Autism Awareness Month

Story by: Danielle Josephine DeWitt

A new autism statistic was released this past week by the Center for Disease Control. It is now estimated that 1 in 88 children have an autism diagnosis—1 in 54 boys and 1 in 252 girls.1 There is still quite a bit of mystery (and opinion) regarding the exact cause(s) of autism, but we do know one thing: as this number continues to rise, so does its cost to society.

Autism Speaks, the world’s largest autism research and advocacy organization, just conducted a study on the cost of autism, and preliminary estimates show that this number has nearly tripled since 2006, costing the U.S. nearly $126 billion. This number includes medical costs such as outpatient care, home care, and pharmacy; and the largest portion includes the nonmedical costs such as intervention services, special education, residential placement, and care for adults who age out of school.2

But I don’t want to focus on statistics here. As someone who has been helping to care for a child with autism for nearly 9 years, it’s a very personal thing.

In May 2003, I met Tim and Michelle and their family. I had been looking for some part-time work while finishing up my master’s degree and they were looking for someone to help with childcare. Tim and Michelle had a 2-year-old daughter, Olivia, and a 6-month-old boy, Sam. I still remember the first time I met them because I had a feeling that this family was going to have a very big impact on my life—and I was right.

Olivia is now 11, Sam is 9, and they now have a younger sister Shaleigh who turned 6 in December. Throughout these nine years, these kids and their parents have become family to me.

When Sam was about two-and-a-half his parents noticed that he was not developing at the rate he should be. His language was delayed and he was having numerous outbursts that involved a lot of self-injurious behavior. When he wanted to tell us something—but did not have the verbal ability to do so—he would become very frustrated, and his frustration quickly turned to anger. He would bang his head continuously on the hardwood flooring, scream loudly, and would be almost inconsolable. It was very difficult and frustrating to watch.

Many doctor visits and tests later, Sam was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

I think there was relief that they now had an explanation for his behavior, but that was quickly overcome by grief and shock. Receiving the diagnosis is one thing—deciding the best way to move forward is quite another. There would be many decisions to be made and questions to be answered.

While this was happening, I was a student at Grand Valley State University, studying psychology. I had access to professors who were experts regarding autism, and soon found myself immersed in researching the best types of treatment, whether or not Sam might be able to be cured, and what might have caused this to happen.

But most of all, I just tried to be there for Sam, his parents, and his sisters as much as I could. If you know someone who has a child with special needs, that is what they need most—support. I’ve experienced so many amazing, crazy, and not-so-good moments while being Sam’s “helper” these last nine years…

I’ve witnessed the sadness of parents who received this diagnosis for their son, and the nervousness they have with as they look to the future, not knowing if their son will ever be able to live on his own.

I’ve seen excitement and hope as he makes progress or learns something new.

I’ve watched this child go from being completely happy one moment to being so frustrated the next because he cannot express himself.

And, unfortunately, I’ve had to personally deal with people who cannot accept his differences and stare, point, and make inappropriate comments.

But most importantly I have seen the joy that he brings to his family, the support he has of his sisters who love him no matter what, and I have seen the love he gives to those around him.

Sam’s autism is severe. He has no verbal language skills and has not yet been toilet-trained. When he wants something, he has very few ways to communicate that, which causes frustration. He’s very particular about things like music (Earth, Wind, and Fire) and movies (Elmo). He loves to be outside, but can also be a masterful “escape artist” so he needs constant supervision. He’s a non-stop ball of energy, as any nine-year-old boy is.

Most likely you or someone in your life knows a child with autism. If you are out and you see kids who act a little bit differently, no need to stare. We all need to be more accepting and realize that they are trying to be as “normal” as possible.

These kids need the support of their families, friends, and their communities. I encourage you to take a few minutes and visit the website of Autism Speaks (, the largest research organization in the world focusing specifically on autism, and learn more about it and how you can help.

1 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

2 Autism Speaks.

Note: There are many local resources for those coping with an autism diagnosis, including:

Autism Society of Kent County:

Autism Society West Shore:

Hope Network—Center for Autism. Statewide

Autism Resources and Training at Grand Valley State University:

Hot coffee, cool kids: The Sparrows’ Lori Slager on mochas and the magic of words

Story by: Terri Finch Hamilton
Photography: Terry Johnston

Shirley Hernandez leans in over the old wooden barrel and inhales the scents of a soldier’s encampment from the Civil War — whiskey, gun powder, coffee.

The 10-year-old wrinkles her nose at the coffee.

“That smells bad,” Shirley says.

Lorena Slager, chaperoning this trip to the Grand Rapids Public Museum, looks aghast.

“Hey, coffee is not a bad smell,” she says.

It better not be.

“I smell like it all the time,” Slager confides later.

Slager owns The Sparrows Coffee Tea and Newsstand at 1035 Wealthy SE, which explains that scent that wafts about her.

She’s also executive director of the Grand Rapids Creative Youth Center, which explains why she’s at the public museum with six middle school kids in tow.

The coffee shop pays her bills. The youth center kids feed her soul.

“Miss Lori,” as the kids call her, organizes about 20 volunteers at the Creative Youth Center, a nonprofit that helps at-risk youngsters improve their writing skills.

This group of middle schoolers at the public museum is the center’s Press Club — budding journalists who head out into the city to experience great things, then write stories about them. Their stories are published in The Rapidian, which, the kids agree, is awesome.

One of their recent assignments was interviewing Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell.

“They were asking tough questions, about immigration and the economy,” Slager says proudly.

“We write what we see, we use laptops, they publish it in The Rapidian,” says 12-year-old Dulce Loredo, as she munches a snack in the public museum’s cafe. ”It feels like we’re actual reporters.”

She smiles.

“Maybe somebody will read it and say, ‘Wow, this person’s really good,’” Dulce says. “It might lead to other opportunities.”

“They have a lot to say,” Slager says of her budding journalists.

In addition to the Press Club, the Creative Youth Center teaches creative writing to 6 to 9 year-olds once a week during the school year and twice a week during the summer. They write short stories and poetry and Slager binds their work into books, so they’re published authors.

Slager cheerfully steers the Press Club kids through every floor of the museum, handing over her camera so they can take photos, urging them to interview visitors to get quotes for their stories, patiently waiting while they gawk at just about everything.

Antonio takes a photo of a bullfrog skeleton. They marvel at the mummies. They press buttons to hear bird calls. They stare at a replica of a drop of swamp water and 12-year-old Avelycia grimaces at all the yucky looking stuff that lives inside it. They gleefully put on a puppet show and Slager applauds. She buys them freeze-dried astronaut ice cream, just because.

Later, after driving a few of the kids home after the busy afternoon, Slager’s happy, but whipped.

“Who knew the museum was so exhausting?” she quips.

A few days later, Slager, 32, plops down at a table at her shop, The Sparrows, where the old floors creak, glass jars of loose tea line the counter and the magazine collection is so diverse that unless you’re extremely cool, you won’t know what some of them are.

Her world is butterscotch and Irish cream lattes and almond coconut mochas, but once upon a time, Slager wanted to be an art teacher. She has an art education degree from Calvin College, but when she graduated, there weren’t any jobs.

So she worked at the gift shop at Frederik Meijer Gardens and shelved books at Schuler Books and Music and found places to teach kids art on the side, from community education classes at Kendall College of Art and Design to the Cook Arts Center at Grandville Avenue Arts and Humanities.

A lot of the other artists she knew didn’t want to teach the littlest kids, she says — they wanted high schoolers.

“I think the little kids are way more fun,” Slager says with a smile. “They’re so happy to be there. I love watching their creative abilities come out.”

In the midst of all this she got married, and she and her then-husband and a friend decided to open a coffee shop.

The trio of entrepreneurs found the perfect space in an old hardware store, with tall bead board ceilings and creaky wood floors and built-in hardware shelves that would perfectly cradle magazines.

It was 2007 and the Wealthy Street neighborhood was on the rise — the Meanwhile Bar had just opened. The vibe was good.

“We decided to go for it,” Slager says.

Now the neighborhood booms.

“I feel like I spend half my life waiting to cross Wealthy Street,” she says.

In 2009 she and her husband divorced and by 2010 Slager had taken over the shop herself.

“I wanted a sense of community,” she says. “A place where people would meet each other and maybe start projects together. And that’s happened. We’ve even had people meet here and get married.”

She smiles.

“And we try very hard to make delicious coffee and tea.”

Their most popular drink? The Dirty Hairy — Earl Grey tea with soy milk and honey.

A “local first” girl, Slager serves locally roasted espresso and stocks products by local businesses. You can buy beaded earrings by a local jewelry maker, a mug made by a Heartside artist, a locally baked scone studded with chocolate chips.

Behind the counter crafting a latte, she’s like an artist, telling how the steamed milk should look like wet paint — not foamy — and she holds the milk close to the top of the espresso as she pours to create a more intricate pattern.

At first, Slager worked 40 hours a week behind the counter. Now that business is stable, she has five employees and works there herself about 20 hours a week, devoting more time to running the Creative Youth Center.

Cecile Fehsenfeld, owner of Schuler Books, asked Slager if she would co-found, then run the Creative Youth Center, modeled after a similar program Fehsenfeld discovered in Chicago.

Slager loves the adventure of it, the purpose, the sheer fun. She writes short stories. Words are fun.

“I realized I wanted to make an effort to be involved in the community,” she says. “To help make it interesting.

“I love hanging out with kids,” she says. “They’re hilarious and entertaining and they give me the best stories.”

And they need this, she says.

“These kids are going through things nobody should have to go through,” Slager says quietly. “It’s heartbreaking.”

Some of her young writing students live in the neighborhoods around the Baxter Community Center, others in the Grandville Avenue and Hall Street area.

“One boy told me, ‘I like our apartment.’ Then he started listing all the people who lived with him– mom, dad, sister, brother, cousins, aunt. The apartment had one bedroom and his sister was the only one who had a bed.

“I thought, ‘We need to find a way to make your life easier when you grow up.’”

One kid told her about “the visa people.”

“He wasn’t talking about the credit card,” she says.

Their lives are dogged by poverty and violence.

“Once I couldn’t sleep for a week, I was so worried about one of them,” she says.

“I want to be a positive adult in their lives, to show them you can be successful,” Slager says, taking a sip of her coffee. “This will give them the confidence to do higher things.

“Working with them reminds me to pay attention to the things around me,” Slager says. “To experience things more completely.”

She urges her young students to do the same. When one girl‘s father died, Slager gave her a journal to write in.

“Writing is cathartic,” she says. “I told her, ‘Get it all out.’”

When another won a writing award at school, she brought her to The Sparrows and the two celebrated with pizza at a table out on the sidewalk.

Slager is a runner who loves yoga. She loves walking her dog, Cali Bean, a shepherd lab mix, and lives with her boyfriend Dustin Tinney in a cool condo that used to be a school. She’s vegetarian and owns a share in a community supported agriculture farm.

She has great tricks up her sleeve, like “story cubes” — dice with pictures on each side. Roll ‘em, and write a story about whatever images pop up.

She grew up in Oak Forest, a suburb of Chicago. She’s the youngest and has six older brothers.

“I was well-protected growing up,” she says with a laugh. “They always joked that they’d beat up my boyfriends, but they never did.”

She moved to Grand Rapids to attend Calvin College, and liked it here so much she never left.

Her brother Todd lives in Grand Rapids but the rest of her family is in Illinois, and they keep trying to convince her to move back.

But Antonio and Dulce and Edgar and Donny want her to stay here.

“She’s a pretty nice lady,” 11-year-old Antonio Jaimes observes, taking a snack break in the public museum’s cafe.

“She’s friendly and she’s careful,” 9-year-old Edgar Jaimes says.


He smiles.

“She takes care of us.”

“She’s kind,” 11-year-old Donny Hernandez says. “And joyful.”

“And brave” Edgar adds. “She’s brave to take a lot of kids places. Some people are too scared to do that.”

The kids will be happy to hear that brave Miss Lori will stick around for a while.

She might get her master’s degree in education one day, she muses. But for now, the steamed milk is flowing, kids are writing, and things are good.

There’s a sign in Slager’s office drawn by one of her young Creative Youth Center students, 6-year-old Nathan. It reads: “I love my writing teacher.”

Slager smiles.

“That keeps me going,” Slager says. That, and the light roast of the day. Black.


Terri Finch Hamilton is a freelance writer and a former reporter and writer at The Grand Rapids Press.

Fitzgeralds on the Grand “Grand Men” Fashion Show

Story: The Sparkly Stellafly
Photography: Katy Batdorff

Fitzgeralds Men’s Store has been open since 1980, and has established itself as a leading purveyor of men’s fashion, for everything from beachwear to black tie. Although most days of the year they are located in Breton Village Mall, for three days starting on Tuesday they have moved into the Amway Grand Plaza’s Imperial Ballroom for “Fitzgeralds on the Grand,” an expanded trunk show and sale.

From the beautiful flowers from Modern Day Floral to the phenomenal ice sculpture, guests were treated to a great evening. As the shopping commenced, guests enjoyed delicious food and drink while waiting for the main event of the night, the celebrity fashion show which raised money for six great local nonprofit organizations.


The Sparkly Stellafly had an opportunity to chat with Jerry Girod, President of Fitzgeralds, about this great event. He said that the goal of this event and bringing it downtown was to “create new relationships” and to “further cement the existing ones.” He hopes that those who work downtown are able to visit them at the Amway this week, and then continue to visit their store at Breton Village throughout the year.

This was the second time Girod had brought the trunk show to downtown Grand Rapids, but it was the first time he held it in the Amway Grand Plaza.

The fashion show, emceed by WOODTV-8’s Terri Deboer and Jordan Carson, featured models George Aquino, General Manager of the JW Marriott, raising money for the American Diabetes Association; Todd Chance of mLive, raising money for Mackenzie’s Animal Sanctuary; Fred Corbus, Tom Hillen, and Matt Kirkwood of WOODTV-8, raising money for the Specialized Language Development Center, Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital, and the American Cancer Society, respectively; and Ryan Slusarzyk of the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel, whose charity partner was Kid’s Food Basket.

This was the first time for the fashion show fundraiser, and everyone enjoyed it. Girod said he wanted to find a way to support local nonprofits, and this was the perfect way. Guests could buy cards in denominations of $5, $10, $25, $50, and $100 and use them to vote for their favorite model. All the money raised will go directly to the nonprofits.

Guys, make sure you get over to Breton Village location and take advantage of their great deals on amazing clothing. Big thanks to Jerry Girod for inviting stellafly out to this fun event!

Visit Fitzgerald’s on the web:  and be sure to LIKE them on Facebook:


A delightful HMS Pinafore awaits Grand Rapids, opening Thursday April 26th at the Wealthy Theater, our very local Savoy Theater

Story: Liam among the Savoyards
Photography: Dave Johnson 

With the production this weekend of the HMS Pinafore by our West Michigan Savoyards, the Wealthy Theater presents comic opera to round out its offerings of musical theater and dance. The West Michigan Savoyards join a roster with the beloved Dance in the Annex company, about to sell out their annual show, Trip the Light Fantastic for May 12. Although Gilbert and Sullivan never could have imagined our local exotics, the Super Happy Funtime Burlesque will probably sell out their return to the Wealthy, July 28th, after days on the road. It must be said, the chorus of that burlesque would definitely admire the exquisite Victorian tailoring of the gowns worn by the aunts and sisters of this HMS Pinafore cast. Active since 1999, the West Michigan Savoyards launch their second production of the HMS Pinafore, a comic opera with production values that call for a sold out house. The Pinafore is the name of a “saucy” beauty of a royal navy ship. It is also the name of a sleeveless dress. This HMS Pinafore has fascinating production values, but even from the title, it’s about the dress.

Since the costuming is immaculate, the stage director has the good sense to promenade the talented cast of local chanteuses, tastefully, down the aisles. This makes a virtue out of necessity. The Wealthy Theater has an intimate feel, it could be said. With nine principal singers and a chorus of eighteen men and women, that intimate feel produces challenges that choreographer Carol McAndrew turns into advantages. For example, the upper decks of the HMS Pinafore had to be built about four feet too high. Thus, it requires Cole Groot, Captain Corcoran of the Pinafore, just a moment too long to descend to his deck. This shows up as a subtle bit of business, one of many in this comic opera. Our West Michigan Savoyards are an entirely volunteer company, so it boggles the mind how a great choreographer and costume designer could be retained for mates rates. The pit orchestra are as stalwart as Captain Corcoran’s crew of sailors, led by the able Timothy Oonk, who has rehearsed them for precision. Reading the company’s Facebook, Oonk was still recruiting musicians as late as last week. His volunteer professionals deserve to be on a barge, performing Handel‘s Music for the Royal Fireworks, for King George II himself. Handel’s musicians were proficient volunteers too.

West Michigan‘s reputation as a land of musical achievement shows well. The major roles are sung with verve and strength that furl like a ship’s pennant above amateur status. Fortunately, the cast will take Friday off from their daytime employment so that children from local schools, homeschoolers especially, can see a matinee at 1:00 PM Friday, all tickets sold for seven dollars. Our local Savoyards open casting to all ages from eight to eighty. Indeed, the performance of, perhaps, an eighty year old man as a member of the sailor’s chorus, steals attention away from the principals. His puckish dancing and million dollar smile bring cheer to stage left. The backstage team must be acknowledged for two remarkable transformations. The woman who plays Cousin Hebe must be a radiant and beautiful woman in real life, but despite her elegant, straight laced gown and her nineteenth century coiffure, she brings to mind Olive Oyle. John Ozinga as Deadeye Dick steals scenes from stage right, transformed by makeup into a charming but loathsome presence. Mr Ozinga hangs his hands in an odd way, to suggest an advanced case of rheumatoid arthritis. One is forced to peer at his knuckles to dismiss the diagnosis. The sailors love Travis Knoll as Ralph Rackstraw, the hero, but have the good sense to nudge Deadeye out of sight.

“H.M.S. Pinafore” will be performed at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, April 26, 1 p.m. and 8 p.m. Friday, April 27, 8 p.m. Saturday, April 28, and 2:30 p.m. Sunday, April 29. Tickets are available at or at the Wealthy Theatre box office, 616-459-4788, ext. 131. Tickets bought in advance are $15 for adults, $13 for seniors and $7 for students. Tickets at the door are $18, $16, and $10.

The Reptile House — Revisited

Story by: Diana Lamphiere
Photography: Tim Motley 

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way…” –Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

It started with a Facebook invite. A little red notification icon as I logged in. I clicked on it, and had a cartoonish jaw-drop of a moment. It was finally happening. Someone was finally doing it. The Reptile House was coming back, if just for one night.

I reached out to Mark Sellers, the owner of Stella’s, where the event would be held: “Just wanted to touch base with you about the Reptile Revisited event at Stella’s coming up. I was a dancer there in the early/mid 90s. Let me know if you need any help.” The response was almost immediate, asking me to dance for the event. And just like that, the past was back. I would be the girl in a cage again, at least for one evening.

I met with Mark and his right hand man Garry Boyd (himself a Reptile alum) to check out the cage, get a feel for the space, and get a clear picture of what they wanted, which was authenticity. Five other original Reptile House cage dancers signed on. And thus began endless messaging between the dancers about old times, what to wear, and who we might see.

I combed through my music collection to make a Reptile House playlist, messaging often with DJ Colin Clive (formerly of Reptile A-Go-Go, currently of Control at Rocky’s), who would naturally be in charge of the music for the event, and DJ Tim Pratt, who was flying to GR from San Francisco to spin. I remembered the good times and bad at The Reptile House, and reflected again on what I already knew: Reptile was a pivotal moment in my life, a place and time I could point back at and say, “There. Then. That’s where and when I started to truly become who I was going to be.”

It felt like a nostalgia bomb had gone off in the Grand Rapidsarea. Everyone from back in the day was buzzing about the event, talking about the old days, and going through their archives. I dug through my trunk of memories and found photos, flyers, and a copy of our old dancers rules (example: “You must dance your whole set, even if you do not dig the music. You may get another dancer to sub for you if the tunes truly make you want to die.”). I went through all of my black clothes for fishnet, lace, PVC and leather.

A little background on The Reptile House, which is talked of with fondness by those who went there, and longing by those who never did (you need only browse on the I Hung Out At The Reptile House group page on Facebook to see that): Owners Al Bregante and Jeff Nordruft opened The Reptile House (named after The Reptile House EP by The Sisters Of Mercy) on the corner of Division and Cherry in April of 1990. The idea seemed to be to create a place in Grand Rapids for good music and counterculture, where pretty much anything went. And truly, that’s what it was. National bands touring in the Midwest came through Grand Rapids to play shows at The Reptile House in between stops in Detroit and Chicago. Local bands got their starts playing out at The Reptile House. Many local DJs cut their spinning teeth at The Reptile House. On DJ nights, there were go-go dancers in cages. On nights where there wasn’t a band or a DJ, you might see a fashion show, a bondage show (one notorious night in particular, and wow, did that shake up this repressed town), or just shoot pool and hang with friends. There was usually a line of motorcycles out front. The drinks were cheap and strong. The bathrooms were memorably gross. The shirts shouted out profanity and cleverness, as did the staff. But the most important thing was this: People came to The Reptile House and found their tribes. There almost seemed to be a collective moment of discovery for many of us, a feeling of, “Ah, this is where I belong, this is where my people are.” And that is what was largely lost when The Reptile House closed in 1996/1997.

That sense of community is what Reptile House Revisited aimed to recreate. Would it? In a word: Yes. And how.

The event was billed to start at 8, and the dancers got there at about 9:30. Walking through the Ionia Street alley to enter Stella’s, the wall painted with piles of skulls had a distinctly Reptilian feel. We got inside and found out that the bar was already at capacity. As we weaved through the crowd to get behind the scenes to finish dressing up and making up, faces from the past jumped out at us. Bar staff, patrons, former band members, photographers (stellafly’s own Tim Motley, natch), every old school faction was represented. There were also plenty of people there who weren’t old enough to go to The Reptile House of old, who showed up to see what one of Grand Rapids’ most infamous night spots was all about. The bar was full of happy chatter, people hugging, and the constant repetition of one word: “Remember.”

The dancers took to the cage at 10 p.m. Getting up there and looking at the crowd, it felt like coming home. The music played, we started to move, and it was, to use a cliché, just like riding a bike. Once a cage dancer, always a cage dancer. Looking over the packed dance floor, I knew it was the same for everyone there. The body doesn’t forget.

Wandering the bar in between dance sets, what struck me was how happy everyone was. The original Reptile House was a place of great fun, but also of great drama. Reptile House Revisited was all of the fun, with none of the drama. Like a high school reunion, but with people you actually wanted to see and catch up with. The only sad note came from the people who were missing. I think everyone looked up at the constantly running slide show of old pictures and flyers and saw someone who would never be making it to a reunion. It’s inevitable, but bittersweet, of course. Many a glass was raised to someone who’d been lost.

On the whole, though, the vibe was one of joy. People who hadn’t seen each other in years were catching up. People who do still see each other often, but who met in the Reptile days were feeling sentimental. Some people looked so different as to be unrecognizable and some looked exactly the same, some people joked about how late they were out (hardcore partiers from days of yore who rarely made it out past 11 these days), but they were all there and on the nostalgia trip with the rest of us.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” Reptile House Revisited was all about the best of times. We rediscovered our people. Turns out you can go home again.

Powered by StageWorks Community Open House

Story: The Sparkly Stellafly
Photos: Tim Motley

Tucked back just off of 28th Street near Grandville is the StageWorks headquarters. Walking through the door it looked like a typical lobby and as I turned the corner and saw the “main event” I realized that this was no ordinary place. StageWorks was holding their community open house tonight and those who attended were treated to a pretty spectacular display on their LED Wall, which is just one of the terrific technologies they offer.

StageWorks is a three-year-old company that specializes in services to execute events ranging from concerts and festivals to corporate events. They offer audio, video, projection, and lighting systems that use the latest technology to provide an incredible experience to each audience. Their professionals will come to the venue to set up and operate their equipment.

I spoke with the owner of the company, Rich Bacans, who told me a little bit about the business and pointed out a row of equipment that nearly spanned the entire length of the room. All the equipment would be going to Cheyne Park this summer, near the Detroit River. He also told me a few interesting facts about the line of speaker cabinets they carry. While ISP Technologies might not be a recognizable brand to many, they are “very energy efficient” and “are manufactured in Waterford, Michigan.”

StageWorks offers audio, video, and lighting, and Backline. If a band comes to town and they do not want to bring all of their instruments with them, Backline can provide them with instrument rentals for their show. Another division of StageWorks is Audiospace, which is the part of the company that does installation of equipment.

Chances are you have already been to an event produced by StageWorks, including Juice Ball and the LaughFest event with Martin Short, Kevin Nealon, and Alan Zweibel. They have also done work with artists such as Air Supply, Barlow Girl, and Lauryn Hill.

Be sure and check out their website,, and “like” their Facebook page: as well to see all of the amazing things they can do to give your event a little bit more “wow!”

Benjamin Gott follows his ideas. Or whatever.

Story by: Laura Bergells (@maniactive)
Photography: Katy Batdorff

Earlier this year, 30-year-old Benjamin Gott spoke at Ottawa Hills High School about following dreams.

“I ask most people, like, ‘When you wake up in the morning, what really inspires you? And almost everyone has an answer. Y’know, when they don’t — it’s a little weird.’”

As for Gott, he feels inspired by ideas. And lots of different ideas.

“Most things go from an iteration of an idea, then they turn into a project, and then if you’re lucky, they turn into a profitable business,” said Gott.

Quite a few of Gott’s ideas have transformed into projects or businesses. With Chuck Anderson of NoPattern, Gott co-founded a ‘just for fun’ culture blog with a lo-fi design called In the early 2000’s, Gott started a music distribution site. The site didn’t work out, but Gott met entrepreneur Rick DeVos because they both used the same programming company. Gott and DeVos have since collaborated on a number of projects and businesses together. Currently, Gott runs Boxed Water and designs clothing for his fashion collection “BENJAMIN EDGAR, or whatever”.

Yet at age 12 or 13 in the South Chicagoland area, Gott claimed only two main interests.

“I skate boarded and I programmed computers,” he said. “Those were the things that were fascinating to me.”

That was in the mid 1990’s — well before most people enjoyed the internet in their homes. Gott landed his first job offer to do a little website, and before he knew it, he was wrapped up in exploring creativity with computers.

“School? I wasn’t terribly good at that,” he admitted. “And, uh, I wasn’t bad at it, I just didn’t really care for it.”

But Gott kept himself busy on Chicago’s South Side.

“I was working for a little web programming company there and working at the movie theatre, too. And working with my dad doing construction at the same time. And there was a company in Holland, Michigan that my Dad had a connection with, a startup… that needed a web programmer.”

Gott began working with the Michigan company. He even skipped school from time to time — with his mother’s permission — to go to business meetings in Holland.

“It was a very small company, but when you’re that young, it’s like ‘my goodness.” Gott said.

As his senior year in high school was wrapping up, Gott’s Holland boss asked Benjamin if he would go to college. Gott said he had been accepted at Columbia and Chicago, but didn’t feel ‘into it’. Rather, he liked his job in Holland.

Gott moved to Holland two weeks after graduation, kept working…and loved the work.

For the next 3 or 4 years, Gott bounced around in the programming world during the dotcom boom. Gott worked for startups and freelanced for some companies on the east coast… while living in Holland, Michigan.

In the early 2000’s, Gott moved to Grand Rapids and began working for Supply Chain Solutions. While there, Gott worked on warehousing projects — inventory visibility, supplier portals, and return systems — for the firm’s larger clients like Haworth, Steelcase, and Zondervan.

“Before I knew it, I was very young and I was in front of people that made bigger decisions. And only in retrospect did I realize that’s how I got my chops, I think,” said Gott. “Being confident about your ideas, I learned how to public speak at that point because I had to present a lot.”

While Gott worked for Supply Chain Solutions, he found himself in a warehouse. He saw huge stacks of plastic bottles. He thought, “Well, that’s got to be expensive to ship all these empty plastic bottles. They don’t weigh anything, but they take up all this space.”

And then he all but forgot about it — for about 4 years. As Gott’s music distribution site dwindled, he enjoyed a conversation with his friend Kevin Hockin about the evolution of bottled water. The pair discussed how bottled water was first viewed as weird in the 1980’s, and then became a near fashion accessory in the 1990’s, and then received a backlash from environmentalists in the 2000’s.

Curious, Gott went to his office and researched the bottled water industry. He discovered that it was massive…and growing. But the environmental backlash triggered his memory of the warehouse filled with empty bottles. This sparked his imagination.

“What if we rethought it?” mused Gott. “Let’s put it in a package that’s more sustainable. Let’s ship it more efficiently. And let’s be philanthropic. And now let’s design like nothing else anyone has ever seen in a water bottle before.”

That was 2-1/2 years ago. Today, Gott and Hockin run Boxed Water. Boxed Water cartons ship flat, reducing the bulky, costly transportation issues Gott witnessed years ago in the warehouse. And the company is working on making its fashionable, simply-designed container more sustainable.

But Boxed Water is but one idea transformed into a concrete reality. Gott also created a clothing line, “BENJAMIN EDGAR, or whatever.”

“Because I don’t take it that seriously,” explained Gott. “I did it entirely for fun, for almost 4 years ago.”

Through a friend, Gott met a pattern maker in town. They ‘just started making stuff’ – lean, classic, simply designed pieces that Gott preferred for his slim frame. After a few years, Gott found himself with a clothing line. At a friend’s wedding in New York, he showed his collection to a designer friend. The designer introduced Gott to the owners of a boutique in the West Village, who almost instantly agreed to sell some of the basics in Gott’s collection.

Design. Enthusiasm. Friends. These are the common threads Gott sees between his ideas and projects. In Grand Rapids, he finds few barriers between creating ideas, meeting helpful people, and making valuable connections.

“Things are easier than they appear to be,” said Gott. “If you want it, ask.


Locally, Boxed Water is available at Mad Cap Coffee, Grand Central Market, Cherry Market, and many D&W stores. You can also find it at select locations in Chicago, Southern California, New York, Dallas, and Orlando.


What’s Brewing?

Story: Sparkly Stellafly
Photos: Charley Hoffman

“I will learn from them every single day.”

Those are the words of Martha Knoll-Loader, teacher at Creston High School in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The Sparkly Stellafly and The Intern visited her classroom to check out the new coffee shop that just opened up called “What’s Brewing.” For one dollar (75 cents if you have your own cup), you can have what has been called the “best coffee in the school.”

Not only do you get great coffee (or tea if you wish—hot or iced), but you will be served by some pretty amazing students. They serve it to you promptly and with a smile, because they truly appreciate every cent they make.

What’s Brewing is run by a classroom of students who each fall somewhere on the autism spectrum. This is a project that is part fundraiser, part real-life experience that will teach these kids valuable skills for their future.

The class, comprised of 12 students ages 15-19, is raising money to fix up a greenhouse that has been part of the building for years but has not been used in a long time. It needs a lot of work. Knoll-Loader applied for a grant last year on a whim, and they were thinking of starting an outdoor garden. This was before they even knew that the greenhouse existed. They received the grant from Lowe’s and decided to begin raising money to make the greenhouse functional again. Their goal is to raise $5,000 and to have the greenhouse fixed up before the snow comes.

Several real-world lessons are being learned each week, lessons that they will take with them and could use in find a job. There is a schedule posted for each student to find out when they work, a script is posted on the wall to help them make sure they remember how to greet each customer, pour the coffee, take the money, and make change when necessary. When Ms. Knoll-Loader was leading the discussion in class today, she reinforced that they can make a real paycheck and told them that wherever they work, they need to make minimum wage.

Watching the excitement on these kids’ faces, the energy in the room from their teachers, and the sheer volume of pride they had when someone came to buy coffee was incredibly inspiring. Knoll-Loader has been teaching at Creston for 2 years, and she loves what she is doing because she believes, “everybody has a place in society.”

“Forever Fleeting, Forever Lasting” Art Collaboration

Lee Roy and B-Rad kept it real and were ready to deal at Corazon Cafe pop up shop exhibition, Forever Fleeting, Forever Lasting.

Many of the artists who displayed Saturday evening at Forever Fleeting, Forever Lasting had street names. One young man, Zac Godi, exhibited under the name of Zome. Lee Roy and B-Rad organized the show, two friends named Lee Meyerhoffer and Brad Ecklesdafer, who met at Grand Rapids Community College. Lee Rou and B-Rad are an ambitious pair of young men who understand the connection between arts and entrepreneurship, and the two operate graphics businesses featuring silk screened clothing, lo-kel and Grumpy Bear Clothing. The pair maintain payroll jobs too, Meyerhoff employed in patient care at Pine Rest Christian Mental Health and Ecklesdafer managing at the YMCA in Grand Rapids. Saturday’s art show could be described as an art hustle, but no one who participated, visited or bought felt hustled.

The two partners reached out to their circle of business associates and contacts, and found more than fifteen artists who were willing to exhibit art for one night priced to sell. Ellie Fitzpatrick, an artist newly fledged at St. Mary’s College and newly hired at Amway, marked her works, “Price Negotiable”. She sold her paper gown constructed of Japanese text books pages, with matching high heels, to an established collector. Instead of the understated red dot, the artists scrawled sold in red ink on the tags. At least one third of the show went out the door with shoppers. Savvy collectors aggressively rushed the show during hanging and cherry picked the exhibit, according to Ecklesdafer. Owner of Corazon Cafe, Afternoon Delight, made a purchase award as the show was hung.

Tommy Allen frequently writes online as TommyGSync, and often ends his articles with the tag line, “The Future Needs All of Us”. Saturday, Allen demonstrated his preoccupation with time present and time past with a series of photographs from his Time Machine series, surreal images remembering Kim Jong-Il. Allen last exhibited on Division Street two decades prior, at a space across the street from Corazon. In present time, he worked the entire street Saturday, capturing National Record Day performances at Vertigo and Dodd Records, filing images into the way-back machine of his studio, once known as Tanglefoot Studios. Memory is a defence against the forever fleeting nature of time, and art on Division Street is forever present in his mind. As merely one data point, he recalled a gallery opening, six years ago, where a team of artists transformed a Division Street studio into a re-enanctment of Andy Warhol’s Factory, papering the walls with aluminum foil.

Kate Lewis sold her earthenware drinking mugs for five dollars each, and she experienced brisk sales from her inventory of over 150 items. This generosity led to serendipity when Gregory Hall, brewer of Red Streak Branch to Bottle cider, stepped up with a keg of his English session cider made from heirloom apples in Fennville, Michigan. Lewis’s mugs kept that cider ice cold in a way that seemed to break the law of physics. For a pop-up show with a street level focus, the evening had the feeling of a chamber of commerce mixer. Trevor Petroelje of Aqua Graphix showed off his custom decals for surfboards, long boards and sports vehicles. Marcel Thibert of Vizidef Display Technology promoted the work of filmmakers Brenden Watts and Spencer Elliott, projecting the short film “City Bound” on the window of Corazon’s banquet room. The ceilings of Corazon’s banquet room are two stories high, and Thibert impressed the gathering with his step ladder skills as he installed one of his high powered projectors. Brewmaster Hall, who learned his craft over twenty-five years with Goose Island in Chicago, shared his plan to construct a cider house on orchard acreage in Fennville by next year.

The evening ran late and many artists stayed at Corazon to talk about their art. Kirstin Anne displayed two sets of work. Her photographs paid homage to Sixties hot rod and pinup culture, featuring models come of age in our decade, clearly women dedicated to recreating the fashions and hairstyles of the Mad Men era. Her second set demonstrated skill in digital painting, executed in a pastel palette, evoking the vunerability of hand painting. Kirstin Anne is a street name; it’s not her full name. Megan Donovan sold a series of pencil sketches that she had prepared as studies for her commissioned stained glass panels, making hard cash and pleasing the purchaser who walked away with authentic art for a low price. Tony Anastor had some difficulty pricing his popular paintings at an affordable price and had the distinction of bringing the single work of art that couldn’t be displayed due to content. Aggressive collectors demanded to view the study from life in back.

Where will the team of Lee Roy and B-Rad strike next? The pair packed the house for hours at Corazon, and that fact argues for a repeat of the event soon. These entrepreneurs have developed a great event that could work in bars and cafes any place in town.

Liam in the heart of Heartside. :: Photography: Morgan Tinney