Too much left to do to stay retired
No one needs to tell Sandy Waite when there’s another big round of layoffs of workers in West Michigan. She sees them coming through the doors of the North Kent Service Center, where people in need can find food, clothing and, this week, at least, a little holiday joy.
“These are families that are working,” said Waite, executive director of the nonprofit agency that helps the poor in northern Kent County.
“They were working at that $20 to $30 an hour, and now job layoffs or downsizing or a major illness, now they’re out in that work force with that high school education. And even those with those college educations, they are only able to get that $10, $12, maybe $15 an hour, when they were used to making that $20 to $30 an hour. We’re seeing families that have lost $200,000 homes.
“That’s the new face. That’s the new families we are starting to see.”
With a recession in full bore in the midst of a holiday season, Waite said the need for NKSC’s food pantries and clothing has never been greater. The annual Christmas store, run by volunteers, opened today for registered families and runs from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. every day this week.
“Last year, every single child got socks, underwear, hats, mittens, boots, books, a stocking stuffer, toys, clothing, and then the family got a big family gift. While they were doing that, we were getting their meal ready to take home. We are anticipating we are going to need about 1,800 turkeys or hams.”
The North Kent Service Center was established 35 years ago by the Rockford Ministerial Association with a budget of $1,200. For years, it was housed in a building on land donated by Our Lady of Consolation Catholic Church near the corner of 11 Mile Road and Northland Drive NE.
Today, the center has a $402,000 budget and moved in 2001 to a 16,000-square-foot new facility about a mile north on Northland — “and we’ve outgrown it,” Waite said. “With the economy, we will do what we can. We are real creative with space.”
NKSC hands out 12,000 pounds of food per month, up recently from 10,000. Last year set a record at 566,000 pounds annually. But demand in 2008 may outstrip supply, Waite said: By the end of September, the agency had distributed 517,000 pounds, and still had the busy holiday season ahead.
Its regular distributions include a pantry for senior citizens; a Nutritional Options for Wellness pantry in partnership with Spectrum Health, for people who have a doctor’s prescription; and the Pantry of Choice, open to each registered household three times per year. NKSC also refers clients to five smaller pantries scattered throughout northern Kent County, including a new one at the YMCA in Belmont.
The center serves Kent County residents from the Five Mile Road-Cannonsburg Road corridor north. The agency has 12 employees, and four of them, including Waite, are full-time.
For 2008, NKSC received a total of $55,000 in grants from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Heart of West Michigan United Way and the state Department of Human Services. Most of that money is devoted to helping eligible clients pay for utilities, rent, food, gasoline and medical expenses; just a small amount goes toward funding a staff person and operations, Waite said.
NKSC depends on donations for the remaining 85 percent of its budget, she said. About 60 local churches are important sources of funding, donations and volunteers for the faith-based agency. Volunteers donate 30,000 hours per year, Waite said.
In-kind donations also help to fill the pantry shelves. Some come from companies such as Spartan Stores Inc., Costco, Starbucks and Panera. “We get donations from Coca Cola, and all of the local farmers donate,” Waite said. “We do purchase. We watch the sales.
“Rockford High School — their Youth Initiative is just phenomenal. Last fall, they brought us 31 Gaylords of food — and a Gaylord box is 4 feet by 4 feet by 4 feet. That holds approximately 900 pounds of food. They brought us 19 boxes in the spring, and brought us $7,000 to shop. Every year, they amaze us.”
Keeping the food, clothing, services, volunteers, clients and money flowing in and out of the building at 10075 Northland Drive NE has been Waite’s job for the past five years. She replaced Tom Pearce, now a Republican state representative from Rockford.
“I lived in Cedar my entire life. My great-grandfather was the doctor in Cedar Springs and so we moved in 1892 — our family did. I’ve just been around northern Kent County for a long time,” she said.
Waite, the daughter of a factory worker and a millwright, grew up with two sisters and graduated from Cedar Springs High School. She married her high school sweetheart, whom she started dating at age 14, and they had a son and a daughter.
She went to work for the school district for 12 years as an office, lunch room and playground aide. She received an associate’s degree as part of the last class to graduate from Grand Rapids Junior College before it became a community college, then completed a degree in sociology and psychology at Aquinas College.
When Waite was 20, her father died of cancer at age 43. He had been an only child, so the duty of taking care of his mother fell to his daughter. Waite looked after her grandmother for 18 years.
Waite moved into a social work job in a nursing home, and worked as a rehab training instructor at Hope Network. She then became director of the Cedar Springs Parks and Recreation Department, a high-profile job in the small town.
“And then I retired,” she said.
“I thought it would be cool. Well, I had three really good friends pass on. I was on 10 boards and commissions. I was on the Planning Commission. I was on the Library Board. I was on this; I was on that — just everything you can imagine: the Board of Review, sports boosters. And so I got off everything and retired.”
The 9/11 terrorist attacks changed her mind. Waite spent 10 days in October 2001 near the World Trade Center site with a group of local high school students, doling out clothing, food and personal care items to worn-out firefighters.
“Just seeing the looks on their faces, the trauma — that was tough,” Waite said. “And, of course, the smell … because it was still on fire, and just the dust everywhere and the decomposing. But just the look on their faces: Will these individuals ever recover from this? Some of them hadn’t even been home yet.
“I came back, and it was like, you know what, Sandy, you have to come out of retirement because you have too much left to do in life.”
She became a contract administrator for the Area Community Services Employment and Training Council. When Pearce left the top job at the NKSC, Waite applied. She has been executive director since 2004.
Waite and her husband, George, director of Grand Rapids Community College’s M-Tec Center, recently sold their home in Cedar Springs and ventured north to Bitely, where they live on Pettibone Lake and watch eagles soar above their deck. “The view is breathtaking,” she said. The drive is long, but the two travel together and use the time to let the day’s stress unravel.
And the economy has ensured that there is plenty of stress to go around. Record numbers of people are seeking help at the NKSC.
“I think seeing record numbers in our pantry yesterday shows us that something’s going on,” Waite said. “Going from 1,500 families four years ago to having 4,500 families registered — right there is an indicator that something’s going on. If we had 50 to 60 individuals four years ago during the day, that was a lot of traffic. Now we’re seeing, on average, between 90 and 110 families coming in on a daily basis.”
The state Department of Human Services sends a case worker twice a month to help these formerly middle-class families wade through thick applications for food stamps and financial assistance.
“These families that are coming in have absolutely no idea how to get started in the system,” Waite said.
“I tell our staff (that) a major job loss, a major illness, it could put just about anybody on that side of the counter, and thank goodness we are here to help.”