A summer job at Camp Manitou-Lin in Middleville turned into a 10-year stay and set Dennis Van Kampen on the path toward a career in human services. Photo by Michael Buck
Dennis Van Kampen remembers journeying with a friend to Juarez, Mexico, in 1988 for what would prove to be far from the typical touristy experience.
“I visited a dump,” Van Kampen said of the short-term mission trip he enlisted in with Youth With a Mission. “The kids there weren’t going to school, because their job was to go to a dump and sort through things they could sell. I was there wearing Guess Jeans. I couldn’t buy another pair after that.”
The trip to Mexico is one reason Van Kampen is the CEO of Mel Trotter Ministries to those he equates as modern-day lepers: the homeless and hurting; the drug addicts; the panhandlers standing on street corners holding handwritten signs on pieces of cardboard pleading for donations; and the inebriated blamed for closing a donut shop earlier this year a few blocks away from MTM.
“In some ways, the homeless are the lepers of today,” Van Kampen said. “Do we follow Jesus’ interaction with the lepers where he did exactly the opposite of what the Levitical law was and he ministered to them? He tried to solve their problems.”
For Van Kampen, it’s a rhetorical question, as it is for MTM, a multifaceted outreach based in the Heartside district, an area in downtown Grand Rapids that is bounded approximately by Fulton and Wealthy streets and Grandville and Lafayette avenues.
Founded in 1900 by former alcoholic turned minister Rev. Melvin Ernest Trotter, the nonprofit’s panoply of services and programs include but are not limited to, a food pantry, job training, transitional housing, substance abuse recovery program, a day center that helps the homeless find homes and employment, dental, vision, chiropractic and legal clinics, a men’s, women’s and children’s shelter and a youth emergency shelter, a substance abuse recovery program and, its most recent development, a satellite outreach in the Rockford area.
The people MTM serve include those chronically mentally ill, men, women and children regardless of age who are homeless, those addicted to drugs and alcohol and LGBTQ people — in all 4,600 people last year thanks to an $11 million budget and the help of 120 staff members.
DENNIS VAN KAMPEN
Biggest Career Break: Hiring on as director of Camp Manitou-Lin in Middleville.
“What distinguishes us from other organizations for the homeless is Mel Trotter is the only place in town that helps anyone who is homeless, they will be served,” Van Kampen said.
“A lot of missions, to be honest, are not open to the LGBTQ who are homeless. We are. It’s why we have Safe Place stickers on our doors. We are a rescue mission that is supposed to demonstrate the compassion of Christ to the hungry, hurting and homeless. No preconditions.”
Van Kampen’s work with MTM is both challenging and rewarding, and to a degree, unplanned.
“My career would make no sense,” Van Kampen said bluntly.
An epic failure of vocation foresight? Van Kampen sees his life in a different light.
When he was younger, Van Kampen felt destined for a career in law enforcement. After graduating in 1988 from Grand Rapids Community College with a degree in criminal justice, Van Kampen worked as a reserve officer for the Ottawa County Sheriff’s Department.
He also was advised to train as a paramedic to increase his chances of snagging a full-time job as a police officer, and so, in 1991, Van Kampen earned a diploma in paramedic studies from Davenport University.
While studying at Davenport, YMCA Greater Grand Rapids’ Camp Manitou-Lin in Middleville hired Van Kampen in 1990 for what he assumed would be a summer job.
“I stayed there 10 years and, eventually, became its executive director,” Van Kampen said. “As immature as I was, I felt (conflicted): Do you want to be in law enforcement or work at the camp where you change people’s lives? I stayed with the (Sherriff’s) reserve department for 15 years but then stayed at Camp Manitou-Lin for 10 years and then went to another camp in Akron, Ohio (Camp Y-Noah, 1999-2001).”
From 2001-05, Van Kampen served as a children’s pastor at Mars Hill Bible Church in Grandville; from 2005-08, he was a children’s pastor at Hope Evangelical Free Church in Mason, Ohio, and from 2008-11, he was executive director of Camp Henry in Newaygo.
It was while he was working at Camp Henry that Van Kampen’s wife told him about an opening at MTM for vice president of programs. The idea initially didn’t appeal to him, but now he realizes the job encapsulates his entire skillset. He was hired in 2012 and became the MTM’s CEO in 2015.
“I’ve since found out my job at Mel Trotter is part cop, part teacher (Van Kampen teaches professional and graduate studies at Cornerstone University), part leader and director of nonprofit leadership. Everything I did previously has led to this job,” Van Kampen said.
Van Kampen said his varied experience means he’s not a Pollyanna when it comes to the plight of the homeless, nor to the perceptions that swirl around them.
Such talk came to a head in July, when Propaganda Doughnuts announced it was closing because its customers were being harassed by panhandlers and intoxicated people passed out on the sidewalks and in doorways and urinating in public. The business was about a block north of MTM.
“Nobody at Mel Trotter can support public urination or drug dealing. That is breaking the law,” Van Kampen said. “One of the things I strongly believe in is we can’t truly be a Cool City unless we’re embracing everyone equally, and we’re willing to help those who need the most help. Most people who are on South Division and are urinating in the streets, the vast majority of them are chronically mentally ill and, probably as a result of that, also have an addiction. So it seems to me as a community, we should be able to get together and say we are going to do something about the least of these.”
Despite this aspect of the Heartside neighborhood, Van Kampen believes businesses can earn a profit, but they need to do their homework before opening their doors.
“We see examples of businesses being viable up and down the Heartside neighborhood,” he said. “I think there’s a question of what kind of a business? There was a high-end shoe store in Heartside that didn’t do well, and they moved the store to Eastown and they’re doing extremely well. That looks to me like capitalism 101.”
Another thorny issue with some is the panhandlers seen on street corners holding cardboard signs asking for donations, often claiming they are homeless and hungry.
To give or not to give? Van Kampen provides nuanced advice.
“I have given donations, but I usually don’t,” Van Kampen said. “But most of the time, I don’t give because many of the people who are panhandling are not actually homeless. That doesn’t mean they’re not in need, but I don’t want to serve as a reward for that kind of behavior.”
Recently, MTM linked arms with Rockford-based North Kent Community Services to make connections with the homeless in the municipalities of Rockford, Sparta, Cedar Spring and Kent City.
“The outlying homeless as far as Kent City and the West Side of Grand Rapids are not going to cross the (Grand) River and go to Heartside,” Van Kampen said. “But yet, our mission is to demonstrate the compassion of Christ to the hungry, hurting and homeless, so we believe to be good stewards of what we have here, we need to keeping going to Judea and Samaria and the ends of the Earth.
“We have four staff members (who are) spending part of their day working out of North Kent Services, and their job is to go out and identify and build relationships with the homeless.”