Collaboration makes all the difference

January 25, 2010
| By Pete Daly |
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John Wynbeek may have been destined for a long career in nonprofit management, but he thinks he was because he was in the right place at the right time.

"It was just a small, developing not-for-profit, and I got in on the ground floor and just stayed with it," he said.

"It" was Alternative Directions, where Wynbeek was named executive director in 1980 — when he was only 24 years old.

He served in that capacity until 2003, when he was hired as director of international services at Bethany Christian Services. Since February 2007, he has been executive director of Genesis Non-Profit Housing Corp., which provides affordable, permanent, supportive housing to low-income individuals with disabilities.

"I am thankful for the opportunity to lead Genesis and to work with the founding organizations to fulfill our mission," he said.

Earlier this year, Genesis opened Heron Manor Apartments at 2106 Leonard St. NE in Grand Rapids. It is a LEED Platinum-certified senior-assisted living complex targeted toward low- and moderate-income individuals. The three-story, 55-unit facility for independent seniors was the first “affordable assisted living” facility in Michigan funded through the Michigan State Housing Development Authority.

Heron Manor offers a new concept in assisted living, providing on-site, 24-hour health care for the residents through a partnership with Porter Hills.

The new $9.5 million facility also offers both market-rate apartments and subsidized assisted-living apartments. Of the 55 apartments, 30 are market rate, 25 are for lower income residents, and 22 participate in the Grand Rapids Housing Commission Section 8 housing choice voucher program.

The main focus of the MSHDA affordable assisted-living program is to reduce the use of nursing homes for individuals who still have an active lifestyle. Genesis was selected out of 26 applicants as one of five sites in the state for the pilot program.

Genesis also operates the adjacent Heron Woods, a 48-unit independent living apartment facility for seniors. Heron Woods apartments are rented at market rates.

"Genesis has a lot of collaborations with community organizations," noted Wynbeek.

The three nonprofit organizations in Kent County that jointly founded Genesis in early 1998 are the Inner City Christian Federation, Dwelling Place of Grand Rapids and Hope Network. They were part of a group of nearly 30 area human service agencies that collaborated to form the Kent County Permanent Supportive Housing Consortium in 1996.

The consortium was formed in response to a challenge by the state of Michigan to demonstrate that community agencies could work together in providing permanent supportive housing to special needs individuals and families in the Grand Rapids area.

The Kent County Consortium's proposal was one of the first four selected by the state government to receive development grants.

Supportive housing is defined by Genesis as "permanent, independent, affordable housing for people with disabilities who are homeless or at risk of homelessness, where appropriate supportive services are provided as part of the normal operation of the housing, as a way of helping residents maintain the maximum possible level of independence, stability, and participation in the general community."

Wynbeek, a native of New Jersey, said collaboration is "part of the community spirit here — something we sometimes take for granted here in West Michigan — but it's not common to all parts of Michigan or all parts of the country."

Wynbeek came to Grand Rapids to attend Calvin College, where he earned a degree in 1977 in history and education, with a minor in religion. Later, in 1986, he earned a Master of Management degree from Aquinas College.

After graduation from Calvin College, Wynbeek stayed in Grand Rapids and worked in construction — experience that gave him a useful perspective when he joined Genesis many years later.

After several months of construction work, Wynbeek landed his first job in the nonprofit world, in the adolescent unit at Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Services. Later, he accepted a position at Bethany Christian Services, where he worked for a little over a year as a foster care caseworker.

Then came Alternative Directions, a new organization in Burton Heights on South Division Avenue. It was a defining moment for Wynbeek and propelled him into a great deal more responsibility than he had had before.

"I had the opportunity to develop a community residential program for probationers,” he said. These were young adult offenders, and the new program "provided them an alternative to jail or prison," he said.

Over the next 23 years, that program went from a capacity of 16 individuals to about 70. It has 27 employees and a $1.2 million budget, and works very closely with the Michigan Department of Corrections.

Alternative Directions promotes "restorative justice" and public safety. Restorative justice is a theory of justice that emphasizes repairing the harm caused by criminal behavior.

"The way that we applied the theory at Alternative Directions was to work with the offenders to assist them in repairing the harm to the greatest extent possible," said Wynbeek.

That included giving offenders a place to live in the community, and helping them find employment, counseling and education, and then helping them budget their income to pay victim restitution and court obligations.

"The victim had a much better chance of getting their restitution if the offender was in our program, rather than sitting idly in jail or prison. The offender could be better reconciled to their community by doing community service, rather than sitting in a cell at taxpayer expense,” said Wynbeek.

He also noted that the taxpayers spent less money on punishing those offenders, because a jail or prison cell is much more expensive. Not only that, "the offender was obligated to pay part of their income as rent for their stay at Alternative Directions."

It makes Wynbeek happy when someone says they have never heard of Alternative Directions.

"If you don't hear about community correction programs, that means they are quietly doing their work. That was our goal: to work with offenders and keep them out of trouble."

Gov. John Engler appointed Wynbeek to the State of Michigan Community Corrections Board, upon which he served from 1991 to 2004. In that capacity, he also had a hand in helping shape state policy.

Working closely with young convicts did not bother Wynbeek. If they are treated like human beings, they will generally return the same type of treatment, he said.

Wynbeek's sense of humor comes into play when he recalls one nervous moment he had back in those years. He and his young son were in Toys-R-Us when he realized "a big mountain of a guy" was following them through the store. When the fellow caught up with them, Wynbeek suddenly recognized him as one of his former residents — who was all smiles, happy to see Wynbeek again so he could tell him about his own wife and kids.

Two of the Wynbeek's three children were international adoptions, so he was very familiar with the major role played by Bethany Christian Services, which is one of the largest adoption agencies in the United States. When Wynbeek learned in 2003 that Bethany was looking for someone to lead its international services division, he leaped at the chance and landed the job.

Bethany International Services includes adoption services in 12 countries and social services in seven. Its international adoption service entails 78 offices in 34 states. At Bethany, Wynbeek managed a staff of 20 with a $3 million dollar annual budget. He traveled regularly throughout Asia and South America.

Genesis now affords Wynbeek the enjoyment of being home with his family every night, but it is no piece of cake managing a major nonprofit organization at a time when the economy is suffering and budgets are being cut back at many public and private organizations.

Seniors who want to live independently in the Genesis market-rate apartments face major financial challenges now, due to the decline in value of the average investment portfolio. Another impact of the economy is a reduction in the number of financial institutions investing in low-income housing tax credits financed through the state of Michigan.

"That's part of the challenge we face," said Wynbeek, "but we will continue to look for opportunities to develop additional (housing) sites."

Despite the economic challenges of the times, he said, "All in all, we're doing rather well in this environment."


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