Smitten with the mitten

    The 23rd annual Huntington Pillar Awards last week featured some very powerful women from West Michigan, not the least of whom was Sara Smolenski, chief judge of the 63rd District Court, who served as emcee.

    The event is produced by the Women’s Resource Center and honors employers in the region who are knocking down barriers to employment and advances in employment that still thwart many women in the workplace. Recipients this year were Aquinas College; Axios Inc., a human resource management firm in Grand Rapids; and Herman Miller.

    Representatives of all three organizations were on hand to accept the Pillar Award, including the prioress and other nuns from the Grand Rapids Dominicans, the religious order that founded Aquinas in 1886 and still is part of its leadership team.

    A short but profoundly moving talk was given by Lateesa Smith, who related how the Women’s Resource Center and other organizations in Grand Rapids area had helped her turn her life around. Smith, who now works at Dégagé Ministries, had previously had a lifestyle and habits that put her behind bars more than once, and virtually destroyed her relationship with her two teenage children. During her last incarceration, she said, the only letter she received in two years was from her daughter; her son never wrote. When paroled, she knew she faced a dismal struggle to find a job with her criminal record.

    Smith broke down in sobs when she said, “I understood my past was not my potential.”

    With the help she has received, however, and the self-determination to never repeat her past, Smith began attending college and found work — and some self-respect. She regained her relationship with her children, while also getting to know her birth mother for the first time.

    After a standing ovation for Smith by the several hundred people in the packed International Ballroom at the JW Marriott, Smolenski took the podium again and got a little emotional herself, showing a soft side she is generally not known for in the courthouse.

    She thanked Smith for her candid talk and assured her that she definitely has changed for the better: “Girl, we saw who you are.”

    Smolenski had a crumpled tissue in her hand — was that a tear she wiped away with it? — and then she stuffed it in her jacket cuff, wisecracking that it was “a little trick” she had learned from the Dominican sisters years ago. It got laughs.

    Smolenski urged — ordered, is more like it — the audience to contribute to the Women’s Resource Center so it can continue its good work. She also told the audience there would be a drawing for door prizes, and everybody should fill out a little card and put it in the centerpiece bag on their table.

    “If you don’t, there’s no chance in hell you’re going to win,” she said. “Sorry, sisters,” she quickly added, for the Dominicans’ benefit.

    That got a good laugh, too.

    Food logistics

    Churning out 4,800 sack suppers a day for hungry kids in this area is a logistical nightmare, as anyone who has volunteered at Kids’ Food Basket knows.

    But that task should be a bit easier this week for Executive Director Bridget Clark Whitney and her crew, thanks to a donation Friday from The Stow Co. in Holland.

    “We’re going to help them get organized,” said Angela Smit, marketing communications manager for the home organization manufacturer. The Stow Co.’s campaign, called The Organized Give, provides storage solutions for families, organizations and communities in need.

    Smit said the company has chosen to partner with Kids’ Food Basket, a local organization dedicated to attacking childhood hunger, to help with storage needs while raising awareness and funds to support the cause.

    She said Friday’s equipment donation should help keep food items organized and accessible, making the sack supper production process more efficient for the staff and 170 or more volunteers who donate their time each day.

    Kids’ Food Basket is the second recipient of The Organized Give, which was started in January.

    Smit said Stow also is offering a program on Facebook in which the company will donate $1 to Kids’ Food Basket for every new “like” it gets between now and April 9, up to $3,000.

    Fair trade

    The new owners of the Trade Center Building in downtown Grand Rapids could probably use some organizational help, too, but they’re going to need more than shelves and closets.

    CWD Real Estate Investment announced Wednesday that it has closed on the purchase of the century-old-plus structure at 50 Louis St. NW and will immediately begin the renovation process.

    Sam Cummings, CWD principal, said improvements will include a new roof, additional façade repair, enhancements to the lobby and installation of new elevators.

    “This is an extraordinary building, and today’s announcement marks another step forward in what looks to be a very busy and exciting year for our state and our region,” he said. “We look forward to revitalizing the building and believe it will be well received by the West Michigan office and retail community.”

    The 75,000-square-foot Trade Center is currently 35 percent occupied. Tenants include Lee & Birch women’s store and the Federal Public Defenders office. It’s also the former home of one of the city’s first Masonic Lodge temples.

    Cummings said the real estate market is turning, and CWD is ready.

    “We have a number or properties in our portfolio that we will be working to renovate and fill with job-creating businesses, while continuing to explore other opportunities for investments and maintain the momentum we’ve built.”

    State art

    Ever wonder what a state’s artistic identity is?

    Joshua Best, an art director living and working in Grand Rapids, is halfway through The 50 States Design Project, which seeks to encapsulate state identities by creating a poster for each state.

    His goal is to create 50 such posters in 50 weeks.

    “The motivation is to combine my two nerdy passions: geography and design,” said Best, who bills himself as a geographic designer. His progress can be monitored at

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