That’s how he rolls: The Rapid’s Peter Varga talks of bus rides and rhino encounters


Peter Varga really loved driving the bus. He was so excited to get his first regular route as a new bus driver in California.

He was replacing a lady named Bev who had just retired. Everybody loved Bev. People rode the bus just to see her.

“They had high expectations,” Varga recalls. “As people got on the bus, they said, ‘We loved Bev. Are you going to be as good as Bev?’”

Yikes. No pressure.

So Varga played his A game. He joked, jollying the passengers who often packed the popular bus like sardines. He led them in song.

His last day on the job before heading to a promotion, his passengers climbed aboard with balloons and cake. It was a farewell party on wheels.

“That bus was a mess,” he recalls with a laugh. “There was cake and balloons everywhere.

“It was a real relationship I had with them,” he says of his passengers. “I’m still very conscious of that.”

These days Varga, 63, is a bus head honcho, as CEO of The Rapid, which operates the public buses that travel 185 square miles through Grand Rapids, Kentwood, Walker, Wyoming, Grandville and East Grand Rapids.

It’s a busy time for The Rapid. Ridership is up, and the system boasts 10.8 million riders this year — a record.

A millage passed in May 2011 means improvements have been popping up all over town. Buses are arriving more often — every 15 minutes — on popular routes at peak times. They added 23 buses to the fleet, many running later, after midnight, to accommodate riders who work second and third shift.

Varga talks enthusiastically about the Silver Line, expected to be in place in a couple years. Technically known as a Bus Rapid Transit route, the Silver Line will run 9.6 miles of Division Avenue through Grand Rapids, Wyoming and Kentwood from the downtown Grand Rapids Rapid Central Station to 60th Street.

It’s expected to run faster than a bus because it would get a dedicated lane during rush hour traffic, with a journey from 54th Street to the Michigan Street downtown reduced from the current 53-minute trip to about 24 minutes.

A new ad campaign called “Real Riders of The Rapid” shows real-life urban professionals telling how cool it is to ride the bus. (You can check Facebook on the way to work and not worry about crashing into the car in front of you.)

The Rapid has a good vibe going.

Still, Varga says, it can be stressful being him.

The millage in May 2011 passed by just 136 votes. A bit too close for comfort.

“There’s some tension,” Varga says. “People are agitated about taxes. We’re trying to meet the needs of the community.”

He worries that people don’t see the transportation system as “real people.”

“Transit has real faces,” he says.

His is pretty interesting.

Varga speaks six languages: English, Hungarian, French, German, Italian and some Amharic, the language of Ethiopia.

He grows orchids. An outdoorsman, he climbed Mount Hood and has been ice climbing in Canada.

An avid photographer, he takes his camera everywhere. Everywhere. He has a series of photos called “Shots Taken from Peoples’ Bedroom Windows.” (Don’t worry — he asks permission first.)

Varga has been interesting ever since he was a kid.

He was born in Ethiopia and lived there until he was 13. His Hungarian parents left Europe for Africa after World War II.

Young Peter attended a multilingual Catholic school, where his friends were from all over the world. He and his sisters were raised with traditional African cultural values Varga speaks fondly of today.

He loved Ethiopia, and his family often camped in the savanna, where he watched lions, giraffe, zebra.

“Never try to sneak up on a rhinoceros,” he advises. “They can smell you.”

So you can imagine the culture shock when his parents decided to move the family to New York City. His dad, a painter, wanted to try to make it there as an artist.

Peter, 13, was rattled and overwhelmed. Goodbye serene savannas, hello, skyscrapers and rough Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood.

Peter talked funny, the other kids said. He was different. He got beat up.

Varga ended up with degrees in history and political science from New York University. Working his way through college, he drove a taxi at night in New York City, giving rides to such celebrities as Neil Simon, Anne Bancroft, Howard K. Smith and Mel Brooks.

Varga moved to California and got a job driving city buses in Santa Cruz, then moved up to be safety and training coordinator for the transit system.

He got a job in Muskegon as executive director of its bus system. After two years there, he came to Grand Rapids as director of operations.

These days Varga is a transportation heavy hitter. He’s been president of the state public transportation agency and was appointed to a state transportation funding task force.

A board member of the American Public Transportation Association, he was nominated for vice chair and is running unopposed, so it’s likely he’ll be chair of the national group next year. He’s already on its legislative steering committee.

Nationally, bus ridership is up about 5 percent, he says. The Rapid’s increase is more than twice that.

The high cost of gas is a factor, he says. But he also credits lifestyle changes.

“A lot more young people are riding,” Varga says. “The younger generation isn’t as interested in cars. They want walkable neighborhoods, bikes, they want to use public transit.

“When I was that age, I was so focused on getting a car, but now that isn’t as important to young people,” he says. “They want to do their social media on the way to work,” he says.

He smiles.

“They post that they’re on the bus.”

He loves that.

There’s a QR reader code on every bus stop that tells you when the next bus is coming.

“Young people don’t want to carry a bus schedule,” he says.

Riding the bus is personal, Varga says. The former bus driver who replaced beloved Bev knows that well.

“People who drive cars don’t know who they’re driving with,” he muses. “It’s a faceless way of going through life. “In public transit, you know who you’re riding with — all real people who are making a different choice on how they want to live.”

He and his wife, Susan, recently took their 4-year-old granddaughter Lily to New York City. They went to Coney Island, Central Park, Little Italy, the Statue of Liberty, all on public transportation.

“Yesterday I was on the bus platform and I saw a bunch of little kids with their teacher,” Varga says. “Those were real kids riding the bus. Some people think our riders are people mooching off life. People who need to pull up their boot straps and a buy a car.”

He shakes his head.

“The people who ride the bus aren’t who you think they are.”

Quite often, it’s Varga. Some days he’s even behind the wheel.

“Just to get the feel of it again,” he says.


For more information on The Rapid, visit their website:
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2012 ArtPrize Fashion Force Challenge — A preliminary competition to Style Battle

Last evening Stellafly headed out to Monte’s Lounge on Bridge Street downtown Grand Rapids to check out Spotlight616 and ArtPrize‘s first official collaborative event — 2012 ArtPrize Fashion Force Challenge. The event is a brand new, custom-designed competition to West Michigan, created specifically for up-and-coming fashion designers.

This designer driven competition was designed to put a spotlight on the most promising designers in the growing Grand Rapids fashion community. Plus, ArtPrize believes that Fashion is Art.

Twelve designers worked alongside hand chosen models, make-up artists and hair stylist. The designer then created two “looks,” during for ArtPrize Fashion Force Challenge. One was a piece made in advance using ArtPrize’s past year’s clothing line, and another was created live in front of the audience and a panel of ArtPrize appointed judges using the 2012 items revealed for the first time that night.

WOOD TV’s, Jordan Carson, emceed the event. Jenny Disko threw down the tracks. Designs were modeled, while the judges reviewed the fashions during the live runway show. Judges included Melissa DeVos, ArtPrize retail ambassador; Benjamin Edgar, designer and entrepreneur of his own line of clothing; Lindsay Jones, graphic artist at Square One Design, creators of 2012 ArtPrize poster; Chika Okafor, graphic artist at ArtPrize and designer of 2012 ArtPrize retail line; Chelsea Slocum, lifestyle writer for West Michigan Woman; and Rebecca Wierda, president of Leigh’s.

The judges chose Liesl Geneva, a designer from Comstock Park, as the winner of the ArtPrize Fashion Force Challenge. Geneva was awarded a $500 stipend to create garments for Style Battle as well as have the opportunity to present designs for a limited edition merchandise line/collection to be featured in the ArtPrize Retail Store in September. She also received an automatic placement in the 2012 Style Battle, which will be held this September at the Goei Center. It will be Style Battle’s 3rd year.

Designers that participated  in Fashion Force Challenge included Kathy Amato, Dave Battjes, Joanna Bronicki, Shannon Gales, Liesl Geneva, Vicki Good, Angie Johnson, Matthew Jurecic, Anna Grace Longenecker, Claire Longenecker, Heather McLeod, Daniel Parker and Adrienne Rynders.

Showcase Team for the upcoming Style Battle representing ArtPrize: Liesl Geneva with Adam Bird (photography), Christopher Michael (hairstyling), Hanna Wagner (makeup artistry)

ArtPrize and Spotlight616  selected [Fashion Has Heart] as their charity partner. $2 of each ticket sold at the door went to support this outstanding nonpartisan, non-profit organization that is dedicated to utilizing the power of art, design, and fashion to benefit the military men and women wounded while serving our country.


Keemo — “Check Your Guns At the Door”


At Keemo’s request, we checked our guns at the door of Richard App Gallery, and inside the miracle of art unfolded.

James Magee is an artist with several alter-egos. Annabel Livermore, the librarian and painter from Newaygo County, is the most famous. He sculpts under his personal name, James Magee. In Magee’s imagination lives a fellow named Horace Mayfield, an untrained artist who makes assemblages out of found objects and recovered Salvation Army paintings. Thus, it is a fair question to ask Keemo who else creates art in his studio. Keemo answered simply, “It is just me. One man, one pseudonym, many colors.” Keemo creates almost 400 works of art a year, most of which sell, so one is compelled to wonder if there’s a school of Keemo. Andy Warhol ran a factory staffed by his superstars to assist in the creation of silk screens and films.

With Keemo, there’s no question that he works mostly alone. Keemo has boundless energy, demonstrated by the total gutting of his studio following his Thursday night opening. Completing his fourth decade, the painter and sculptor is riding a growth spurt that began in 2009, which raises an important question. What will Keemo accomplish in his next three decades? Although Keemo’s show, “Check Your Guns At the Door” was billed as a pop up show, it is more a pop up guidebook to the next three decades of his artistic career.

Keemo has written a book, We Are All Here and That Is Just How It Is, providing stories for works composed between 2008 to 2010. Each of the fifty paintings has a companion typewritten story. Keemo talked about his method for incorporating text into his paintings. “I have a 1951 Royal Speed King. I often use it in pieces, where I’ll type onto the paper and then add some paint. For these pieces, I never pre-write the words. I just type it up directly on the painting, mistakes and all and just see what comes out.” The titles from the show read as a series of Zen Koans. All Things Grow From The Hole Where My Heart Was. With Each Breath Know The Balance Is Complete. I Have Learned to Stop Counting My Days Before I Have Counted Them All.

Keemo promised to present a painting incorporating a love poem, and the verse became an audience favorite Thursday night. It could be said Keemo arrived Thursday night with a love story, bringing his wife, Aimee, his high school sweetheart from Jenison High school to the opening. His daughter, Alisha, brought a friend, and the two sported dresses of different patterns, made from a fabric dotted with a matching animal icon. The artist greeted endless friends and well-wishers who arrived to view his work and engage him in conversation. Yet, he had time to meet personally with his collectors in Richard App’s office to review commissions.

Keemo had no idea Thursday night as his family left Richard App Gallery at twilight that his collection would become topical in the conversation to end massacres forever. He had painted on a variety of gun targets easily purchased from online sources and shipped to Keemo’s studio. With names such as split second, head shot, critical impact zone and anatomy targets, James Eagan Holmes, the highly educated shootist, might have trained his deadly aim on variations of these firing range targets. Keemo appropriated these targets and turned them to humane, ironic purposes. He has left the coding visible when painting on the targets. A shot to K5 D2, on the abdomen below the heart, could cause deadly internal bleeding. A shot to K2 D4, the left elbow, could disable a less berserk gunman and prompt a surrender. Great artists respond to mere wrinkles in our cultural fabric, a kind of telepathy with paint, and what Keemo paints we must take seriously from now onward. Ignore at humanity’s own risk. Treat them with the seriousness accorded an all-points bulletin.

The show contained affordable art and advanced works, such as “There Is This World And Then There Is Us”. Painted on a two headed target designed to charge up the firing range, Keemo’s paint transformed this into a face card from an old-fashioned deck. Keemo described his painting in an email correspondence. “It … is a portrait of love and relationships. I could go more into all the identifiers, such as the heart spilling over, the arm wrapped around, the ears listening to each other, … but I think you probably get the idea. Even though it was born from some place personal, aren’t they all, I do think that it extends beyond my own relationship and translates into others as well.”

Keemo makes subtle quotes of visual material. Always be on the look for a David Lynch angle. Thursday night’s show always had FBI Special Agent Dale Bartholomew Cooper not far from the surface. When a Keemo character appears wearing a twin peaked cap, open a copy of Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak and compare against the ears. Keemo also painted a few items from nature, including a bear entitled, The Manifestation of Ideas. For Keemo, the bear is “a nod to the birth, storage and expression of ideas. Particularly, to the area deep inside where ideas are stored for a long time and ruminate and then eventually show themselves in some form, at least for me.” When you see Keemo’s bear, reference a picture of the bear on the California flag. When you see a white faced character wearing a military hat, imagine Marilyn Manson and the Golden Age of Grotesque.

Rhonda Solomon responded strongly to Keemo’s work. Solomon practices as an interior designer and owns Canary Home Studio, a design studio and textiles library connected to the East Hills Business District in Grand Rapids. She pointed out the cubist nature of Keemo’s work, and his bold use of original colors. To add to Solomon’s observation, Keemo’s handling of the human face pushes facial signifiers to the edge of easy recognition, and in our viewing, that extra moment evokes the subconscious. The approach quotes the paintings of Giuseppe Arcimboldo, who composed faces of fruits, vegetables and fish.

Richard App Gallery has two chambers that work well for weddings, lectures and networking mixers. During the Keemo exhibition, his east gallery hosted a separate networking event for the Uptown Business District, led by Mark C. Lewis of Neighborhood Ventures. The community furnished a splendid table. Blue Door Antiques offered three extravagant Bloody Mary cocktails, the York Harbor with lobster and wasabi, the Wake Up Crabby with Shrimp and Crab, and a traditional Bootlegger. The owner of Blue Door Antiques, Joel Carrier, added a historical character by mixing them with award winning Vodka Monopolowa, a modestly priced vodka made from an old world recipe, a distillation that was once the monopoly vodka of Communist Poland. Amy Ruis of Art of the Table, where she hosts winemakers and brewmasters weekly, provided a selection of fine wines and flavored ice teas. Karen and Ken Bryan of Making Thyme Kitchen brought hummus and unusual dipping items, including thick slices of red cabbage. The table was rounded out with stacks of Solace Magazine and copies of the Local First directory, which vanished before the selection of Brewery Vivant microbrews on ice depleted. Representing the Uptown Business District as a health destination, Kat McKinney of the Yoga Studio, Rachel Zylstra of Hop Scotch Children’s Store and Dr. Doug DeVries and Kristin Swann of Eastown Chiropractic and Acupuncture answered many questions on new approaches to wellness.

We checked our guns at the door of Richard App Gallery, and inside the miracle of art unfolded. Two artists, Victoria Mullen and David R. Mullen arrived to tour the gallery. Although the pair are no longer married, they share time together as friends. Next week, Victoria will attend David’s wedding. Erin Haehnel reclined on a chaise lounge, and with Rosemary Ellis‘ bubble paintings in the background, her friend Marjorie Yost captured the beautiful moment on film. The artist Anthony Carpenter held court among Keemo’s paintings, and one of his models, Amy Armstrong, mingled with her friends and made new ones. Heidi Stukkie, journalist and creative with Zia Creative, had a chance to catch up with art collector Eddie Tadlock, subject of a profile she wrote for Stellafly Social Media. Likewise, social media strategist Laura Bergells visited to take a quick turn through the beautiful pictures and missed Michele Sellers, another subject of a Stellafly profile authored by Bergells. In these ways and uncounted others, inside the Richard App Gallery, the miracle of art, peace and community unfolded.


He Never Heard the Blast


Everyone has certain days that are never forgotten in life. Marine Corps Combat Engineer Chris Wiers will always remember these dates: August 10, 2001; September 11, 2001; July 16, 2002 and October 6, 2005.

Becoming a Marine

August 10, 2001 is the day Wiers enlisted in the Marine Corps. He had just finished his junior year at Grand Rapids Christian High School when he decided to join the military. He always knew he would. His grandfathers, father and a couple uncles were all in the military so it seemed like the natural thing to do.

Wiers was the first in the family to become a Marine —“because they’re the best” — but no one minded, except maybe his mother. She worried about her son being a part of any military branch and asked him then, “What if we go to war?”

He didn’t give her concerns another thought until September 11, 2001, the day terrorists hijacked four U.S. planes and killed thousands. When Wiers first saw the news, he contacted his military recruiter and asked if he could be sent to boot camp early.

“It amped me up,” he says. “It made me want to be a Marine even more.

Boot Camp and Iraq

Ten months after September 11 and a month after graduating high school, Wiers was on a plane to Camp Lejeune, the Marine Corps base in North Carolina. He began basic training July 16, 2002 and eventually became a combat engineer.

His troop deployed to Iraq in 2004 and helped build Camp Tiger, a military base in Al Qaim. This base, located near the Syrian border in the Anbar province, served as one of the main entry points in and out of Iraq.

After a short period of time back in the states, Wiers again deployed to Iraq in 2005 for a second tour of duty. As a combat engineer, he was responsible for creating entry points into buildings before a raid. Soldiers were frequently injured when buildings exploded after entering the front door, so they would often create a small hole elsewhere as a way to gain an unexpected safe entry.

Wiers and other members of his troop also acted as the lead security team for convoys. They would go ahead of the other 50-100 vehicles traveling in a convoy and check for mines and improvised explosive devices (IEDs). If anything was found, it would be destroyed before the others arrived.

Wiers admits the duties could be “scary at times” and it worried his mother.

“My mother knew what I was doing over there,” he says.

October 6, 2005

Wiers, four other Marines and an Iraqi translator were traveling in a Humvee on security duty near Haditha on October 6, 2005. The team was searching for mines and IEDs along the road when, suddenly, they ran over an undetected IED that was planted underneath the pavement.

“I never heard the blast,” he says.

Wiers was thrown from the vehicle upon impact. He was one of the lucky ones––two of the Marines died immediately. The two other Marines and the interpreter were also injured in the blast.

The next three weeks were spent in a Baghdad hospital recovering. Wiers suffered two broken vertebrae, torn shoulder nerves and a radial head fracture on his left arm, damage to both eyes and he had shrapnel covering his legs, arms, hands, face and eyes.

Life today

Nearly seven years later, Wiers can’t see properly out of his left eye and says, “It’s basically just shadows.” He recently turned down a cornea transplant because he has now learned to live with it.

He’s also had to learn to use his left arm to do stuff with, as his right arm is mostly paralyzed. In 2008, Wiers underwent a nine and a half hour nerve replacement surgery in his shoulder area. Now he’s waiting for all the nerves to grow back. So far, he’s gained the ability to feel hot and cold temperatures where he couldn’t before, his tricep muscles work and his biceps are starting to show some improvement.

Wiers meets with a physical therapist three days a week. When he’s not doing that, he works on cars, trucks and motorcycles––his own and those of his friends. Wiers owns a Harley Davidson motorcycle, a 2006 Mustang GT, a pick-up truck and more. This self-described “gear head” spends time building motors and tinkering with his Harley, which he rides a lot.

Unless you count his 180-pound, four-legged roommate, Wiers lives alone in his Alger Heights home.

“He’s a big baby,” he says of the Neapolitan Mastiff he calls Conrad.

And, yes, Conrad loves to ride around town in the back of the pick-up truck, in case you were wondering.

Wiers is currently thinking about studying to become an unexploded ordinance technician and is trying to decide between schools in Colorado or Texas, where his parents now live.

He recently participated in the [Fashion Has Heart] Corporal Hoffman Design Project in Grand Rapids that paired a wounded veteran with a designer. Ever since taking art classes in high school, Wiers has always had an interest in creating a line of tactical clothing and gear. He was excited to join the project so he could gain some knowledge about starting his own company someday, but also to be able to support other veterans.

“Hopefully, our designs will inspire them,” he says.

Wiers doesn’t have any regrets about joining the military, other than he wishes his team had found the IED before it found them. He believes the camaraderie is the best part about being a Marine so he encourages others to join and serve their country.

He adds, “Blowing stuff up and shooting bad ass guns is pretty sweet too.”

The Corporal Hoffman Series is a project series created by [Fashion Has Heart] in conjunction with hero, U.S. MarineCorporal Josh Hoffman.

[Fashion Has Heart] is a non-partisan, non-profit organization established to utilize the powerful mediums of art, design, and fashion to support and benefit the wounded heroes who have sacrificed for the American freedoms to express oneself and create.

To contact [FHH] Founder, Michael Hyacinthe for additional information about this Corporal Hoffman Series Design Projectemail:

Discovering heart and home: Kids find sanctuary at D.A. Blodgett- St. John’s


The wood chips still smell new at the playground installed in June at St. John’s Home, and on a sunny, blue-sky morning, kids are climbing all over it.

“Helloooo,” a young boy calls into a tube, listening for a voice to come back from the other end. “Is anybody there?”

That’s the great thing about this place. Somebody is always there.

When St. John’s Home merged with D.A. Blodgett for Children in 2010, it joined an agency that has offered homes and hope for children since 1887.

D.A. Blodgett-St. John’s — now one of the largest child welfare agencies in West Michigan — helps 4,000 children each year through 22 different programs.

But when people hear the name D.A. Blodgett they often think it’s connected to the hospital with the same Blodgett name.

When they drive past the serene wooded St. John’s campus on Knapp Street NE, they’re not sure what goes on there. Something about troubled kids, right?

They save kids’ lives.

They’re the shelter when a child is first removed from their home because of abuse or neglect.

They place abused and neglected youngsters in foster families and help both parents and kids as they work to reunite.

If that’s not possible, they work to find youngsters permanent adoptive homes.

They counsel troubled adolescents and match caring adult volunteers with needy kids through the Big Brothers Big Sisters program.

The list goes on, helping youngsters along an often complicated timeline from horror to home. The heartbreaking reality is that this life-changing work often starts with tragedy — children who are neglected or abused by their parents.

“We’ve all driven home crying,” says Rosalynn Bliss, director of residential and KidsFirst Shelter Services at D.A. Blodgett-St. John’s.

A lot of people know Bliss from her role as Grand Rapids City Commissioner. But Bliss has spent her career helping kids, first as a social worker and advocate for children who has spearheaded programs all over town.

Sharon Loughridge, executive director of this place, started out as a social worker, too, spending more than 20 years working at the Kent County Family Independence Agency. She’s made a career of sticking up for kids whose own parents have let them down.

Together they’re Wonder Women — dogged, compassionate, innovative. They make things happen.

“Our goal is to create a sanctuary for kids,” Bliss says, as ducks waddle through the parklike St. John’s campus outside her window. “Provide a safe place. We have kids who, day in, day out, didn’t feel safe.”

The staff here changes all that, she says.

“What changes kids is the relationships they have with the people here,” Bliss says. “People who tell them,

‘You are lovable. People like you, care about you, think you have tremendous potential. We want to see you grow.’”

Each child has an individualized plan, from their education to their counseling needs to their recreation.

“They learn what it’s like to live in a family,” Bliss says.

The youngsters in their care are exposed to all kinds of experiences, from dance to music to sports to yoga.

“They’re able to find out where their heart is,” Bliss says.

Nine boys are in Montana right now on an annual trip provided by a donor. They stay on a working ranch, sleep in a bunk house, go on an overnight trail ride.

“This would be a life-changing experience for anyone,” Loughridge says. “These are kids who have never left Grand Rapids.”

Most of the abused or neglected kids here arrive with behavior problems.

“You have to put their behavior in perspective of their history,” Bliss says. “So, Joey’s been up six times a night. Well, Joey was molested in his bed when he lived with his uncle. Fear is at the root of that. So how do we make him feel safe?

“Behavior is like an iceberg,” Bliss says. “The tip is what we see. But under the water are the core issues. We see them screaming, kicking, crying. You have to look beneath the surface if you’re going to help hurting kids.”

The leaders and staff here think outside the box. Loughridge devised a program that fosters a relationship between the birth moms who lost custody of their children with the foster moms who are caring for them now.

She tells of a mom with a severe substance abuse problem who couldn’t care for her three kids. So they lived in foster care.

“The foster mom embraced the birth mom,” Loughridge says. “Instead of saying, ‘I have to keep these kids safe from this horrible mom,’ she became friends with her, supported her. The kids could say ‘My mom and my foster mom aren’t enemies. They like each other.’

“It made all the difference.”

Some kids are in foster care until they’re 18. At that point, they have to live on their own. D.A. Blodgett – St. John’s gets them ready, from teaching them laundry and cooking skills to budgeting.

“We talk to kids in seventh and eighth grade about college and what they need to get ready,” Loughridge says. “Maybe they need a reading tutor. Maybe they need to take the ACT test four times. We take them to campus visits in a van. We want them to see college as a reality — not a pipe dream.”

The national average for kids in foster care going on to college is 13 to 15 percent, Loughridge says. Their rate is 80 percent.

Kids come back, they say.

One young woman had her wedding on the St. John’s campus. Teens have their senior pictures taken there. They come back to visit, toting spouses, asking if they can share a meal in the house they used to live in.

They always want to see the counselors and program managers who became their new family.

“It takes a special person to do a job like this,” Loughridge says. “They don’t come to this work because of the pay. They come because they want to change a child’s life, a family’s life.

“When you work here, you feel like you had an impact.”

She pauses, thinking.

“Everybody here has horrible stories in their head that will never leave them,” she says. “They’re here because they’re called to this kind of work.

“Nothing is perfect,” Loughridge says. “You won’t always be successful. But you’ve given it your best.”

“For all the cases that break my heart,” Bliss adds, “there’s always one that touches my heart.”

She tells of a young woman who came back to visit last Christmas. Severely troubled, she had been one of their most challenging cases, she says.

“We were very concerned about her future,” Bliss says. “And here she was in college, with her own apartment, doing so well.”

She smiles.

“We all get holes in our bucket,” Bliss says, “but seeing her filled my bucket back up.”

Outside after a morning meeting, Bliss and Loughridge stroll past the playground. A little girl named Alice runs up and reports there’s a spider web on the monkey bars. Ick.

Miss Rosalynn will take care of that for you,” Loughridge says with a grin.

Miss Rosalynn pushes Alice on the tire swing, chatting about her day, her summer, her pretty hair.

An 11-year-old boy named Tyler strolls up to tell “Miss R,” as he calls her, about a recent golf outing and the medals he’s collected for basketball and track.

“I’m leaving soon, Miss R,” he tells her, kicking the toe of his sneaker into the wood chips. “I’m going to my auntie’s.”

“You are?” Bliss asks, smiling.

“You know how when you have light at the end of the tunnel and you’re doing good and they send a caseworker to do a house check where you’re going?” Tyler says. “That’s what’s happening.”

He smiles.

“I’ve been doing good.”


D.A. Blodgett-St. John’s is a 125-year-old accredited agency that works in partnership with the community providing comprehensive services to children and families, including Big Brothers Big Sisters, foster care, adoption, and family support, as well as, residential treatment and emergency shelter care at St. John’s Home.

To learn more, visit their website:

LIKE them on Facebook:

Michael Bell: Adapt and Overcome


“I’m not the most gung-ho, hardcore military guy,” admitted Electrician’s Mate Third Class Michael K. Bell of the US Coast Guard. “I joined because of the educational benefits.”

“To tell the truth, I didn’t even know what the Coast Guard was. I’m from Missouri. We don’t have coasts.”

“But after I joined, I went off to boot camp and things progressed from there, as they do for everybody.”

However, Bell’s career progressed on a path that took him by surprise.

At 22, Bell held many physical fitness records with his unit. He was in such good physical shape he was asked to be the unit’s health and wellness coordinator.

But then, in November 2007, he went to the dentist.

“I had four wisdom teeth removed, actually,” Bell said. “Four days later, I had a bleed, you know, basically a stroke. I was at the hospital there in Michigan for 4 or 5 days. Then they flew me to St. Louis. That’s where I did my physical, occupational, speech — every kind of therapy you got.”

The stroke left Bell completely paralyzed on the entire right side of his body. He spent one and half years in intensive therapy, learning how to perform daily activities like walking, eating, and speaking.

“My main motto since I’ve had my stroke — my family always said this, too, when I was going through rehabilitation and stuff — “Adapt and Overcome,” said Bell.

As Bell works with the Fashion Has Heart program to create a t-shirt and boot design to benefit wounded warriors, he is keeping his inspirational motto in mind. When Fashion Has Heart director Mike Hyacinthe approached Bell to ask if he’d consider participating in the design project, Bell didn’t hesitate to accept the challenge.

“I do these things because I was that guy that, you know, was going through all these detrimental issues through my life,” he said. “Any way that I can find that could make me feel as though I’ve accomplished something by helping someone else out, it really feeds your own energy.”

“You really feel compelled to give back,” said Bell.

“I’ve been helped by amazing people. Without their help, and not just like, I mean, because it’s their jobs. These are people who are going out of their way. Selfless people. It’s nice to know that still exists.”

Currently, Bell is pursuing an education to become a Rehabilitation Counselor.

“Along the way, through all the BS that you go through, that everybody goes through, you notice that lots of other people are going through that BS, too,” said Bell. “That same concept works for civilians. There are people that are overcoming things. You form a bond.”

“A hardship is a hardship,” said Bell. “And seeing someone else triumph helps me a lot.”

“It feels good because you’ve maybe inspired someone else not to give up. Just maybe find new meaning in life. Because it’s a totally new world after, uh, shit go down.”

Since the stroke, Michael is adapting and overcoming his totally new world.

“There’s so much stuff you really can’t do with one hand, that you wouldn’t know until you went to try and do it,” he said. He mentioned that his sister recently helped him to tie his shoes. And that his mother bought him a can opener than he can use with one hand.

“My whole family has been so supportive every since my stroke,” he said. “I said ‘adapt and overcome’ earlier, but I wouldn’t have been able to had not my family been forcing me to do that…I wouldn’t have progressed to where I did and where I have.”

Yet paralysis is not the largest challenge Bell faces.

“I’m very socially awkward now,” he said. “I was shy before. But I’m overly judgmental about my own stuff.”

“The biggest issues to overcome is the social aspect of things,” he said. “The anxiety. It really hinders a lot. Some days it’s worse than others. It’s something that, I don’t know, it’s out there a lot.”

“I haven’t necessarily lost a lot of friends, but I don’t go out and do a lot of things that I used to. Just because I don’t want to inconvenience people. But I also don’t want to go somewhere and not be prepared for whatever is going to happen.”

For example, Bell explained that he doesn’t want to find himself in some random place in a city, alone, where he might fall or get stranded. Even with family nearby, a recent fall left him with a scrape on his hand. Bell prefers not to be alone — but to travel with family and people he trusts.

“There are certain people that I’ve come across in my short time in the military, I would consider them family,” he said.

Bell said he recently travelled to speak at a family symposium in Washington DC.

“I was in Washington DC. I don’t know. Not quite a year ago, small room. Some people and press. Maybe five veterans up front, talking,” Bell said. “I had my mom come with me. I prefer to have someone with me. It is difficult, travelling alone.”

“When it came time for me to talk, I just couldn’t. I just froze. At the symposium, I froze and just started crying.”

“The topics. They really hit home sometimes. You put yourself in situations that others might be going through. You feel it.”

Aside from the benefit of helping other wounded warriors, The Fashion Has Heart project offers Bell a unique opportunity to adapt and overcome social anxiety.

“No matter how it turns out, I will have come out and done this,” he said. “Even if it doesn’t come out very good, I did it. I came out and I did it.”

“And for me, doing this kind of stuff in conquering a lot of fear and angst. It’s accomplishments for myself. Most others probably don’t notice that so much, but these sorts of things are big things for me. And they hopefully will help my social awkwardness.”

Adapt and overcome. It’s the Michael Bell motto.

The Corporal Hoffman Series is a project series created by [Fashion Has Heart] in conjunction with hero, U.S. MarineCorporal Josh Hoffman.

[Fashion Has Heart] is a non-partisan, non-profit organization established to utilize the powerful mediums of art, design, and fashion to support and benefit the wounded heroes who have sacrificed for the American freedoms to express oneself and create.

To contact [FHH] Founder, Michael Hyacinthe for additional information about this Corporal Hoffman Series Design Projectemail:

“Starry Night” — Painting Class at Brush Studio

July 13, 2012


I consider myself a fairly crafty (as in arts and crafts) person, so I was pretty excited when I first heard about Brush Studio, in Gaslight Village in East Grand Rapids. Brush is a new concept to West Michigan, offering painting classes in a social setting. You can take a class on your own, make it a girls or a couple’s night out, a family affair, or a team-building event for the office.

Brush is the brainchild of Lisa Jabara and Heather Callahan. The two met when Callahan began working at Hot Mama, another business owned by Jabara, and also located in Gaslight Village. They have known each other for five years and have been working on this venture for the past year. The idea came from Callahan after she and her husband had visited friends in Colorado and saw a similar concept called Canvas and Cocktails. She saw an opportunity for this in West Michigan and approached Lisa on the idea. Heather is a former 2nd Grade teacher with a creative arts minor in college, and Lisa has a business background, which made the perfect combination for starting Brush Studio.

One of the most popular offerings of Brush is their private parties. They work one of three ways—a group can reserve the entire studio for themselves, they can come and paint during a regularly scheduled class, or Brush will come to the group. Parties can be for kids or adults, and this is an excellent family activity.

For every class, Brush provides all materials—a 16×20 canvas, paints, brushes, and an apron. If your group would like to reserve the entire studio, you can select the painting they would like to create or Brush Studio artists will create a custom painting just for your event. Brush has partnered with Ramona’s Table in Gaslight Village to offer catering, and also offers beer and wine. If there is a specific type of beer or wine your group wants to have that night, Brush will make sure it is available to you. This can be a great way to celebrate a special occasion or even a team-building activity for the office. For this type of private party, the cost to have it Sunday-Thursday is a $200 fee plus a $35 painting charge for each individual, and on a Friday or Saturday, the cost is a flat fee of $2,500. Those prices do not include the catering.

Groups can also join a scheduled class for just the cost per painter (which varies from $30-$50 depending on the painting), and pre-order food from Ramona’s so it is there when they arrive. The staff at Brush makes sure your group is seated together and works hard to ensure everyone is having a wonderful time.

Lastly, Brush Studio offers “Brush To-Go,” an option that brings the paint studio to you. This could be a great way to add a little something extra to a dinner party at your home or have a fun team-building event at the office. This option is offered for a $200 travel/set-up fee plus $50 per painter.

On Friday night the Sparkly Stellafly and a few of her friends signed up for the “Starry Night” class, so they could re-create the famous work by Van Gogh. It was a fantastic experience. From the moment you walk through the door, the staff is highly attentive and extremely helpful in getting you set up with your palette, brushes, apron, and paint. Seating is already assigned when you arrive (so be sure and let them know if you are coming with friends and want to sit together) and there is a little bit of social time before the class starts.

As you get set up at your station, you also have an opportunity to order food from Ramona’s Table off of a custom menu they put together for Brush Studio, or purchase beer or wine from the bar.

Once the class begins, the instructor introduces the painting and the brushes that the class will be using. (Jabara and Callahan found local artists mostly through word of mouth and through some postings at Kendall College) Then you are taken step-by-step in creating the painting, and the rest is up to you. It was interesting to observe each painter’s style and interpretation of “Starry Night” and I was amazed at the fact that mine actually somewhat-resembled Van Gogh’s masterpiece.

During the class, the Brush Studio staff is walking around, offering to refill your glass, get you more paint, and answer any questions you may have. Our class last night included a private party and they had a very fun night. They had arranged for food from Ramona’s Table and pre-ordered their favorite wine, and it was all waiting for them when they arrived. When the class was over, there was still time to socialize and shop in the retail section offered in the front of the studio. All of the products are made by artists with some connection to West Michigan. On the night of your class, you receive 10% off all retail purchases.

All in all, this was a really fun way to spend a Friday night, and I highly recommend this for anyone—no matter if you consider yourself creative or not, it’s a fun way to get together with friends. If you are interested in trying it out, go to their website or check out their Facebook page for a schedule of classes and to register online. Or give them a call at 616.805.5099—tell them Stellafly sent you.

Be sure to check out Brush Studio online:
and on Facebook

Flash Mob Foto Shoot by Lamb’s Wool


The Citizens of LambsVille, USA, the fictitious city all the customers of Christian/Inspirational clothing line, Lamb’s Wool, ‘live in.’ Those Citizen’s converged today at Division Av/Crescent St. for a Flash Mob Photo Shoot sponsored by the brand. The goal was to get as many customers together in one ‘random’ place to meet and network (passing resume’s and business cards) all while shooting w/the Brand’s Co-Owner and principle photographer, Rob Smith.  The day was a success: The weather cooperated, plenty of people came out, and networking took place.

For more information on Lamb’s Wool, connect with them on Facebook or twitter @Lambs_Wool. The is coming soon.  You can follow the owners on twitter @SmithWorldWide and @GHASF

Mill Steel Company’s 2012 Golf for Kids’ Sake


Danny, or “Danny Woods” as he wishes to be called from now on, circled around his yellow golf ball, surveyed the wind, crouched down into his professional stance, grabbed his club, and swung. The yellow ball soared into the air and made it all the way to the green.

It’s hard to believe, but this was Danny’s first time playing golf. Danny joined five other children at Blythfield Country Club on July 9th as part of the Kid’s Clinic for the 16th Annual Golf for Kids’ Sake event sponsored by Mill Steel Company and benefitting the Big Brothers Big Sisters Program of D.A. Blodgett-St. John’s. Danny, on top of having a near perfect follow through, was one of the 350 children waiting for an adult mentor, or “Big.” A month ago he was matched with a Big Brother.

At the end of his golf lesson Danny met David Samrick, Chairman and President of Mill Steel Co. Danny shook Mr. Samrick’s hand, and enthusiastically asked if Mr. Samrick “owned the Country Club?” Mr. Samrick may not own Blythefield Country Club, but for the past 16 years, he has spearheaded one of the most successful golf outings in West Michigan for the sole purpose of helping children like Danny.

In 1997, Mill Steel Co. and Big Brothers Big Sisters forged a partnership to match more children with adult mentors. Since then, nearly $1.2 million has been raised by Mill Steel Co. for D.A. Blodgett – St. John’s and 1,000 additional children have been matched with positive role models as a direct result.

This year’s event was the most successful to date. According to D.A. Blodgett-St. John’s Executive Director Sharon Loughridge, this year raised nearly $136,000. “David Samrick and Bill Buck (Vice Chairman of Mill Steel) are the powerhouse behind this event. They have embraced the concept of a mentoring program and recognize the need for programs like this. Without their continued support, the Big Brothers Big Sisters program of D.A. Blodgett – St. John’s would not be what it is today.”

The night’s program showcased how Golf for Kids’ Sake is quite different than your average golf outing. Two “Littles” took to the microphone and emotionally shared their experiences. First, Big Brother Jon and Little Brother Jayden came to the podium. Following their heartfelt story came one of the highlights of the night. 19 year-old Mohamed was presented with the Harry H. Samrick Scholarship, a scholarship established in 2005 by the Samrick family in honor of the company founder, and David’s father. The scholarship provides tuition for a “Little” to attend Grand Rapids Community College. Mohamed immigrated to Grand Rapids from Sierra Leone. He credits his Big Brother with much of his success and achievements. With his Big Brother’s support he became active in sports and other activities in high school and is currently in his 2nd year at GRCC with a 3.4 GPA. Mohamed proudly shared with the audience that this scholarship will allow him to pursue his dream of becoming a therapist in order to help other children like him.

Because of the success of this year’s Golf for Kids’ Sake, and the continued support of Mill Steel, children like Mohamed and Jayden can continue to benefit from the long lasting effects of a positive role model, and children like Danny can dream of golf super stardom.

Big Brothers Big Sisters is a program of D.A. Blodgett – St. John’s, a 125 year-old accredited agency dedicated to protecting children from abuse and neglect. Big Brothers Big Sisters is a nationally recognized mentoring program that matches kids age 5-17 with an adult mentor. These kids are typically from single-parent homes and may be experiencing some difficulty with school, social skills, and developing interests in life. Currently there are 350 children waiting for a mentor. If you are interested in becoming a Big Brother or Big Sister to one of these children, call (616) 451-2021.