Street Talk: Financial literacy


A community bank has ramped up its efforts to reach Spanish-speaking customers.

Sparta-based ChoiceOne Bank serves hundreds of local farms that employ seasonal help from Central America and South America. The bank said migrants, as well as the many Spanish-speaking permanent residents in the region, often struggle to get professional services in Spanish.

As a result, in 2016, ChoiceOne Bank started offering Spanish classes to its employees to foster better communication. The program, in which employees can enroll voluntarily, has returned for the third year as the region’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

“Our employees at ChoiceOne Bank exemplify what it means to be a community bank,” said Kelly Potes, president and CEO. “These employees volunteer their personal time in the evenings because they want to help our customers. I am truly grateful for our hard-working bankers.”

Maria Krawczyk, owner of MI Spanish Connections, teaches the classes. More than 20 employees from various ChoiceOne Bank divisions, including mortgage, branch banking, marketing and courier services, have enrolled in the 10-week program — which is now one week longer than when it launched.

Classes consist of learning conversational Spanish using financial terms and numbers, along with practicing banking transactions with fake currency and banking tickets.

Becky Kwekel, assistant branch manager at ChoiceOne’s Alpine branch, played a key role in the program’s success this year, according to the bank.

“I personally learned the importance of meeting our customers where they’re at during their banking experience,” said Frank Acosta, a marketing assistant at the bank who enrolled in the classes.

In addition to offering the Spanish classes, ChoiceOne has a bilingual staff that helps Spanish customers with their personal and business finances.

The bank also has a Spanish customer service line, Hola! Linea, (616) 887-2342, which directs calls to bilingual employees who answer in Spanish.

Citing the latest U.S. census data, ChoiceOne Bank said Latinos represent 16 percent of Grand Rapids’ population, making it the city’s largest minority group. The Hispanic population is projected to increase in the years to come. Meanwhile, the number of Hispanic businesses, such as supermarkets, restaurants, shops and services, also is increasing.

Taking action

In conjunction with its 50th anniversary celebration, a local nonprofit honored individuals and businesses dedicated to environmental action.

Grand Rapids-based West Michigan Environmental Action Council’s recent annual meeting and 50th anniversary celebration recognized the contributions of several local individuals.

Grand Rapids Public Schools Superintendent Teresa Weatherall Neal received the Joan Wolfe Award, which recognizes important contributions to WMEAC’s organizational development over the course of several years.

Neal implemented the Teach for the Watershed Program for all GRPS sixth-graders, which provides “hands-on science education in both the classroom and the field,” according to WMEAC.

She also has fostered collaboration among several West Michigan organizations regarding the development of a K-12 environmental education curriculum.

WMEAC also honored Rick Rediske, senior program manager and professor at the Robert B. Annis Water Resources Institute of Grand Valley State University, with the CR Evenson Award, recognizing an individual’s long-term dedication to environmental protection in Michigan.

Rediske’s areas of expertise include environmental toxicity and hazardous waste site assessment.

He has worked during the past five years to advise local activists and support efforts to clean up the Wolverine Worldwide tannery site in Rockford in tandem with the Concerned Citizens for Responsible Redevelopment (CCRR) and WMEAC.

WMEAC also recognized the following individuals and businesses at the meeting: Bill Mull, Godwin Heights Public Schools, Educator of the Year; Brewery Vivant, Business of the Year; Fran Dalton, Garfield Park Neighborhoods Association, Volunteer of the Year; and Suzanne Dixon as Activist of the Year for her work with Saugatuck Dunes Coastal Alliance, Kalamazoo River Sturgeon for Tomorrow and League of Women Voters.

Toy soldiers

Gun Lake Casino is teaming up with Lakeshore Toys for Tots to be a drop-off location for toy donations. The casino also will provide up to $10 in free slot play per day to any guests who donate.

“We recognize that it’s important to give to this great cause,” said Sal Semola, president and CEO of Gun Lake Casino. “We thank our guests and offer this free slot play to show our gratitude for their donations.”

Casino-goers can bring donations to the rewards center in the casino, 1123 129th Ave., Wayland, along with the toy receipt. Gun Lake Casino will match the amount a guest spent on the donated item, with a limit of $10 per day. Donations will be accepted through Dec. 16.

“The local Marine Corps Reserve Toys for Tots-Lakeshore Detachment is proud to partner with Gun Lake Casino in our 2018 Toy Drive,” said Gunnery Sgt. Ed Lopez, coordinator for the Lakeshore Toys for Tots. “Gun Lake Casino and Lakeshore Toys for Tots have partnered for several years to provide toys to the needy in the Gun Lake and Lakeshore areas.”

Filtration station

A group of Hope College students researching global water issues in 25 countries is tracking what they think could be a worldwide solution to unsafe drinking water.

One of the countries being studied is Fiji, which has dealt with three hurricanes in the past two years that have left about 500,000 people — nearly 50 percent of the island’s population — without access to safe water.

While nonprofit teams are in Fiji delivering Sawyer PointONE water filters and teaching residents how to clean them, Hope College students are on the Holland campus tracking and researching the filters’ results.

“This is a rare opportunity where college students can answer scientific questions about global water supplies, as well as see the actual impact these filters have on people’s lives,” said Aaron Best, Hope College professor of genetics and department chair.

Hope College students developed a survey presented to Fijian households before using the filters and again after daily use is implemented.

Residents are asked about how often they have diarrhea, how often they have missed school or work due to illness, and how much money they are spending on water and health care related to waterborne disease.

The data show after two weeks of Fijian communities using the filters, the number of those with diarrhea dropped from 15-17 percent to below 2 percent.

“This is a project with Sawyer that allows us to see immediate impact, and that’s gratifying not only for me as a researcher but also for my students. This gives them the opportunity to come in and research something they know will have an impact on the world,” Best said.

The students are collecting and testing filters placed in all 25 of the countries to see the various types of bacteria and pathogens in the water. They have seen a reduction in bacteria after passing the water through the collected filters and again through a second filter.

“So, if people from these specific countries aren’t using a Sawyer filter with their drinking water, then they are exposing themselves to potential disease-causing bacteria,” said Meghana Sunder, a Hope College sophomore studying biology and computer science.

The students said their part in the project goes beyond the data they’re gathering.

“It’s a special feeling to know you’re part of something bigger and that you’re doing something that is helping people from all around the world,” said Jacob Spry, a Hope College junior studying biology.

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