Election Day may be in November, but it’s in December that the really important voting takes place inside Quinn & Tuite’s Irish Pub. All month long, patrons of the Grand Rapids bar cast votes for one of their fellow regulars to receive tongue-in-cheek recognition as “Customer of the Year” on a big board hanging on the wall.
People can vote as often as they’d like, with a catch: Each vote costs 10 cents. At the end of the month, Quinn & Tuite’s donates all of the money to the Santa Claus Girls – a charity that the bar has supported annually for the past 35 years.
“It’s pretty much a family down here, so everybody likes to rag on everybody,” said Rick Schall, co-owner of the bar at 1535 Plainfield Ave. NE. “It makes it fun for everybody.”
Whether through cash donations or in-kind contributions of toys and clothing, businesses all across West Michigan rally behind the Santa Claus Girls each year. Not just office employees and manufacturing workers, but bars and restaurants join the cause, too.
Last year’s Santa Claus Girls donation from Quinn & Tuite’s tallied $918.70. That’s over 9,000 votes – more than double the number cast at the polls in the most recent city election!
Just a few miles north off Plainfield at Bud & Stanley’s Pub & Grub, customers took a different fundraising approach last Christmas season. The bar emailed special coupons to regulars, and every coupon brought back in triggered a $10 donation from Bud & Stanley’s to the Santa Claus Girls. The total contribution amounted to $1,200!
Raising money for the Santa Claus Girls can be a great way for restaurants to support the community while benefitting a worthy charity that customers care about. How will your favorite watering hole join the cause this Christmas season?
Here are some other creative ways that businesses donate or raise money so the Santa Claus Girls can make sure no child in Kent County ages 6 months to 12 years goes without a gift at Christmas:
- Knoll Inc. is in its sixth year of offering 23,000 square feet of space for the charity’s workshop, the spot where thousands of toys are stored and wrapped by volunteers before delivery day. The company also covers the costs for Wi-Fi, electricity, heat and trash removal, all would-be expenses that allow more gifts to go to more children.
- Mark-Maker Co., Inc. last year donated $1,400 to the Santa Claus Girls. The money came from employees tossing spare change into a bucket. (Plus, next to the bucket is a box of irresistible snacks and candy for sale.) When the tradition began in 2002, Mark-Maker collected $50. The donations have grown through the years, adding up to thousands of dollars that have helped buy gifts for hundreds of Kent County kids.
- Instead of buying Christmas gifts for their bosses, team members at Betz Industries and Betz Pattern donated money to the Santa Claus Girls. Last year’s donation of $2,632 was enough to purchase gifts for more than 100 children!
- Many businesses hold holiday parties with employees and their families. The party at Purity Cylinder Gases, Inc. incorporates auctions and raffles to benefit the Santa Claus Girls, with the company matching the amount of money raised. Last year’s tally: $23,447!
- At Walker Tool & Die, each year the employees team with the company’s customers and suppliers to gather a wide range of gift items that then are given to the Santa Claus Girls for distribution to children around Kent County. Check out the stash of gifts from last Christmas!
Going all the way back to 1908, the Santa Claus Girls has gathered, wrapped and delivered presents for children in Kent County who otherwise wouldn’t get anything for Christmas. The all-volunteer organization sponsored by The Grand Rapids Press delivered gifts to 13,105 children from 5,142 families last year. Each child receives a toy, book, warm hat, gloves or mittens, a sweatshirt or pajamas and candy.
For every child who receives a gift, there is a giver who makes it possible. That’s the essence of the Christmas spirit. Yet, what the Santa Claus Girls do doesn’t happen everywhere in the world. It is West Michigan’s heritage. Our legacy. Your opportunity.
The Santa Claus Girls aims to raise $200,000 in individual, business and community donations to make miracles for thousands more children this Christmas. Every donation helps, big or small. Can your business give $25? Or $2,500? How about $25,000? The Christmas spirit knows no bounds.
The Santa Claus Girls are run entirely by volunteers, with nary an elf on the payroll. That means more than 98 cents of every dollar donated goes directly to gifts for children. Please help meet the need by making a generous contribution here, or by calling The Grand Rapids Press at 616-254-2099.
To Register a family to receive gifts, please call 616-967-7335 or visit www.santaclausgirls.org/submit
To Volunteer to drive by emailing email@example.com
‘One big party,’ how $1.7M in arena renovations changed this hockey experience
When the capacity crowd at Mercy Health Arena (formerly L.C. Walker Arena) celebrates a Muskegon Lumberjacks goal by yelling “You got Jacked,” it’s a fun taunt at the opposing goalie.
But it’s equally appropriate as a measure of excitement felt by the thousands of fans providing a home-ice advantage for Michigan’s only United States Hockey League team.
With a $1.7 million renovation and elite hockey talent – the Lumberjacks have had 18 NHL draft picks and 51 players earn college scholarships in just the last 5 years – the hockey and the social experience has changed from preconceived perceptions, said Mike McCall, the Lumberjacks president.
“Our number one goal is to make sure we created something for everyone,” McCall said. “When you come into this building, there’s a wow factor, there’s a vibe and there’s a sense of fun. We’re grateful to have the opportunity to present that night in and night out.
“(The renovation) is helping to revive the downtown. The Muskegon area is growing. The vibe in the whole community is improving. There’s a new sense of pride and we want to be one of those helping lead that.”
The project was unveiled in late 2018, and this will be the first full season for fans to experience the team’s 30 home dates that stretch into April. The upgrades include a new and improved concourse area, suite boxes, club and lodge seating, and the creation of a party platform that includes a beer garden, bar and an open-air and supervised kids’ zone.
The new concourse design keeps fans in the arena rather than leaving the seating area and into a closed off hallway. The work brings concessions to the inside and is transformative.
“The great thing about this openness that we created in the arena is that it’s really created a social environment. People can walk around, and they can see the game, they can see their friends, they can see their kids. It’s really one big party.
“You can grab a beer or a hot dog and still watch the game. You are right on top of the action. There’s no better place to watch a hockey game.”
Attendance was up 20 percent last year despite a reduction in the number of seats, McCall said, and that shows people are responding to the changes.
The USHL took notice too, honoring the Lumberjacks with the 2019 Organization of the Year award.
“Our goal is to win it again this year and the next year,” McCall said. “We want to continue to be the best team in this league.”
The Lumberjacks, who feature players ages 16 to 20 on the development track to major college or professional hockey, are a community experience and attribute, McCall said. With the majority of the team’s games on Friday or Saturday nights, the setting is ideal for families, business or group outings or getting friends together.
“Coming to a Lumberjacks game is a release,” he said. “You’re going to yell, you’re going to scream, and you’re going cheer. You’re going to see people you know, have some drinks and have a great time.”
That is exactly the atmosphere that Andrea Sponaas has witnessed.
“If there’s one thing that’s been consistent, it’s been the jaw-drop (from people) as soon as they walk in,” said Sponaas, the vice president of corporate partnerships for the team. “You can tell the people who have not been here since the renovations. It’s awestruck. It’s ‘Oh, my gosh, this is fantastic.’”
Lumberjacks games are safe, clean, affordable and convenient, Sponaas said, and the team’s leaders want to keep the momentum going.
“We’re making sure we’re bringing in new fans and exposing them to how great this league is and exposing them to the atmosphere that we’ve built,” said Sponaas, who was with the team 10 years ago when it launched in Muskegon.
“The Muskegon Lumberjacks of today are an entirely different experience. If folks haven’t been to the game, seen the arena changes, I think they’re really missing out.”
On the hockey side, Lumberjacks Head Coach Mike Hamilton said fans can expect 100 percent effort and an exciting, active style of play. The USHL is the highest level of junior hockey in the country, he said. Prospects come from around the world to play in the league. The players have moved away from their homes – in some cases their countries – to pursue their dreams.
“Everyone who plays youth hockey, this is their goal,” he said. “Every night they’re being evaluated, not just by us, but if you look around there are NHL scouts, there are colleges scouting.
“They make a huge commitment just to be here and develop into the best hockey players they can be, but they recognize that they’re here to be part of the community. Muskegon is invested in them and their actions on and off the ice reflect on Muskegon. We win together.”
Visit the Lumberjacks website to find the team’s schedule and learn more about Muskegon’s team.
Walking across the city’s iconic Blue Bridge, the sounds jumping from the speakers installed by Rafael Lozano-Hemmer are mind-bending at first. Mixed messages looping as visitors traverse the Grand River are intensified by more than 400 flashing lights that overload the senses.
Slow down and the realization comes that the Voice Bridge installation at Project 1 by ArtPrize is simply bringing part of the cacophony, and also the fleeting nature, of urban life to the forefront.
Lozano-Hemmer invites visitors to record a short voice message into intercoms at either end of the bridge and then follow it down the path. The messages weave and bump into earlier voices until they disappear and are replaced by others.
Is it a metaphor for life’s ephemeral nature? Or something else?
That’s what Project 1: Crossed Lines wants you to think about and determine on your own.
The evolution of ArtPrize to Project 1: Crossed Lines has allowed organizers to deepen the significance of art by creating a theme that serves as an inspiration for the pieces while also examining critical issues. Crossed Lines looks at how boundaries, both visible and invisible, affect a sense of belonging that can unite or divide the city.
Kevin Buist, artistic director of ArtPrize, says the lines contribute to or detract from people’s sense of belonging.
“Some of these lines are clear: neighborhoods, wards, roads, and rivers,” Buist wrote in his essay launching Project 1. “Other lines are harder to see: the legacy of redlining and other discriminatory housing practices; the way perceptions of safety map onto city space; the limitations imposed by the built environment on persons with disabilities; the shifting implicit borders that come with cycles of urban decay, development, and gentrification; and more.”
With time running out to experience the first-ever Project 1 – the public art exhibition ends Oct. 27 – it’s time to take stock of the installations that are available and how to explore the public art that has transformed Grand Rapids, and potentially the people who experience it.
Lozano-Hemmer’s use of the bridge provides the first opportunity at introspection. Bridges by their nature create connections and cross lines, in this case from the downtown to the west side of Grand Rapids. He uses proprietary interactive technology to create harmony but also what could be viewed as a disconnect because there is not a cohesive message.
Project 1’s questions to consider as you examine Voice Bridge:
- Why does the invitation to participate generate belonging, community and ownership?
- Why do you think the artist chose this location for his work?
- What is the bridge connecting and what does it represent?
- How does Voice Bridge address ideas about physical access, power and belonging in the city?
Amanda Browder’s textile installations are the only element featured at all three of theProject 1 locations, downtown over skywalks, draping the community center at Martin Luther King Jr. Park, and at the Tanglefoot building.
She engages the community by wrapping areas where people move through daily life and where they congregate. Volunteers sewed donated fabric for weeks to create the intricate, colorful designs that change the appearance of otherwise drab cityscapes. From different angles – consider walking through the skywalk links and then observe them from the outside – the installations have varying perspectives.
Project 1’s questions to consider as you examine Kaleidoscopic:
- Do you think the colors and variety of the fabric are important in the artwork?
- Do you have clothes, flags or fabric that represents a community you belong to? How would you feel if that fabric was in the installation?
- How has this work transformed the building it occupies?
The Oracle of the Soulmates
Heather Hart created submerged rooftops, complete with shingles and dormer windows, that look like they were dropped from the sky. The rooftops refer to home, stability or shelter. Hart speaks about the rooftops as thresholds between public and private space. Combined with family and oral histories, and activated by performance, her work explores the power these thresholds have in our lives.
Installed in Rosa Park Circle downtown and in Martin Luther King Jr. Park on the city’s Southeast Side, the pieces can foster conversations about housing, hopes and dreams and the often unequal playing fields various socio-economic and demographic groups experience while trying to achieve stability.
Project 1’s questions to consider as you examine The Oracle of the Soulmates:
- How does this work showcase the community it is in?
- How does it create a space for storytelling?
- What space do you experience storytelling in your community?
- If this sculpture was in your neighborhood, what stories, songs or performances do you think would be shared from the rooftops?
The Boom and the Bust
The 25-foot sculpture created by Olalekan Jeyifous rises from the ground at the corner of Louis Street and Monroe Avenue in downtown Grand Rapids. The installation
referencing the balance of urban life, growth sought for vibrant cityscapes but an economic boom that often leads to individual displacement. Jeyifous researched the recent history of housing in Grand Rapids. By combining references to skyscrapers and single-family houses, he shows how the energy that continues to transform Grand Rapids has far-reaching impact and implications.
The piece is comprised of three sections, a base resembling a single home, a middle that features a steel lattice supporting an array of small homes, and a top that resembles a skyscraper.
Project 1’s questions to consider as you examine The Boom and the Bust:
- How does this sculpture reflect the Grand Rapids community and families that live here?
- Why do you think the artist chose the city’s downtown for this work?
- If it was hard for you to find a place to live in a community, would you still feel welcomed?
With the site-specific architectural installation at the landmark Tanglefoot Building, a former industrial flypaper manufacturing site now repurposed to house artists’ studios, Paul Amenta and Ted Lott transform a private space into a fully accessible public space through a series of ramps and landings. In collaboration with DisArt, an arts and culture organization that focuses on creating public art events that cultivate and communicate a disabled culture, the environment addresses accessibility in both form and function. The work creates a stage for action and expression.
Project 1’s questions to consider as you examine Critical Infrastructure:
- How has this installation transformed the space it occupies?
- How does the piece advocate for the disabled community?
- Why are performance, storytelling and community engagement important elements to this work?
As Buist sums up in his essay defining Project 1, the art is organized around the idea of belonging and how individuals react or interpret that feeling.
“Belonging is a state of being, so these artworks are places to be, not just things to look at and think about,” he wrote. “It’s our hope that Project 1 does much more than communicate an idea; we hope it can alter and reorganize the city, breach borders, cross paths, blur boundaries, and point toward a future city where we all belong.”
From the sombreros hanging on the wall to the “equipales” around the tables to the “muñecas” on display, so much of the décor inside Maya Mexican Grill & Bar is authentic, imported from the land of our neighbors to the south.
Then there’s the live mariachi music on Saturday nights and the delicious sugar- and salt-rimmed margaritas at the bar. And, of course, the extensive menu of genuine Mexican dishes such as Huachinango, Tampiquena and heaping Parrilladas is very tasty, or, shall we say, muy sabroso.
If you’ve never been to Mexico, step inside Andy Rosario’s restaurant in Rogers Plaza Town Center for the next best thing. Maya Mexican Grill is anything but watered down.
“In every sip of your drink you feel the tequila,” said Michael Martinez, bartender in the flourishing restaurant along 28th Street SW in Wyoming. “We always try to do our best to make it with a little bit extra. We always try to take care of our tables the greatest.”
Just five years old, Maya Mexican Grill recently made the Top 10 of Michigan’s Best Mexican Restaurant Search. That’s especially interesting since Rosario, the owner, is a native of the Dominican Republic – and a cancer survivor.
When Rosario came to the United States as a boy, he lived with an uncle who owned a grocery store and as he got older Andy ran the store after school. That background led him to start one of the area’s first food trucks about a decade ago, when the trend was just making its way into West Michigan.
It was while running “El Loco Hungry” that Rosario honed his business mentality and whet his appetite for serving the public and interacting with customers. Soon, he was poised to open a full-service restaurant with a liquor license.
Rosario opted for a menu and ambiance rooted in his wife’s Mexican heritage, yet several unique dishes such as the Pina Maya – a hollowed-out half pineapple filled with steak, chicken, chorizo or shrimp – are infused with Dominican influences.
Maya Mexican Grill opened in 2014. Then, just a few months later, at age 36, Rosario was diagnosed with cancer. Nasal carcinoma, Stage 4. There was a tumor touching his carotid artery.
Against long odds, eight weeks of treatment in Ann Arbor proved successful and shrunk the mass. Rosario survived. Maya Mexican Grill began to thrive.
“Instead of sitting at home focused on his health, he was focused on Maya,” said Elizabeth Rosario, Andy’s wife and a local attorney. “I think that kind of helped him. That was part of his recovery.
“He’s always had this positivity to him. He’s my hero. I’m just super proud of him.”
Now 40, the soft-spoken Rosario looks back on his cancer as if it were a fever: “Take some Tylenol and move on,” he says. He poured himself into his restaurant, ensuring his kitchen has the freshest, choicest ingredients for dishes that Michigan’s Best raved about including fried red snapper (Huachinango), steak (Tampiquena) and an overflowing “molcajete,” or stone bowl, of grilled meats and vegetables featuring jalapeño peppers the size of bananas (Parrilladas) – not to mention a variety of classic fajitas and tacos.
Rosario has adorned the walls with sombreros from Guadalajara and imported traditional Mexican chairs called “equipales.” On one trip to the Mayan archaeological site at Chichén Itzá, he found a heavy statue that was a pain to get through customs but makes a perfect mascot for the restaurant.
And, ironically, Maya Mexican Grill features artwork depicting an ancient calendar with a Mayan god bearing the burden of time on his back, kneeling under the weight of it. For Rosario, now cancer free, time is a gift, one he’s happy to share with guests.
“We’re still standing after all the struggle,” he said. “It’s a blessing.”
And it’s worth celebrating.
“I want people to come and enjoy with family and friends and have a good time. That’s really what it’s all about.”
Ask Christos Moisides about what the Greektown neighborhood means to Detroit, and he’s quick to respond:
“It’s been one of the heartbeats of Detroit for many, many decades,” said Moisides, whose family has owned businesses in the district on the city’s near Northeast side for years. “It means a lot to continue the tradition of what Greektown was and then be a part of transition it into what Greektown will continue to be.”
That’s the same assessment offered up by Tasso Teftsis, the owner of the legendary Astoria Bakery.
“(Greektown) is special to Detroit because it’s the last ethnic neighborhood that is still living and vibrant,” he said. “It’s special to Greeks around here, they feel ownership of Greektown, and we have a responsibility to keep it going.”
Greektown was established in the 1880s as a residential district where immigrants could hold on to their culture as they adapted to a new way of life. It morphed to a commercial streetscape led by family-owned businesses and marked by historic properties and Victorian era architecture.
The area’s cultural legacy was on full display this summer during the second annual Greektown Heritage Festival, which drew thousands of people to explore Monroe Avenue between Brush and St. Antoine streets on July 27.
The event served as a reminder of the Hellenic influence in the neighborhood, but it was also an introduction to one of the city’s prime entertainment district and diverse shopping experiences.
Residents and visitors strolled through the neighborhood watching lamb being traditionally roasted on a spit over open flames, Greek entertainers singing and dancing and a children’s area with balloon artists and inflatable playhouses.
The day-long festival is led by the Greektown Preservation Society with sponsorship by the Greektown Casino-Hotel, which opened in 2007 and has helped the area evolve while staying true to its roots.
“Greektown Casino-Hotel are awesome neighbors,” Teftsis said. “They are a big part of the festival, but they’re also a big part of the community, a part of our Greektown neighborhood partnership…it’s really an exciting time for Greektown.”
While Greektown’s history is evident in its name, the district has also served as a melting pot of cultures, one of which is shown through mutual support to and from The Old Shillelagh, an iconic Irish bar at the corner of Brush and Monroe streets. Owner Shellie Lewis said the festival is a chance to learn more about neighbors who share the goals of keeping Greektown strong.
“There’s a lot of new businesses coming in, and it is making this an even better place to be,” Lewis said. “If it wasn’t for Greektown Casino and Hotel, we wouldn’t be able to pull off the event. They are pillars of the community.”
Moisides, meanwhile, said as other areas of Detroit attract attention for their rebirth, it’s important to remember that Greektown never went away. It’s part of the pulse of Detroit, Moisides said.
“For the longest time, Greektown was everything,” Moisides said. “It’s still such a vital part of the community, where you have vibrant businesses and a great pulse of the area. It’s a place where everyone’s coming to see what’s happening and (wants to be) a part of the community.
“It’s still a safe family environment during the daytime and turns into a great entertaining, kind of nightlife hospitality enhanced area in the evenings.”
Dancers rappelling off a rooftop to perform intricate routines 100 feet above street level on the side of a building in downtown Grand Rapids.
A cellist who creates a blend of hip-hop, folk, soul and classical music like has never been heard before in a Southeast Side park.
The U.S. debut of drag queens and kings living with Down Syndrome and expressing themselves on stage.
The artists and their mediums challenge the status quo.
And that’s exactly what the founders of Project 1 – the brainchild of ArtPrize organizers who are launching the public art exhibition’s new biennial structure on Sept. 7 – want to do. It’s part of the intentional effort to confront boundaries, both visible and invisible, that affect a sense of belonging.
“These artists are crossing lines of their genres and putting on a performance that people have never seen,” said Derek Call, ArtPrize’s director of operations and production. “We want people to be comfortable experiencing something new, and we are shining a spotlight on Grand Rapids as the place to go for art that opens your eyes to more than what is normally part of your life.
“The entire exhibition and the events we’ve curated around them will have people asking themselves ‘Will I ever witness anything like this again?’”
Project 1 bases five artists’ works at three sites around Grand Rapids. The artists – Amanda Browder, Heather Hart, Olalekan Jeyifous, Paul Amenta and Ted Lott and Rafael Lozano-Hemmer – were carefully selected, and the locations in downtown, at Martin Luther King Jr. Park and at a former manufacturing plant, were chosen to bring art to the people. It also is designed to take people to places in the city they may not have visited before.
Although the exhibition is primarily a self-guided exploration, there are free event-based performances and programming around artists’ installations. Project 1 leaders have structured the opening weekend with performances at each site. After that, the exhibition will highlight one location per weekend.
Here’s the itinerary for the free events and when to get a first glimpse of the art when it is amplified:
The first Project 1 opens at noon at Rosa Parks Circle with a celebratory ribbon-cutting, the amazing elevated choreography of BANDALOOP as well as
dancers from the Grand Rapids Ballet performing on one half of Hart’s The Oracle of the Soulmates, a rooftop sculptures that will have an installation component in Martin Luther King Jr. Park. At 1 p.m., Rafael Lozano-Hemmer will take part in an artist discussion.
The day progresses to the park, where the second half of Hart’s installation will be available for viewing along with Amanda Browder’s largest work in Kaleidoscopic. Browder’s vibrant fabric creation will be draped over the exterior of a community center building. The park will also be the setting for cellist Jordan Hamilton’s musical fusion at 2 p.m., and an artist conversation with Hart and Browder.
The final part of the opening ceremonies takes art explorers to Tanglefoot, a former flypaper manufacturing campus that is now home to urban artist studios. Artists Paul Amenta and Ted Lott, who created Critical Infrastructure to focus on issues of accessibility, will have a 6 p.m. conversation with collaborators Chris Smit and Jill Vyn of DisArt.
DisArt will later host the Underground Drag show at a location to be determined.
Call said Project 1 staff hope to form a caravan of sorts with people flowing from site to site and taking in the installations as the opening weekend energy builds.
“It’s going to be a really great day with some moments visitors won’t want to miss,” he said. “We’re giving people an opportunity to interact with the art and the artists. We plan to carry that on throughout the event.”
The focal point of Project 1’s second weekend turns to the Blue Bridge over the Grand River and to the city’s West Side, which is hosting its annual street fair. The bridge is home to Lozano-Hemmer’s Voice Bridge, an installation on the iconic span’s handrails that allow participants to record a message and then experience it as it plays back on a loop while jumping from speaker to speaker.
Project 1 has enlisted Dan Deacon, a nationally recognized composer and performer, to take control of the interactive piece that is part architecture and
part performance art. Deacon, who has worked with artists ranging from Miley Cyrus to The Flaming Lips, will use the sound system and 400+ lights for a one-of-a-kind electronic music show.
The show begins at 8 p.m. as night sets in on Grand Rapids and the light displays will sync to the beat of the performance.
“Dan’s amazing and it’s going to be so cool to have him perform and have the lights responding to the music and the vibration,” Call said. “The Blue Bridge has never seen anything like this, that’s for sure.”
It’s time for a city-wide slow roll bicycle ride that takes art lovers to all three Project 1 locations and builds community by bringing together visitors and area residents. The ride is open to all skill levels and is not a timed event, Call said.
“This is a nice and easy ride, and it’s a really unique way to see the installations and meet new people along the way,” Call said.
The guided tour, which is approximately eight miles and will be roughly an hour of ride time, starts downtown at 8:30 a.m., features a group yoga warm-up and then makes stops at each site after taking off at 10 a.m. There is an extended stop at MLK Park, where Grand Rapids’ annual African American Art & Music Festival is taking place. Registration is required for the ride for logistical reasons and allocation of safety resources.
Organizers expect the tour to take approximately 2½ hours and the final route will bring riders past Olaleka Jeyifous’ The Boom and the Bust, a 25-foot sculpture at the corner of Louis Street and Monroe Avenue in downtown Grand Rapids. The installation juxtaposes massive downtown development alongside foreclosure and displacement.
“It’s going to be a cool way to explore art and explore the city’s neighborhoods from a different vantage point,” Call said. “You won’t be rushing by in a car or thinking about something else. You’re slowing down and seeing what’s around you. That’s something we as a whole don’t do enough of, finding out more about the community that we live in.”
The last themed weekend of events returns to the Tanglefoot site with Project 1 collaborator DisArt presenting a first-person multimedia project a la the non-profit StoryCorps. Titled Voices, the project gathers and visualizes stories of alienation from disabled community members and visitors to the site. The groundbreaking and instructive piece is open from noon to 10 p.m. and is set among the installations at the site.
“One thing we’re trying to do is give people a sense of belonging and a feeling that they’re welcome anywhere in the city,” Call said. “No one should be excluded because they don’t live somewhere or they don’t look a certain way. We all have our own story.”
Project 1 leaders believe visiting the installation sites during planned performances and then on a return self-guided visit will lead to different experiences. Pieces might strike a contrasting chord or be viewed in a different light. Perhaps guests will be more informed or more focused on the art.
“There will be moments that if you miss them, you’ll miss them and the interactivity can’t be recreated,” ArtPrize Artistic Director Kevin Buist said. “We think that will draw audiences and excite and inspire the visitors to gather together. And then people will want to go and get another unique look at the installations.
“That’s what we want people to do, to challenge themselves to see more.”
Visit the Project 1 website to learn more about the public art exhibition.
On one side of the classroom, a few children gathered around a sewing machine and put buttons on clothes. Three kids worked on puzzles at a table nearby. A lone boy cut out paper dolls with scissors. A girl painted at an easel.
On a play mat with pictures of roads and buildings, four boys driving matchbox cars led a teacher around town to the school and then to the supermarket.
“Where are we going to go now?” the teacher asked.
Hmm, maybe to the bin of blocks in the corner, or the play kitchen against the wall, or to a sensory table with pieces of colored macaroni.
Welcome to “Purposefully Playing Toward Kindergarten” (PPTK), a growing summer program that emphasizes open-ended play to get preschoolers ready for kindergarten.
“It looks different for each child,” said Onalee Melton, a site coordinator at Buchanan Elementary School, one of four campuses where PPTK is taking place this summer. “We have the blessing with this program to guide kids into whatever they’re excited about.”
About half of incoming kindergarteners these days are not prepared to succeed in school. In some cases, the children are lagging behind in their understanding of basic math concepts or their use of language. In other cases, they’re not quite ready socially or emotionally.
PPTK aims to build all of those kindergarten-readiness skills through a unique partnership involving the Grand Rapids Children’s Museum, Grand Rapids Public Schools (GRPS) and donors including the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and Delta Dental. In the program, GRPS teachers and paraprofessionals are teaming with “play facilitators” from the Grand Rapids Children’s Museum to immerse students in four hours of open-ended play time Mondays through Thursdays for five weeks.
It’s the same kind of open-ended play the children would experience if they were to visit the Grand Rapids Children’s Museum downtown. Only the PPTK program is right at their local neighborhood school.
The children at each of the four sites eat breakfast and brush their teeth each morning and get lunch before they go home. In between, they enjoy about an hour-and-a-half of indoor exploration – building things out of magnetic tiles, for example, or making bead necklaces or figuring out how the sewing machine works. They also get about an hour of outdoor exploration.
In other words, they learn through play – even if they don’t realize that they’re learning.
“When they play with bubbles, when they play with Legos, when they play with slime, that open-ended play is a critical part of brain development,” said Maggie Lancaster, CEO of the Grand Rapids Children’s Museum. “That’s where we come in. If you go into our museum you’ll never see signs. There’s no way that we’re ever going to tell anybody how to play with something or where to go or what to do. It has to be child-led. GRPS has provided that opportunity in this summer program as well.”
PPTK is a free program that began two summers ago with 25 children and now involves 205 children at four GRPS schools – Buchanan, Kent Hills, Martin Luther King and Sibley. Partners plan to expand the program even more in 2020.
Many families can’t afford preschool, so PPTK fills the gap by exposing them to play-based learning in a structured environment with a high adult-to-child ratio. Having a safe space with the opportunity for open-ended play helps the children build confidence and a sense of autonomy, said Lauren Greer, director of education for the Grand Rapids Children’s Museum.
“The best parts are the tiny stories that come out of each day, where maybe one child who isn’t very verbal one day had a lot to stay about something, or some child has a breakthrough and discovers that they love painting and they paint all day,” Greer said.
“That’s how you know this is really valuable. The space that we’re providing these children for their social and emotional growth is most important.”
The growth of the program alone is evidence that parents find value in PPTK. But the program also is proving to be successful at preparing kids for kindergarten. By the end of the summer, 90 percent of parents feel that their children are ready for school, said Yazeed Moore, program officer with the Kellogg Foundation.
Plus, each child in PPTK gets a free Grand Rapids Children’s Museum membership for a year so they can experience even more open-ended play.
The bottom line is that through play, more children are having fun and getting ready to hit the ground running on their first day of kindergarten – which is critical to their chances of long-term academic success.
“Kindergarten readiness is so critical,” said Kate Lara, GRPS director of early childhood. “To be able to learn the academic skills of kindergarten, you need to have those social skills as your basis first. Right now (through PPTK), they’re learning how school works. They’re learning that it’s a safe space. They’re learning that there’s expectations and that they can follow those expectations. They’re learning what a classroom is, how to function in school and how to function with their peers.
“We’re going to have 205 kids who are much more ready for kindergarten than they sure would have been without this program.”