WMCAT Has Medical Focus

August 19, 2005
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GRAND RAPIDS — High school students and adults alike have the opportunity to increase their potential as the new West Michigan Center for Arts and Technology makes it debut.

The center, brought to the area by Steelcase President and CEO James Hackett, will teach high school students art and technology in an after-school setting one day a week during their ninth- and 10th-grade years. Participants in the adult program will learn medical coding and professional training that will help them get and keep a job in the medical field — a field that was chosen after the center met with area hospitals to obtain a clearer idea of what jobs were needed.

"The jobs of the future are in the medical field," said Phillip Rios, development director of the center.

Brian Cloyd, Steelcase's director of corporate and community relations and WMCAT board treasurer, said the idea for the center has been growing for about seven years. It began when Hackett became acquainted with Bill Strickland, president and CEO of Manchester Bidwell Corp., and the Pittsburgh, Pa., facilities he started in 1968. Hackett got a group together, including Cloyd and former Grand Rapids Public Schools Superintendent Patricia Newby, and visited Manchester Craftsmen's Guild and Bidwell Training Center Inc.

"We were so impressed by what he was doing and what he had been doing for 25 years," Cloyd said.

Over the years the group scattered and the idea for a similar Grand Rapids center was put on hold. Then Hackett was recruited by James Welch, CEO emeritus of Steelcase's Texas company, Vecta, to help with fundraising for Abundant Life Ministries, where Hackett was reminded of the training center concept.

More trips between Pittsburgh and Grand Rapids took place, a board was formed and the program was built in the last two years. Fundraising for a $4.5 million, three-year budget began about nine months ago, and now Grand Rapids will be home to the third program nationwide based on Strickland's Pittsburgh program.

Cloyd said the Grand Rapids center is a smaller version than the one in Pittsburgh, but that's on purpose.

"We wanted to make sure that we start small," he said.

The program is available at no cost to participants, but they must make a commitment to the program and go through multiple steps when applying to the program.

Rios said the program is starting in the core city, but eventually will expand to include all of West Michigan.

"Our expectation is that we will be able to help underemployed and unemployed adults find meaningful employment," said Executive Director Carl Kelly Jr. "It's something they can sustain a family on."

The adult program will have 12 spots when it begins in January. Rios said he believes the students will tend to be 22 to 35 years old.

"There's going to be folks who are looking to get out of a cycle of poverty and get into sustainable employment," he said.

The adult students will be helped with job placement and the course will include professional development and resume help.

"In a lot of cases, it's easy to get a job, (but) it's hard to keep it," Kelly said.

The adult training program is a good fit for Grand Rapids because of the need for health-care workers, as well as the need for suitable and sustainable employment, Cloyd said.

"The secret to the job training piece is making sure that you're partnering with an organization that has a need for people, and you're providing the right training at the right time to the right people," he said. "The overall impact on the community is that you're talking (about) people who were probably receiving public assistance and giving them skills that will end that dependence forever, and that is the idea."

Micki Benz, vice president of community development for Saint Mary's Health Care and a cabinet member of the center, said she heard about the job-training program from Cloyd and discussed it with the hospital. Saint Mary's Health Care, Spectrum Health, Metropolitan Hospital, Steelcase and Grand Rapids Public Schools are partnering with the center.

"It sounded like a good fit for Saint Mary's and a great benefit to the community — and a great benefit to students who otherwise would not have this opportunity," she said.

"It's just a good match of people who need jobs and jobs that we need people for," she said. "There are some jobs in the hospitals for which we really need people, and we don't get enough candidates."

The recently renovated 98 E. Fulton St. location is in the center of the city, where Rios and Kelly said it is accessible to many people.

"We think it's an ideal location. It's a neutral location," Rios said.

With new bamboo floors, glass walls, bright lights and vivid colors, the space is welcoming and conducive to learning.

"It just raises the level of the program and I think it treats students in a very dignified way," Benz said of the renovated space.

Cloyd said beyond the building, the center brings Steelcase's core values together with Strickland's philosophy.

"It's really a melding of the core values that both organizations speak to," Cloyd said. "It's really connecting people with what their needs are to be successful."

Kelly and Rios said they are confident about the center's program because it has proven successful in other parts of the country.

"You take the core essence of the model and add the local flavor to it," Rios said. "I think that's been very receptive to the donor community."   

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