Kate Pew Wolters, president of the Kate and Richard Wolters Foundation, is a proponent of early education, which is why she’s a supporter of turning around Grand Rapids Public Schools. Courtesy Grand Rapids Community Foundation
One of the reasons Grand Rapids is continually referred to as a generous city is because of people like Kate Pew Wolters.
Wolters, president of the Kate and Richard Wolters Foundation, as well as a member of the Steelcase board of directors and chair of the Steelcase Foundation, is a busy lady when it comes to philanthropy. She currently serves as co-chair of the First Steps Commission and as a board member of both the Progressive Women’s Alliance of West Michigan and Michigan Protection and Advocacy Service. She’s also worked with a number of nonprofits, including the Grand Rapids Art Museum Foundation, Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts, Michigan State University Foundation, Aquinas College, Indian Trails Camp and Disability Funders Network.
Her leadership and advocacy caught the recognition of national leaders like President Bill Clinton, who in 1994 appointed her to the National Council on Disability, and state leaders like Gov. Jennifer Granholm, who in 2004 named Wolters to the Grand Valley State University board of trustees, a position Gov. Rick Snyder reappointed her to this year.
It was her work with Grand Rapids Community Foundation, however, for which Wolters received her latest recognition. On Friday, the foundation named her the 16th recipient of the Jack Chaille Community Philanthropy Award for her philanthropic and community efforts.
Some of her milestone contributions to the foundation include being co-chair in the Challenge Scholars education campaign, her planned giving involvement in the Metz Society and the creation of the Kate Pew Wolters Fund.
“Kate is a tireless visionary and we honor her with equal enthusiasm,” said Diana Sieger, president of the Grand Rapids Community Foundation. “Her support of this community and our Community Foundation has been long-standing and outstanding. She has big ideas backed by a big heart, and we’re honored to recognize her as a leader in our donor family.”
Wolters said she is flattered by the award, adding that, while the new Grand Rapids Art Museum is one of the projects of which she’s most proud, she warned against getting so caught up in creating new buildings that we forget their purpose.
“We can get a little wrapped up in buildings as opposed to what goes on inside the buildings, what goes on outside the buildings. In our community, we’re very, very fortunate to have some good spaces, but we have a lot of disparity still,” she said. “We have disparity in the public school system. We have disparity in housing, poverty and a lot of different areas.”
Many of Wolters’ projects focus on two key issues, she said: art and social justice. An issue she’s currently focused on is early education.
“Business Leaders For Michigan put early childhood in the top three issues they think are important,” she said. “Our governor has said it is critical that all of our children at the age of 4 have good, quality preschool. The chambers of commerce have said the same thing. I believe people are getting it.”
The key to addressing the problem lies in partnerships between the public and private sectors, she said. Although some in the private sector might have a knee-jerk reaction against anything that comes out of the government, Wolters believes a friendly partnership between the two is what will work best in serving Grand Rapids.
“I’m not the type of person who believes that just because it’s government-funded, it is inefficient. … The problem is you’ve got people involved in all of that. If you’ve got bad people in the private sector or public sector, it’s going to go (badly),” she said.
“I think we need to support people that are really trying to pull themselves up, and that includes organizations like the Grand Rapids Public Schools. They’re really trying hard to turn it around. They’ve got a great plan and we need to be supportive. We need to support anything that supports children.
“I think, until we have an educated populace, we’re not going anywhere.”