Elizabeth Bracken considered studying law, but her affinity for numbers led her to major in finance at GVSU. Photo by Michael Buck
There are low-income children in Grand Rapids whose lives are brighter because Elizabeth “Liz” Bracken didn’t want her two daughters to think Christmas centered only on amassing as many gifts as possible.
“My kids at that age had the ‘greedy-gimmes,’” recalled Bracken. “I wanted to find something they could relate to and participate in.”
What that “something” was Bracken initially didn’t know, until she watched a story on “NBC Nightly News” about the Houston-based nonprofit Elves & More, founded by David Moore, a former senior executive for Accenture.
Elves & More raises money that goes toward purchasing bikes and helmets that are given to underprivileged children during the Yuletide season. It requires an all-out volunteer effort to make the giveaway possible.
Elves & More struck a chord with Bracken. She contacted Moore for his input and, in 2005, Bracken founded Elves & More West Michigan. During that first year, 400 bikes were purchased, assembled and distributed in December to children in the Black Hills neighborhood of Grand Rapids, which is bordered by Market and Hall streets SW and Godfrey and Freeman avenues.
Folks cast a wary eye during that giveaway since they had never heard of Elves & More West Michigan. “People were suspicious of it,” Bracken conceded. But not anymore.
No one except Bracken, volunteers and the Grand Rapids fire and police departments know which neighborhood will receive the bikes until the morning of the giveaway. On that day, a caravan of fire and police vehicles with sirens blaring cruise down the pre-selected streets. Signs attached to the vehicles and people barking into megaphones announce where the bikes will be given away.
Bracken relies on cridata.org to determine the lucky neighborhood. The website tells her how many children live in a given area, the poverty level and street boundaries.
“What we look for is a geographic delineation so kids on both sides of the streets get bikes,” said Bracken.
Since that inaugural year, the number of bikes and helmets given away has mushroomed to an annual average of 1,000 to 1,200 bikes and a lesser number of “treasure boxes” filled with hats, mittens, coloring books and toys for children too young to ride bikes.
To date, 8,600 new bikes and helmets and 2,600 treasure boxes have been donated to children in the Black Hills, Baxter, Roosevelt Park, Madison, Southwest Area Neighbors, Belknap and Southeast Community Association neighborhoods. Approximately $80,000 is raised annually to purchase the bikes, helmets and treasure boxes.
The annual outreach requires the help of 200 to 300 volunteers who assemble the bikes, assist children with selecting the right bike for them, and then help register the bikes with the city.
As successful as Elves & More West Michigan has become, Bracken would like to further extend her philanthropic side.
“I would like to have more time to do more charity work,” she said. “There are a lot of great projects, a lot of things we can still do to help people in the middle school and high school years.”
She knows that’s easier said than done.
“I think businesses need to try to interact even more with schools,” Bracken said. “I think that’s why West Michigan is so vibrant. Everybody recognizes that.”
Elves & More West Michigan isn’t the only entity Bracken became involved in from the ground up: She was in on the ground floor of forming Grand River Bank in 2007. It would be another two years before the bank received the necessary approvals and raised more than $17 million from local investors during one of the most turbulent financial markets in American history. Capitalizing on public disenchantment with bigger banks worked in Grand River Bank’s favor.
“It turned out to be an optimal time because a lot of banks were struggling and couldn’t give good customers good credit, which gave us an opportunity to pick up great customers because we didn’t have any problems with lending,” said Bracken.
The bank's single branch and headquarters is inside a former West Michigan Community Bank at 4471 Wilson Ave. SW near RiverTown Crossings Mall. Grand River Commerce Inc. is the bank’s holding company.
Grand River Bank has 32 full-time employees and offers a full line of traditional banking products and services. There are no immediate plans to open another branch.
“We don't’ need to branch out more to drive up more business,” Bracken said. “At the moment, it’s never off the table, but we have no immediate plans to do more branching. We’re building a community bank geared toward small business owners who are fighting day-to-day to earn scale.”
In 1997, Bracken had started working for Select Bank in Grand Rapids one year after its founding. Select Bank is now First Community Bank following a merger in 2012. It had eight employees at the time Bracken hired on, and she quickly “got to wear most hats.”
“I learned banking from the inside out,” she said. Her titles included vice president, CFO and COO before she left in 2007.
As with Select Bank, Bracken’s titles at Grand River Bank have included senior vice president, CFO and COO, the latter two of which she still holds. Earlier this year, she became Grand River’s third president.
Bracken is a self-described bookworm, a habit she cultivated as a child riding the city bus to the local library. Other pastimes include walking the trails at Blandford Nature Center. She still enjoys spending time camping outdoors.
Growing up, Bracken kicked around the idea of becoming a lawyer. That idea became more serious when she worked for a law firm while a student at Grand Valley State University, where she eventually earned a bachelor’s in finance in 1987. But the draw of working with numbers proved too strong.
“It’s a way to quantify and solve things,” Bracken said. “It gives you a direction. Numbers are black and white. Two and two are four.”
That affinity for numbers was perhaps shaped back in the days when Bracken worked her first job as a waitress in downtown Grand Rapids at the now-shuttered Byslma Pancake House.
“I had to learn to do math well in my head, making change,” she said. “I was shy as a kid and it forced me out of my comfort zone.”
She counts her grandmother, Leone Van Neuren, as the biggest influence in her life. Van Neuren worked in the Grand Rapids City Clerk’s office at a time when women working outside the home was an anomaly.
But stretching social conventions wasn’t the only influence Bracken’s grandmother exerted on her. It was her energy, work ethic and can-do attitude that lit a path for Bracken’s life.
“She just never let anything keep her down,” said Bracken. “Even when she was sick, she would try to make things nice for people by cooking and sewing. She was very giving and focused on helping other people. She always made it seem like it wasn’t difficult.”