Downtown Grand Rapids homeless shelter Dégagé Ministries said Thursday that longtime Executive Director Marge Palmerlee will retire effective this month and a new leader was chosen to replace her.
Thelma Ensink was named to succeed Palmerlee and already has begun working in her new role.
Palmerlee joined Dégagé 27 years ago, first as a volunteer and then as executive director for the past 23 years. Dégagé credits her with shaping the nonprofit into the organization it is today by encouraging staff and volunteers to create and offer programs that first and foremost foster dignity and respect for every patron.
Under her leadership, the organization grew to serve more than 500 people daily, employ 50 staff members and operate with a $2 million budget. One of her main contributions to the Heartside community is the Open Door Women’s Center, which she spearheaded in 2003 at a time when safe overnight crisis services were not readily available for women. Since then, more than 4,800 women have stayed at the Open Door, and numerous women have been relocated into sustainable housing, as well.
Over the years, Palmerlee has addressed issues affecting the most vulnerable in Grand Rapids, such as panhandling and shelter for those struggling with drug addiction and mental health, among others. She has worked on committees and boards addressing a variety of needs within the Heartside community, seeking to collaborate with business and nonprofit leaders to make an impact on Dégagé’s patrons and the community.
Palmerlee leaves Dégagé with the ball already rolling on the organization’s $6.7 million capital expansion project, Building Dignity through Christ. The expansion and renovation project has raised $4.7 million so far, and construction has begun.
“It has truly been an honor and a privilege to be a part of Dégagé Ministries,” Palmerlee said. “As I reflect on the past 23 years, I stand in awe at all the people God has brought together to further His kingdom. I have had the joy of working with courageous board members, compassionate staff, committed donors and faithful volunteers. But it is the amazing patrons we serve who inspire me every day. Words cannot describe the blessings I have received knowing we have walked this journey together, obediently following the Lord’s leading. It is a joy working with bold staff who dare to dream big dreams and step out in faith to make them happen.”
Ensink was selected to succeed Palmerlee after an extensive search.
She most recently held positions with Grandville Calvin Christian Schools. Ensink said her passion to walk alongside the marginalized began when she was a young girl growing up in South Africa during apartheid and continued when she immigrated to the U.S. and worked as a paramedic in Grand Rapids for American Medical Response, during which she became acquainted with Dégagé. Her prior experience includes managing a rural Ionia County medical practice, developing curriculum programs for students and co-founding Ambassador High at Calvin Christian Schools. She said these experiences, as well as her faith, led her to Dégagé.
“God’s been moving my heart to work directly with the most vulnerable people in our community,” Ensink said. “I’ve been fortunate to have leadership opportunities in a variety of areas, and personal experiences that have taught me to see all people as created in the image of God, filled with gifts and the potential to positively impact their community. I couldn’t be more excited to begin walking alongside the patrons who are served by Dégagé and continue (its) work to make sure all have a place where they feel safe and can experience dignity and respect.”
Ensink earned a bachelor’s degree in secondary education and teaching from what was then Calvin College and a master’s degree in educational leadership and administration from Grand Valley State University.
She serves on the board of directors for Safe Haven Ministries and is a certified trainer for the International Institute for Restorative Practices.
“I am so pleased that Thelma Ensink has been chosen to carry on the mission of Dégagé,” Palmerlee said. “Faith is the foundation upon which this ministry is built, and I am confident that Thelma will continue that heritage. She shares my values and commitment to keeping Christ at the center of this ministry.”
Fred Lake, board chair, thanked Palmerlee for her service.
“In her 23 years as executive director, Marge has led Dégagé through a remarkable amount of change and has helped the organization grow in the ways we serve those in need, especially women in need. Her focus has always been on our mission and on demonstrating Christ’s love for our patrons, both through our programming and in her personal interactions,” said. “We are excited to have Thelma join Dégagé and feel confident that she will demonstrate that same love for our patrons and strong commitment to our mission. Thelma’s background and leadership skills will help Dégagé’s staff find new ways to empower our patrons as we move into the future.”
Founded in 1967, Dégagé is a 501(c)3 ecumenical nonprofit that builds relationships and offers programs to foster dignity and respect for the populations it serves.
In 2019, Dégagé provided 60,006 meals, 17,758 showers and loads of laundry, assisted with 10,870 visits in the organization’s resource office, distributed 9,116 bus tickets and 19,576 Dégagé Dollar vouchers and moved 77 women into sustainable housing.