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Inside Track: Munger gives men a chance to leave their past behind
The founder of the five-year-old Exodus Place strives to help residents find their purpose in life.
Robb Munger was nearly killed when a mortar shell knocked him off of his feet in Honduras, but he was rattled even more when the final payment of a property tax bill came knocking on his door.
In July 2009, Munger founded Exodus Place, a transitional living center for an average of 100 men who arrive with their share of baggage. They are veterans and felons, alcoholics, drug addicts and the homeless who need more than “three hots and a cot.”
The nonprofit is located in a 38,000-square-foot building on the Grand River at 322 Front Ave. SW that previously was a correctional facility.
Services Exodus Place provides include counseling, employment assistance, three daily meals, mentoring, health services, Bible studies and recreational activities, all of which are intended to help the residents achieve independent, productive lives. Exodus Place also serves as a temporary place for men who will eventually be transported to hospice care.
With an annual budget of $800,000, Exodus Place operates with a 21-member staff. The nonprofit networks with more than 40 agencies. Residents pay $350 monthly in rent. They receive off-site education to earn their GED, have on-site Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous support groups, weekday devotions and are taught job skills.
Munger said his staff works to instill in his residents three “pillars” to cultivate socially acceptable behavior. In case a resident needs a reminder, the pillars are emblazoned on the cafeteria wall. Pillar No. 1 is men, mission, me; Pillar No. 2 is train, disciple, communicate; Pillar No. 3 is love, compassion and accountability.
All of this translates into what Munger considers most important for the residents: a purpose in life.
Keeping Exodus Place’s doors open was rocky from the start.
“I took on a project most likely to fail,” said Munger. “2009 had the highest foreclosures.”
The obstacles didn’t end there. Part of the mortgage agreement with the building’s seller included incrementally paying $280,000 in back property taxes starting in 2009, which averaged $51,000 in summer and winter taxes, plus interest and penalties. Since the property taxes were in arrears, the tax bill became the responsibility of Kent County to collect, which was forwarded by the city of Grand Rapids.
The final payment in 2013 was around $75,000. Individual and corporate donations initially trickled in. Munger understood why.
“Talk about a hard sell,” Munger said. “You’re asking for money for felons. You’re asking for money for men who are not fluffy puppies. You’re asking for money to pay off property taxes. It’s not like the wife is saying, ‘Get the checkbook out.’”
Munger knew he faced foreclosure if the taxes were not paid in full. The thought of disappointing the residents was agonizing to him, particularly because he believes Exodus Place is built around a different modus operandi that fills a philanthropic hole.
“We were asking for donations to prevent recidivism,” he said. “If you ignore a problem and expect it to get fixed on its own, that’s not very realistic.”
The stress and strain dispersed in December when enough donations poured in to pay off the property tax bill. At the same time, the Grand Rapids assessor’s office granted Exodus Place tax-exempt status.
This month marks Exodus Place’s fifth anniversary. It will be one for the books, Munger said, hallmarked by the words “success” and “stability.”
Munger originally considered naming the building Positive Momentum Campus, but the residents at the time laughed at the idea. They came up with Exodus Building, and later, Exodus Place. The moniker holds a special meaning for the residents.
“We’re not parting the Red Sea, but they felt it was a ray of hope and opportunity to leave their past behind, that they were walking over a bridge and getting out of slavery,” said Munger.
Munger’s for-profit stints include: real estate broker with Success Realty; president of a land development company called DuRay Development; and president of lending group National Floor Planning. In that role, Munger was responsible for strategic planning, budgetary management and fiscal growth of the new finance company designed to lend money to mobile home dealers nationwide.
Such work fits Munger’s personality. He remembers that, from an early age, he wanted to be an entrepreneur because “it was the best job description in the whole entire world.”
He means it.
“It’s imaginative — the creativity and building of something and getting people involved, and ultimately the financial reward of coming up with an idea.”
Several years ago, Munger self-published a book, “Momentum: Getting One’s Momentum Back!” He has an idea for another book with “courage” as its theme. The men he is trying to help are his muse.
“One thing I deal with a lot at Exodus Place is, fear prevents a lot of people from moving forward in what they want to accomplish in life,” Munger said. “I want to help people understand what they want to get out of life.”
Munger was commissioned in the U.S. Army in 1985 when he was 20 years old. He was 21 when he was deployed to Tegucigalpa, Honduras, as a fire support officer directing a team of “forward observers” charged with bringing “indirect” fire onto a target.
This was at a time when the United States was establishing a military presence in Honduras to support the Honduran army waging a campaign against Marxist-Leninist militias.
During a training exercise, the Honduran fire direction team plotted Munger’s location on their map, which should have served only as a reference point to calculate the actual target’s angle. Instead, their cannon fired a shell in Munger’s immediate vicinity. The explosion’s percussion propelled Munger into the air.
“I didn’t know what hit me,” said Munger. “I still remember the percussion. It was like an invisible wall lifting you off the ground.”
Munger’s life took a new direction when he joined the board of directors at Guiding Light Mission, a rescue mission at 255 S. Division Ave. in the Heartside District, which is bounded roughly by Fulton and Wealthy streets and Grandville and Lafayette avenues.
The idea was floated to have Guiding Light purchase the building where Exodus Place is now, said Munger, because Front Avenue was far enough away from the temptations characteristic of South Division Avenue, but that proposal eventually was scuttled.
That’s when Munger kicked the idea around to purchase the building himself. But, as is often the case, ideas cost money.
“We had no money. We weren’t a nonprofit then and had no real source of income,” Munger said. “I was telling my wife about this. ‘It doesn’t make any sense at all,’ I told her. ‘I’d be working with murderers, kidnappers, chronic alcoholics, drug dealers.’ But I was convicted by the Holy Spirit to do this.”
Munger was born 100 years to the day after Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. He sees the nation’s 16th president as a guidepost.
“Honest Abe,” Munger said. “I believe without integrity nothing works. Lincoln took a very, very difficult cause: to end slavery. I do love my fellow man. I believe in God’s great commandment (love your neighbor as yourself).”