The state of the citys children
At his ninth State of the City address last Saturday, Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell cited the city’s success at tackling sustainability, bringing employee benefits in line with the private sector and saving taxpayers millions of dollars by changing the way the city delivers its services.
The mayor also gave a nod to the One Kent Coalition, largely a group of private-sector individuals who pushed for the city to consolidate with Kent County in a manner he didn’t entirely embrace last year.
“Notwithstanding my disappointment in the product that came out of the One Kent initiative, their impulse was right on and they lit a fire under local government,” he said. “Grand Rapids, Kent County, Wyoming and Kentwood are working together as never before to consolidate services, improve their quality and lower their costs.”
But the city’s children, not consolidation, were the mayor’s main topic. He said nearly 37 percent now live below the poverty line. Heartwell pointed out that almost one in four are persistently hungry, live in unhealthy or unsafe housing, don’t have access to the resources to do well in school and have less than desirable medical and dental care, if they have any at all.
“Today I am calling on each of you to put children front and center as we continue to build a vibrant and sustainable community. I do so with a sense of urgency that will drive my actions — and I hope yours — in improving the lives of our children,” he said. “Today we launch a new chapter in our city’s history and it fits under this rubric: Grand Rapids is a community that values its children and commits its resources toward improving the lives of our youngest citizens.”
Heartwell explained that he recently had 43 conversations over the course of a single month with executives from nonprofits, educational institutions and businesses, along with philanthropists, elected officials and foundation directors, on how children can be helped.
“Nothing I have done since I took this office eight years ago is as important; nothing has been as eye-opening; nothing has been as energizing,” he said, adding that despite all the work he found was being done on behalf of children, many are still declining.
“So, I believe that we must start this new era with a robust conversation about children. I want every organization over the next six months to have a conversation about children. … I have also asked the Chamber of Commerce to encourage its members to have the conversation in the workplace.”
Heartwell cited the Kent County Child Coordinating Council as one group that is doing good work for the well-being of children through its collective impact program, and he pledged to Kent County Commission Chairwoman Sandi Frost Parrish that the city would become a willing partner in the council’s efforts.
The mayor also said he will soon announce a new national partnership that he feels will strengthen the ongoing effort to help the city’s students achieve academic success. “I am fully committed to ensuring that our children have expanded learning opportunities,” he said.
In addition, Heartwell said he wants more of the city’s high school students to be enrolled in the Upward Bound program, which sends 95 percent of its enrollees to college. “There are only 70 students in the GRCC Upward Bound program and about 90 in the GVSU program,” he said, acknowledging that the low enrollments are due to a lack of money. “You see, the federal government pays for Upward Bound and the federal government, they tell us, is broke.”
The mayor said he then asked Grand Rapids Spring & Stamping President Jim Zawacki for his help, saying: “I want you to take on this challenge and rally the business community around Upward Bound. We can double those numbers, maybe triple or quadruple them. You know what? He said, ‘Sure, Mayor, I’ll do that.’ I know Jim and I know he’ll get it done,” said Heartwell.
The mayor also said that Meijer Inc. CEO Mark Murray, former president of GVSU, issued a challenge to city residents to read to every child every night before they go to sleep. Murray told the mayor that doing that will teach children they are loved and help them develop necessary skills they’ll need in life. “If a child is read to from birth, that child will be a reader, a learner, a leader,” said Heartwell.
Heartwell then called on all the city’s school systems to put aside their competitive natures and pull together for the sake of the children. He said he and Kent Intermediate School District Superintendent Kevin Konarska will convene a meeting of the systems’ leaders to start a conversation on doing just that.
“We say, ‘Our children are our future.’ Today I say, let’s show we mean it! Let’s put our resources, our energy, our talent, our passion, our creativity, our work ethic, our collaborative spirit, our stubborn Midwestern gumption (and) our love into truly making a better community for all these children,” said Heartwell in closing.
“I’m done waiting for somebody else somewhere to figure this out. I’m going forward whether you’re with me or not. I want you with me. Are you with me?”