Cooley helps launch new nonprofits

March 15, 2009
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For nearly three years Cooley Law School has been quietly offering free legal expertise to help fledgling nonprofits become incorporated as 501(c)3 organizations. Faculty and students have assisted 34 individuals or groups on their way to achieving nonprofit status, including Families Victorious, Sow Hope, Spoon, Bantu Refugee Community Center, Syndromes Without a Name, Lake House Cottages, the West Michigan Flight Academy and others.

Professor Nelson Miller, associate dean of Cooley’s Grand Rapids campus, founded the program, called the Nonprofit Incorporation Project, and runs it with the help of two other faculty members and a team of law school students. Miller said 30 law students recruited through the Cooley Volunteer Corps have participated in the program to date. The Cooley team helps individuals prepare and file articles of incorporation, adopt bylaws for their nonprofits and complete the IRS application for tax exempt status.

“These activities definitely expose students to different client populations and to different experiences in the legal setting that can include exposure to substantive law fields that they wouldn’t necessarily have exposure to in the classroom,” Miller noted.

The individuals and groups that Miller and students work with have a variety of missions and one major thing in common: They care. Sow Hope supports women’s rights and issues worldwide. Spoon advocates for the homeless. Families Victorious mentors families through dependency issues. Lake Cottages supports unwed mothers. West Michigan Flight Academy mentors disadvantaged youths. Bantu Refugee Community Center supports Bantu refugees in West Michigan.

“Almost to a person, they are the dreamers of the best dreams,” Miller remarked. “They are motivated by wanting to do something very special for others. It’s very rewarding to be able to support their dreams.”

The Bantu are a minority ethnic group that have suffered severe oppression and discrimination in their native Somalia. Aweys Mohammed spent 10 years in a Bantu refugee camp where he learned to speak English. He later moved to Grand Rapids, where he and a small group of fellow Bantu refugees decided to create a support network to help one another out. Mohammed’s organization provides free translation services and occasional emergency funding for rent payment or transportation for Somali families. Each family in the local Bantu community voluntarily contributes $20 per month so the organization can maintain a small pool of funds for emergency situations, he explained. He said there are about 20 Bantu refugee families living in West Michigan and the Lansing area, and each has about 10 family members.

Cooley students actually raised the money to cover the IRS fee to get the Bantu Refugee Community Center established as tax exempt, he noted.

“They are very nice people and very helpful,” Mohammed said. “Without them, I don’t think we would have been able to form a nonprofit.”

Patrick Johnson formed the West Michigan Flight Academy and with Cooley’s help got the organization incorporated as a 501(c)3. His organization gives economically disadvantaged urban youth the encouragement and opportunity to pursue an advanced technical career related to the aviation and aerospace industries. Johnson left a career with the Dance Theater of Harlem in New York City specifically to oversee the Grand Rapids Ballet Company’s outreach program in the early 1990s. In that position, he became very involved with Grand Rapids Public Schools in trying to reach kids, using the performing arts as a vehicle. Johnson holds a commercial pilot’s license, and couple of years ago it occurred to him that another way he could reach out to kids was through aviation. Most of the other kid-oriented flight programs around the country teach kids how to fly, and he wanted to put a different twist on that. 

“The idea behind West Michigan Flight Academy was not just to create pilots, but to create designers and engineers, too, because there are so many jobs associated with the aerospace and aviation industries,” Johnson explained. “Not all the kids we reach are going to be interested in learning how to fly, but a lot of them are interested in building model airplanes and understanding the intricacies of structural engineering as well as electrical engineering. Therefore, we hope to reach more kids.”

The program is an academic after-school program, Johnson noted. Through the program, kids learn the physical science of flying and at the same time get a feel for specific careers in the industry, he said. They take field trips to air and space museums, military and commercial facilities, and FAA and Air Traffic Control facilities. They meet professionals in aviation and aerospace. Johnson said 99 percent of the kids have never even been on an airplane, so the field trips are real eye openers. As a part of the program, they learn about meteorology and radio and GPS navigation systems. Next year, the academy will add astronomy, too.

“It’s really gets them excited about math and science,” Johnson added. “They’re more motivated to do better in school because there is a tangible thing they can reach for and achieve versus just dreaming about it. We want to really do something that will totally change their lives in the long run.” 

The organization sends a letter home with students inviting them to join the academy’s Young Aviator Club, and then interviews interested students, along with their parents, to talk about what their responsibilities will be, Johnson said.

“One thing we don’t want is for a child to get into the program and not have the support that he or she needs at home, because there are going to be times when we take a field trip or go flying on a weekend and we’re going to need a parent to be there for the child to make the necessary arrangements for the child to participate in that activity,” Johnson said. “We need parents to advocate for what we’re trying to do.”

The organization is starting out small. By the end of this school year, the academy will have 40 fourth and fifth grade students in the program. This summer it hopes to launch a program in Muskegon. The expectation is that by the time the students get into high school, they’ll have figured out what they want to do, their grades will be in line to achieve what they want to do, and they’ll identify the grants and scholarships they need to pursue a college degree, Johnson said.

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