunteering. Diane volunteered in the food pantry for six months, then the clothing center. In the time she spent there, another volunteer coordinator encouraged her to attend a meeting for a new program called WOW (women on their way out of poverty). The program helped women in their pursuit of higher education through classes at Northwestern Michigan Community College. It was only a matter of time before Diane became involved in the meetings, mentored the women, and even attended graduations. When a position became available on BACN’s board, Kay encouraged Diane to pursue it and gave her a glowing recommendation.
Today, Diane manages the front office 20 hours/week. She says, “Personally I feel I was treated like a friend, not someone who needed a handout. I was not just #1, #2, #3 or #4. They knew I was new to the community and helped me get acquainted and shared job leads. I made dear friends through WOW and learned the true meaning of community at BACN.” Diane feels Kay was her biggest supporter who was also very attentive to her capabilities. Recognizing Diane’s gifts and skill sets, Kay often gave her special projects.
From her first day, Kay stressed the importance of inviting neighbors to be a part of the organization, “This gives people the opportunity to get to know one another. When you realize each of you has something special to offer and everyone has needs, then it becomes a level playing field.” Clearly, Kay’s message is powerful and well received. When she started, there were 25 names on the volunteer list with only an estimated 15-18 active compared to today’s list of 145.
With regard to its volunteers, Gerri Van Antwerp observes, “I have learned a great deal about passion for a mission watching three very dedicated, rather quiet women who show up at BACN every first and third Monday of the month. They are committed to helping their neighbor and never see it as a chore. I admire their gentle nature in helping the blind guest locate the right size clothing, or digging through the piles of unsorted linen to find a twin size blanket for a shopper and they just pick up a dust cloth when they see the need. They never get flustered when asked to switch gears and stuff envelopes. Nothing is a big deal. When one is sick the others work harder to fill the gap. When I print the schedule incorrectly they still show up on time every time. Sometimes I tease about their reliability and they just answer, "We told you we'd be here." Graciously they are - every first and third Monday. “
A New Place to Call Home
After the JLMF’s initial grant to BACN in 2008, an ongoing dialogue began about its needs. The first of these was the funding for a Service Coordinator position to manage the large base of volunteers who log approximately 1000 combined hours/month. After many interviews, Gerri VanAntwerp was selected for this role. Managing and tracking the schedules and responsibilities of 145 volunteers is critical to BACN’s daily operations. Gerri is modest about the skill and finesse required to accomplish this. She says, “BACN volunteers believe in what they do, who they are, and their purpose to help each time they walk through the doors. I am simply there to support them.”
The summer of 2009, Kay explored the possibility of acquiring a vacant 14,000 square foot building across the street to accommodate the need in Benzie County which tripled in 18 months time. The building was owned by area resident Laura Shelden and was on the market for a number of years. The initial discussions involved Laura gifting the building to BACN, in exchange for a token amount to off-set repairs for roof damage. BACN proceeded with an offer, but after a month of waiting and wondering, BACN learned the building was now listed for $250,000 and gifting was no longer a possibility. If they wanted to move ahead with a purchase, they were required to put in another offer. The board of directors approved an offer not to exceed $100,000. Ironically, other mysterious possible buyers were now in the mix, and the process was becoming time consuming and frustrating.
After a phone call to discuss the situation, Brian Mulvaney met with Kay to tour the proposed new building. As he recalls, “I agreed to fund $75,000 for the purchase of the new building. I also talked strategy with Kay in terms of presenting the offer in such a way that would get a quick and definitive response. In a nutshell, I told her to communicate that she has a solid commitment from the foundation to purchase at a fixed, non-negotiable price and that this commitment had a time limit for consideration. If the seller exceeded the time frame for consideration, the foundation would pull the funding. I did not believe for a moment there was another offer or even a prospective buyer in the picture. I did believe, however, a short term offer with a no negotiation position would force the issue. I also suggested that Kay tell them we had toured the building and were aware of the issues with it as well as the state of the local real estate market. We also discussed using this as an opportunity to raise additional funds and I volunteered our foundation’s PR/ writing/communication skills.”
That was all it took before BACN was the proud owner of 2804 Benzie Hwy. The offer was accepted and new challenges lied ahead to bring the building up to code and raise the funding for required renovations to make the space usable and functional. Remarkably, of the $86,072 required to make this happen, $77,741 was provided by 110 donors and the remainder from the sale of the old location. This is the same organization that only months before was operating with a budget of $35,000/year. By April 2010, and the help of its unwavering volunteers, BACN moved in to its new home. It was a seamless transition with no disruption of services to its neighbors.
The new building not only enhanced the physical space, but also BACN’s ability to provide a range of amazing services to the community. The food pantry doubled in size, creating a space (as described earlier) that resembles a small grocery store. Large refrigerator units added items like milk and eggs for neighbors. There is now a dedicated space for the GED classes offered two days a week, as well as one on one training. The WOW Program (a program assisting women to attend Northwest Michigan College) expanded, sending 7 women to college in 2010. A computer lab allows neighbors to work on resumes, job searches, or education. Additionally, there is a special area for children to play (viewable through a glass panel which separates the classroom from the play area) while parents take classes. The reception area is not only more welcoming, but it allows for greater efficiency and shorter wait times for neighbors.
In every aspect of its operations, BACN employees and volunteers experienced a shift. There was a direct link between the physical environment and how good it made people feel to be a part of it. The new space is the result of a community coming together, so there is a distinct feeling of pride as people walk through the hallways. The “newness” also adds a much greater sense of dignity to all of the neighbors served. In its own subtle way, BACN is saying, “you are important to us and you deserve to be treated in the best way possible as we do what we can to help.”
The new space helped facilitate BACN’s shift from charity to community. The larger building made it easier to become a centralized community location to nurture and provide services to care for the whole person. A recent example is called “Grow Benzie,” a community garden located on Hwy. 115. BACN constantly brainstorms new ways to collaborate with other organizations and members of the area to nurture the human spirit. Whether it is a cooking class or an education class, there is something for everyone. BACN now opens its doors to neighbors four days a week.
Directly or indirectly, the purchase of the new building set into motion a domino effect. The John L. Mulvaney Foundation was truly impressed with how BACN seized the opportunity presented and ran with it. Their quick turnaround, ability to get the additional funding, and the overall strides they made as an organization are remarkable. In a year and a half time span, they had grown leaps and bounds. Knowing this organization was special, the JLMF only deepened its commitment to BACN. Working closely with Kay and Gerri (who by this time had become Kay’s right-hand) to further enhance its presence in the community, together they built a website, created a new brochure, and worked on PR for fundraising.
In the summer of 2010, BACN’s first summer in its new home, the JLMF offered up a matching grant to help incentivize the summer residents of Benzie County to contribute. They agreed to match dollar for dollar up to $20,000 and helped to roll out the initiative with PR. That summer, BACN raised $20,090 and met the maximum match. Remarkable is that with the same annual appeal the previous summer, BACN raised only $12,000. This marked a significant increase in its ability to gain funding. Skip Comber, vice chairperson, stated, “the JLMF helped give BACN validation that this is a well run organization. It also opened the door for other organizations to come in.”
The following summer of 2011, the JLMF upped the stakes a bit and offered to match dollar for dollar up to $25,000. BACN called this the “BACN Match Campaign” and demonstrated its strong commitment from board members with an additional $5,000 match for a total match campaign of $30,000. By August 2011, BACN raised a record amount. Before the match, they raised a grand total of $54,533. This was an amazing feat and is the perfect illustration of just how far BACN had come. The grand total (which included a bonus $5,000 match from the JLMF) was an astounding $89,533.
Now, with new organizations coming in and more grant possibilities, BACN was financially in a whole new ballgame. From $35,000 to $360,000 in four years time, statistically a 900% increase!
Meet the Neighbors
In the entry to BACN is a nondescript binder filled with notebook paper, but this simple binder tells the real story with the heartfelt thanks and gratitude filling its pages. A beautiful example arrived in the form of a letter from a neighbor, which stated,
“My husband and I have always appreciated the help that you have been able to give us when times were rough. Now that we are starting to do better, I would like to reciprocate the help. Please accept this donation of $10 to help others in need as you helped us. We have included you in our monthly budget, so hopefully I will be able to send you ten or more every month. God bless you and your organization and thank you again for all the wonderful and helpful things you do for the community.”
Gerri Van Antwerp shares stories of two neighbors in particular who truly engender the spirit of BACN.
“Jack was an everyday visitor to BACN in my early years. He would back his old white van into the lot and everyone knew he was here. He designated the curb alongside the building as his spot. Jack didn't ask for much - occasionally he would take his alotment of BACN Bucks but, most days it was a jar of peanut butter and a loaf of bread. He would empty the spare change from his pocket, share a lint covered piece of hard candy with me and head to the clothing center to peruse the goods. Both Jack and his wife would clean and mend some of the donated clothing and he would return them in give away condition. He occasionally would find something he called "a keeper" and he would smile his signature toothless grin. It’s all true, Jack was all that and a bit of a challenge too.
During my first few months at BACN, I remarried. When Jack found out, he arrived at the office door with a wedding gift, his and her fishing rods. It seems Jack had a talent when it came to refurbishing old rods and reels. He said it would be something my new husband and I could do together, no talking necessary, just catching a little dinner together might be fun. Jack knew I was a girl from the suburbs and my husband was the outdoor type. Little did I know he was sharing a lesson he probably learned in his own life, spend time with those who matter. When Jack passed suddenly from an infection, it was my first loss here at BACN. He will be one of those folks who passed through my life to teach me a few things.
Alice is the sweetest ‘ol gal in the place. She is inspiring. Her simple life is what it is and she has all she needs. Each visit she is sure to greet the volunteers and thank each one. On Monday she comes for reading lessons. Alice is over 70 years old. She is learning the Internet and she shares her email notes from a new boyfriend. Alice lives with her children, each family taking their turn giving up a room for her. She is always always happy. Life is too good to get her down. "No use,” she tells me. She has her southern accent and her happy disposition and each time she enters the building we can feel it. ‘Nothing wrong with needing a little help and most of us gotta get better at asking for it.’ Isn't that the truth?”
A New Chapter
As BACN concluded its biggest fundraiser success to date, a big announcement followed. Kay Bond made the difficult decision to retire, effective December 31, 2011. After enduring a long Michigan winter that year riddled with health problems, Kay decided it was the right time to truly slow down and enjoy some travel and quality time with her husband Randy. This is the announcement as it read on the website:
“As we express our good wishes to Kay Bond on her year-end retirement, let’s remember what she has meant to BACN as its first Executive Director. Starting out in 2006 in the cottage across the street with a meager budget of $35,000 (supplied mostly by local churches), Kay has brought BACN to recognition as the second largest resource center in northwestern Michigan, known now to everyone in Benzie County with a budget of $360,000 to assist neighbors in our area. Kay’s vision has stretched not only the size of BACN, but also its program. No longer is it only a food, utility and clothing assistance organization. It now provides educational support for adults wanting high school diplomas and those women on their way to get a college education and better employment opportunities. Benzie County is deeply indebted to Kay for walking the walk, talking the talk, and expending untold hours and energy on behalf of those in need. It is with sincere gratitude that we wish her well in the years to come.”
Kay’s selfless spirit and conviction about BACN brought about a significant change to a community who was waiting for someone to be its voice, to believe in and advocate for them. Kay did just that, and the BACN community will surely take the momentum she helped build and continue to move forward. As one chapter comes to a close for BACN, a new one begins, as Gerri Van Antwerp makes a seamless transition into the role of Executive Director. Her many contributions, but more importantly her passion for BACN, prepared her well for the role. She humbly embraces the opportunity and responsibility as she looks forward to 2012, which will be BACN’s 30th year. As BACN’s story continues to unfold, the Benzie community continues to care for each other, just as neighbors do.