Nonprofit makes history, charts course for the future

Family Network of Wyoming enters new era with two African American women at the helm.
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Family Network of Wyoming offers a food pantry; mobile food trucks; no-cost lending of durable medical equipment; a Christmas Store; and additional events, resources and services to about 11,000 people per year. Courtesy Family Network of Wyoming

For the first time in its 17-year history, Family Network of Wyoming has two female leaders of color, and half of its board members are women.

The nonprofit located at 1029 44th St. SW in Wyoming has a mission “to provide dignity and love like Jesus, bringing people together to build stronger, healthier communities” with a goal of “fostering a caring, kind and inclusive environment” to ensure that its clients “leave feeling dignified and respected.”

Family Network offers a food pantry; mobile food trucks; no-cost lending of durable medical equipment such as crutches, walkers, wheelchairs, bathroom aids and shower chairs; a Christmas Store; and additional events, resources and services to about 11,000 people per year.

The food it gives away is sourced from corporate partnerships with Costco, SpartanNash, Trader Joe’s, Aldi and Feeding America West Michigan, and all of the food is first inspected to meet high quality and freshness standards before being put on its shelves.

“The food that we provide is food that we would put on our own table — not food we would cast aside,” Family Network’s website says.

Raycheen Sims

Raycheen Sims, co-pastor at Dream Builders International Church, became Family Network’s part-time program coordinator in 2018 and then was appointed as Family Network’s full-time director of operations after the retirement of Dale Echavarria in late 2019.

Last year, Shontea Jenkins, a manufacturing supervisor at Praxis Packaging, joined the Family Network of Wyoming board of directors, and in February, she was elected board president. Jenkins has served the West Michigan community by previously working at or volunteering with organizations such as the American Heart Association, the Grand Rapids African American Health Institute, the city of Wyoming Parks & Recreation Committee and the city of Muskegon Civil Service Commission.

This marks the first time not only that the Family Network of Wyoming has had two women in its top leadership positions, but two African Americans, as well.

Shontea Jenkins

Jenkins said she is connected to Family Network not just through her board service, but also as a former client.

“I know both sides of the fence. I know where there’s need, and then I know how to help those that are in need,” she said. “I’m very humbled by that, because with the Family Network of Wyoming, I was shown dignity and respect when I was on the client side.”

When Gary Lemke founded Family Network of Wyoming in 2004, and for many years after, the nonprofit’s leadership and board was comprised of all men and primarily affiliated with the Christian Reformed Church. Today, the board has four men and four women members, as well as a female program assistant on staff, and it is supported by and networks with congregations such as Kentwood Community Church, Grand Rapids First, Grace Reformed Church, Wesley Park United Methodist Church, Beverly Reformed Church, Calvary Christian Reformed Church and St. John Vianney Catholic Church.

Jenkins said she has been excited to hear feedback from longtime volunteers such as board vice chair and the owner of Hanenburg Builders, Dave Hanenburg, who recently told her after a board retreat that it feels fitting that the nonprofit is moving “in a better direction instead of (keeping) it old school.” Jenkins agrees, saying the nonprofit is now actively leaning into its commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion internally and externally in the communities it serves.

“That’s a lot to be said, because it’s like we’re covering a whole gamut, and culturally wise, just a whole new hemisphere of folks. It is an exciting time,” she said. “Very exciting.”

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Family Network of Wyoming quickly pivoted to drive-up service to protect its 40-plus volunteers (as did most other food pantries), and suddenly, it was experiencing double the demand, with about 80 cars in line during its open hours of 2:30-5 p.m. Mondays and 1:30-6 p.m. Wednesdays. Sims also increased the frequency for a family to be eligible to pick up food from once a month to twice a month, and that will continue until the need tapers off.

Sims said while Family Network primarily serves families in the Wyoming, Grandville and Jenison areas, it does not turn anyone away who gets in line for food and can demonstrate financial need, instead making sure when they visit to refer them to their closest neighborhood food pantry for future assistance.

“We want to make sure that people are getting what they need,” Sims said.

When people come to the food pantry, they often need help with things such as paying their rent and utilities bills, Sims said, and so the nonprofit provides a pamphlet that lists the resources available in Kent County to meet those needs, as well as refers them to 2-1-1, a helpline staffed by Heart of West Michigan United Way. Family Network also has a page on its website dedicated to sharing further resources.

Sims said her vision that she’s currently working on for the organization is to help the community be healthier and increase clients’ economic stability so that they do not need to depend on a food pantry to get by. She said this will take the form of volunteer-led cooking, budgeting and computer classes, post-pandemic, as well as recipe booklets and other resources, tips and services.

Jenkins said she believes local churches are starting to do better reasserting themselves in meeting the needs of the community — her church, Grand Rapids First, for instance, recently formed the nonprofit CityServe Michigan to connect people with  furniture/household products and other assistance — but until more grassroots change happens, nonprofits like Family Network of Wyoming will keep pursuing the social justice they believe the Bible calls them to.

“We want to make sure the hungry (are) fed. We want to make sure that those that are naked are clothed and those that need shelter have a roof,” she said.

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