Jonse Young can thank her great-granddaddy for her name. Well, for one of her names.
Her mom gave Young her real first name: Johngerlyn. Say it with a soft “g.”
“My mom had a typing teacher with a similar name, and she got creative,” Young says with a laugh. “As far as I know, I’m the only person who has this name.”
But her great-grandfather couldn’t pronounce it.
“When I was a baby, he said, ‘You’re Jonse.’” (Say it like this: Jones-y)
“And it stuck.”
A lot of things from Young’s childhood stuck. There’s a thread of kindness and giving in her that led her from an inner-city childhood to a career helping people donate millions to good causes.
Last month Young, 45, was honored with the W.W. Plummer Humanitarian Award at the annual Giants Awards and Banquet that honors outstanding achievements by local African Americans.
These days Young is donor services director at the Grand Rapids Community Foundation. That’s what it says on her business card.
Read between the lines, and you discover she’s a trusted guide and friend to the foundation’s donors as they decide where to invest their funds. She visits with them at home, learns about their families and shares about her own.
“Our donors adore her,” says Roberta King, vice president of public relations and marketing for the foundation. “She’s honest — she’s not afraid to tell people the truth of a situation. And she’s a very good listener.
“Many nonprofits work on volume — they need lots of $25 and $50 gifts,” King says. “When our donors start a donor-advised fund for a significant amount of money, or include the Foundation in their estate plan, that becomes a personal relationship — a lifelong commitment. Jonse is perfect for that.”
“I’m building relationships,” Young says. “I ask our donors, ‘What are you passionate about? What kind of a difference do you want to make?’”
They’re the kind of questions she’s asked herself.
At Wedgwood, she helped raise funds to start Lighthouse Academy, a school for Kent County youth expelled from other schools.
“If kids have the right support system, no matter what they’ve been through, they can make it,” she says. “These kids have been expelled, and rightly so — they did some bad deeds. But who knows the circumstances? What drove them to their actions?
“They need a second chance,” she says. “And a third chance. And a fourth. We can’t give up on our kids.”
Soon after she started at the community foundation, Young mobilized African American leaders who wanted to make a difference in the community through philanthropy.
“African Americans weren’t viewed as givers, but receivers,” she says. “I knew that was the furthest thing from the truth.”
She knew. But there wasn’t much evidence. So she commissioned a study.
“It proved what I knew — that giving may not be formalized, but it was happening,” she says. “Through churches. Through alma maters. Just giving money to a niece or nephew who needed it.”
She started the African American Heritage Fund, drawing 117 donors who kicked in more than $100,000 to fund summer youth programming. Young secured another $1.2 million in national grants for the cause.
“We dispelled some myths,” Young says happily. “Philanthropy is alive and well in the African American community.”
Her mission to help has deep roots.
Young grew up mostly on Sheldon Avenue SE with brother Kendrick and her mom, Inita. Her grandmother Lee Ella, 87, helped raise her, too, when the family moved to Alabama occasionally and moved in with her.
Her grandmother was passionately involved in her church community, and that rubbed off on young Jonse. Young still attends her childhood church, St. Luke A.M.E. Zion.
Growing up, she lived in four different homes on Sheldon, usually in houses stuffed with relatives.
“I think that was the impetus for me liking people,” she muses. “Sometimes three different families would live in one house. They brought in their friends and relatives. I was always meeting and connecting with new people.
“In hindsight,” she says, “I’m happy I was brought up that way.”
Her single mom raised Jonse and her brother with help from welfare and food stamps. She cleaned houses, and when Jonse was working her way through college, she cleaned houses, too.
Right down the street was the United Methodist Community House, a longtime nonprofit that offers programming for children, families and seniors.
“It was our anchor,” Young says. “We called it ‘The Methodist.’ It was like my extended family. My Mom didn’t have to worry about where I was.”
She took photography classes and learned to cook. (She’s pretty proud of her meat loaf and peach cobbler.) She felt safe and nurtured.
“In my life, I was lucky to have the right people around me,” Young says. “It’s why I turned out the way I did.
“I had friends who made different choices,” she says. “It made a difference, having people who cared about me, who pushed me.”
“You can tell her childhood shaped her,” says Diana Sieger, president of the Grand Rapids Community Foundation. “She was able to be with adults who really cared about her. You can see that in her now as a leader at her church. You can see it in how she’s raising her son, Austin. She doesn’t take the importance of helping young people lightly.”
Adds King: “It led her to this place.”
Young’s other refuge was St. Luke A.M.E. Zion Church. It’s the oldest African American church in the city, she says, celebrating 150 years this year.
“I used to hear the choir sing when I was 9 or 10,” she recalls. “I thought, ‘One day, I want to sing in that choir.’”
Tears suddenly fill her eyes and spill over, and Young fumbles in her purse for a tissue. “Oh, I’m getting emotional,” she says, wiping the tears.
“I used to be very shy,” she says. “I never imagined being able to stand up in front of anybody and do anything.”
But by age 12 Jonse mustered the courage to ask if she could sing in the choir. Her beautiful voice has soared there ever since.
“Now I direct the choir,” she says, and more tears spill over.
“That meant the world to me at the time,” she says, dabbing her eyes. “It gave me the courage to go after things I’m interested in.”
Slowly, Jonse wasn’t shy anymore. These days, she speaks to groups with confidence and ease.
“I owe it all to my church,” she says. “It gave me confidence. It made me feel good. It was a source of comfort.”
Her church friends might not know it, but Young does a great Tina Turner. Give her a karaoke machine, Sieger says, and stand back.
“She’s a person full of joy,” Sieger says. “She’s a positive force.
“She doesn’t know a stranger,” Sieger says. “She can be in the grocery store line and get to know everybody in line.”
Chances are, she’s the best-dressed shopper in the cheese aisle. Sparkling rhinestone belts. Sky-high platform heels. Orange leather jackets. Perfectly styled scarves. She’s a T.J. Maxx maven.
She changes her hairstyle so often, her staff head shot is always outdated.
Young and her husband, Allen, both were raised by single moms with help from grandmothers. Now they raise their 15-year-old son, Austin, with high expectations. An A-student, he plays the piano and cello, preaches at churches and serves on the Grand Rapids Community Foundation Youth Grant Committee.
At school the kids call him “Mr. President.”
“He looks a bit like President Obama,” Young explains.
Young’s church asked her recently if she’d be in charge of the youth choir. It would add to a long list of volunteer commitments that already keep her crazy busy.
Young smiles as she tells what the answer had to be.
“There are so many young girls with beautiful voices.”