In 2013, Claire Guisfredi met with a former client of North Kent Connect whose story changed everything.
Guisfredi — a Cleveland native who moved to West Michigan from Toledo in 2012 — had just been hired as executive director of the Rockford-based resource organization that then was known as North Kent Community Services.
At the time, the organization offered a food pantry and free clothing, had five employees and a $365,000 annual budget, and was mostly volunteer run. What it really needed was help expanding its funding and mission.
Guisfredi had a background in education, public relations, marketing and fund development, but this was her first role as an executive director.
“I was new to West Michigan, I didn’t know anything about food pantries, I never met a person who was Christian Reformed in my life, so that was a whole new thing for me, and I had never been an executive director,” she said.
To soak up everything she could about West Michigan’s culture and nonprofit landscape, she scheduled meetings with a slew of Kent County nonprofits.
On a tour of the West Michigan Center for Arts + Technology one day, she stopped in at a medical coding class and met a woman named Nanci who lived in Rockford and previously was a client of North Kent Connect. Guisfredi asked Nanci if she would be willing to meet with her later to share about her experience, and Nanci agreed.
Nanci was a single mom who had been working at Lowe’s, trying to make ends meet, when she was laid off. She started cutting hair to pay the bills but didn’t know what else to do, so she went to North Kent Connect and was given food and clothing.
“But (she said), ‘That’s not what I needed,’” Guisfredi recalled. She needed a way out of the downward spiral of poverty. She asked Guisfredi why the intake workers at North Kent hadn’t told her about WMCAT’s medical coding program, which she only heard about later through the grapevine.
“The light bulb went on, and I said, ‘You’re right, Nanci. You are absolutely right,’” Guisfredi said.
Organization: North Kent Connect
Guisfredi let the encounter “simmer” in her mind for a while, then she went to the board of directors and said, “We need to hire social workers” — people trained in connecting clients with resources to meet their needs.
“It was mostly a volunteer-run organization at the time, (with) lovely, wonderful volunteers, and they were good at handing out food or clothes, but they didn’t know how to connect the dots for people,” Guisfredi said. “If someone came to them saying, ‘I’m really stuck here, I’m in a rough spot. Can you help me figure out next steps?’ They didn’t know how; they didn’t know the resources. So, I raised the money and got our first social worker.”
After a few “bumpy years,” during which the nonprofit gradually expanded its capacity as it raised the needed funds, North Kent Connect added a client services department that now has a director and two case managers.
Guisfredi launched a $2.9 million capital campaign in 2018 that ultimately raised $3.5 million; oversaw an expansion that included a 12,400-square-foot addition to house its administrative offices and agency partners Arbor Circle, Family Promise of Grand Rapids, West Michigan Works!, and the Women, Infants, Children program; moved the organization’s new thrift store into its own space and added a larger food pantry that feels more like a grocery store; and built a day center families can use while they wait to be rehoused.
The organization has tripled its staff over the past nine years and now has a budget of $1.1 million. It serves clients in the northern half of Kent County, which encompasses Sparta, Kent City, Sand Lake, Cedar Springs, Rockford, Belmont, Comstock Park, Gowen, Grant and Greenville.
If North Kent Connect meets with a client it can’t help, the nonprofit now is able to connect them to other organizations that can. Her staff sits on “almost all” the Kent County Essential Needs Task Force committees, which tackle issues such as access to utilities, transportation, food and nutrition, and housing.
“My staff is well-versed in that if someone is coming needing help with utility assistance or rent or mortgage, or needs help with a job, we know where to refer them if we can’t do it,” Guisfredi said.
This isn’t the only value Guisfredi has added to the organization. She is inspired by an efficient, goal-oriented approach to leadership, drawing on her roots growing up as the second oldest of seven children in an entrepreneurial family.
Her father was raised in a low-income area of Cleveland with a heavy concentration of Slavic families. He was from a single-parent home, surrounded by Polish relatives. His mother, Apolonia Jendrzejewski, was born in 1910 in Poland and came to the U.S. in 1913. His father, Frank Wojtkiewicz, was born in Cleveland after Frank’s Polish-born mother immigrated to the U.S. in the late 1800s.
Guisfredi’s dad was the first in his family to go to college, majoring in accounting and launching an entrepreneurial journey that saw him running a bolt and screw factory with 25 employees when Guisfredi was a child. He and his wife — Guisfredi’s loving, stay-at-home mother who was “a wonderful role model” and whose family originally came from Yugoslavia — raised their children in the suburbs of Cleveland.
“I saw how he took his background, his upbringing, his ingenuity, his drive, and he succeeded,” Guisfredi said.
She worked summers in the factory, absorbing her father’s stories, watching how he treated people with compassion and intelligently ran his business. She saw his commitment to giving back in the way he served on boards and the finance committee at church.
“I watched as he navigated the ups and downs of a business,” she said. “I learned a lot (from him) about leadership, and even though he ran a for-profit company, I felt like I could transfer that knowledge to a nonprofit.”
Guisfredi drew on those lessons from her late father during North Kent Connect’s strategic planning process in the past year. She is leading the organization through adoption of the Entrepreneurial Operating System model, which helps organizations clarify, simplify and achieve their visions through implementing structure, processes and accountability.
In the early days of leading North Kent Connect, Guisfredi wore all the hats, but now, she has learned to lean on and trust her directors of client services, finance, communications and donor engagement to do each of those roles, which has freed her up to be the visionary, leader and champion of North Kent Connect in the community.
North Kent Connect now has a two-pronged mission of providing access to basic needs — food, shelter and clothing — and promoting economic independence. Its 10-year strategic target is to help clients gain access to affordable housing, reliable transportation and fresh food.
Guisfredi said she is proud of the partnerships with organizations like Family Promise of Grand Rapids — she helped expand FP’s Interfaith Hospitality Network to churches in northern Kent County where homeless families can sleep while they wait to be housed — and Migrant Legal Aid, which North Kent is working with to assist migrant farm workers with basic needs such as fresh food.
North Kent is in the process of forming a committee to address rural transportation issues.
“We’re going to be working with organizations that already have transportation, build relationships with those entities, explore existing programs and assess what’s feasible in northern Kent County and determine what role North Kent Connect will take with any entity, whether we’re going to be a director or a partner,” she said.
After they tackle transportation, they plan to move on to the affordable housing piece.
In all her work, Guisfredi said she and her team and their partners keep at the forefront the common humanity of all people. Clients might be experiencing abusive relationships, divorce, job loss, high medical bills and wages that don’t cover skyrocketing housing costs, but at the end of the day, they just need help moving forward.
“Every person has value, so we need to walk alongside them. We care for those in need with love and grace,” she said.
“We treat people with compassion, dignity and respect. All people are precious to God. That resonates so well here, no matter what faith tradition — or not — you are from. So that’s why we do it.”