Panel Picks Couple For Law Honor

April 30, 2004
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GRAND RAPIDS — Dégagé Ministries volunteers Ruth and Bernie Mulder had some fans they didn’t know about on this year’s Liberty Bell Award selection committee.

“The judge on the panel (61st District Court’s Donald H. Passenger) commented on the number of people he sees because of a lack of identification,” explained Sandy Ward, a selection committee member and last year’s winner. “He told us of his experience with a person he himself took to the Secretary of State because he was tired of seeing the person in front of him.”

The Mulders are the administrators of Dégagé’s identification program, a start-to-finish process that provides state of Michigan ID cards to people without the means to get them.

Dégagé Ministries, located in the Heartside neighborhood, primarily serves patrons without stable lives and stable incomes: homeless and other transients, people just released from prison or jail, and others who have fallen out of society.

Without proper identification, a person is barred from obtaining for themselves some of the things that are necessary in building and maintaining a stable life, like employment and housing.

“Our other programs refer patrons to employment and housing, but the first barrier is ID,” Dégagé Life Enrichment Center Director Michelle Vos explained. “We see a lot of homeless people and people coming in from jail or prison. Jail ID is not accepted by the Secretary of State, so there are a lot of barriers in the program itself to obtain ID.”

Vos approached the Mulders in 2002 about the possibility of putting together a service to fill that need.

Volunteers at Dégagé for five years at that time, and both recently retired — Bernie was Northview Public Schools’ special education director and Ruth worked as a resource room teacher at the Christian Learning Center — the couple “felt compelled to do something more to help others,” and began working with Vos in developing the fledgling program.

“We started from the bottom; this never was available before,” Ruth Mulder said. “It’s so rewarding — they get so excited. They say it makes them feel like a real person. Now they can get a job, they can get an apartment.”

To obtain a state ID card, a person must have three pieces of documentation proving his or her identification.

The majority of transients have long since lost most or all documentation of this sort. So Ruth begins the process with the painstaking effort of tracking down birth certificates, marriage licenses, children’s birth certificates and divorce certificates, whatever documentation can be found from the state or elsewhere.

“We get a lot of people out of prison,” she said, “and transient population looking to settle down, wanting to put their life back together.”

Once the documents are found — at an average cost of $45 per person just for the copies — Bernie takes the patron and his new documents to the Secretary of State for the ID card.

In this way, the program has helped 156 individuals receive their state identification. The Mulders have files for more than 300 others who also are hoping to obtain identification.

The Grand Rapids Bar Association’s Liberty Bell Award recognizes a local non-lawyer who through community service has raised awareness of and furthered the equality of access to the judicial system.

“Dégagé has assisted in filling a gap in the system,” Ward explained. “A lot of people, especially in the Heartside area, are unable to get services with a lack of ID. There are a lot of barriers to overcome to get that ID, barriers these people could not have overcome by themselves.”

The Mulders received the award at last Friday’s Law Day Luncheon and Liberty Bell Award ceremony at Thomas M. Cooley Law School’s Grand Rapids campus.

The theme of this year’s Law Day was “Brown v. Board of Education: Where Are We Now?” Speakers included South High School graduates Stephen R. Drew, of Drew, Cooper & Anding, and Melvin Atkins of Grand Rapids Public Schools.

Recent winners include the Dispute Resolution Center, represented by Ward (2003), Dirk Koning of the Community Media Center (2002), middle-school teacher Wayne Bentley (2000), and Susan Heartwell of the Children’s Assessment Center (2001).

“This was really surprising,” Ruth Mulder said. “I had no idea what it was at first, but the more I heard about it, I started to think how it really is a neat honor. I just hope it makes the program more visible. Anything that makes the program more visible and makes people aware is worth it.”

“The members of the panel thought by rewarding the program, we could bring attention to the problem,” Ward added. “That there is a significant number of people in the community being denied the services they need.”

The program could use some attention. Initially operating on a $5,000 grant, Ruth Mulder expects the program to cost twice that in the coming year.    

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