Matters Column

Count your blessings; some people aren’t so lucky

September 7, 2018
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I attended The Salvation Army spring fundraising event, where former Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell spoke. As I listened to him, I thought of what he represents, and I began to question my past feelings about him and liberals in general. 

He has had an interesting life, and his wife was obviously a big fan of his. He talked about compassion and caring for the underprivileged. It appears he has spent a great deal of energy in life helping others.

I have spent my adult life focused on business and business advocacy. I believed that people had to help themselves and not depend on government. Being from Flint and having attended the University of Detroit, I have seen both cities reduced to a shadow of their former selves. Of course, I blamed the Democrats and all the other usual suspects as to how the tragedy happened. My thought was that if only Detroit and Flint residents would learn how to think and work hard at a business, all the social problems would be solved. I think I might have simplified that a little too much.

I don't have a good enough grasp on revitalizing cities to speak to it, but I have lived in a city since 1972 that seems to have gotten a lot of things right. The growth and maturing of Grand Rapids have been amazing. State tax and economic policies have made the state of Michigan a great place to do business. Amway, Meijer, Steelcase, etc., have given us the botanical gardens, sports facilities, a zoo, parks, etc. Except for winter, we have everything you need for a quality life. This is the place to be.

Unfortunately, not all people get to participate in the wonders of our city. When I say get up, get a job and quit whining, I am repeating the mantra of the small business community. I still feel that way, but the realization has sunken into me that some people hear the call but can't answer it.

My father asked me to work for a poor farmer when I was I was a teenager. I helped him haul in hay and other odd jobs. In the end, my father asked me what I thought of the man. I launched into a diatribe about how dumb he was. Eight kids, no concept of business or agriculture. The only thing that saved him was his incredible willingness to work hard. Then my dad said: “You are criticizing his lack of intelligence. Do you suppose he asked for that when he was born?” I have thought of that so many times since then. 

I am a product of what my father referred to as the lucky sperm phenomenon. I was born with an executive father, good mother and six brothers growing up in a great community as Flint was before the 1980s came. I had no excuse for failure. Over time, I realized there also was an unlucky parental phenomenon where the parents are abusive and the kids are headed for jail.

I have never been poor, crippled, mentally ill (some out there would disagree), a veteran with PTSD or of a gender or race whose travels through life was made more difficult by prejudice. It is hard to understand another person's life who has suffered from those conditions.

The business owners and leaders in our city have given Grand Rapids a vibrant economy. But organizations like The Salvation Army, Feeding America, Mel Trotter Ministries, D.A. Blodgett-St. John’s Home, Dégagé Ministries, Habitat for Humanity, YWCA, Boys and Girls Club, Hospice of Michigan and Kids’ Food Basket have given the people who, for whatever reason, cannot participate in the economy of the region. Individuals whose names you may not recognize support these organizations by the number of people giving their proportionate share of their income.

Now, here's my small business connection. We live, work and retire here. The value of our businesses, homes, real estate, etc., is enhanced by the quality of our community. You have seen the homeless in San Francisco and Los Angeles on the news. Don't you think seeing those images affect people’s willingness to move there, buy a business there or go to school there? The better the image of our community, the higher the value of your assets residing here.

We all know the names of the movers and shakers in town. Sometimes it is because their name is plastered all over town. The leaders in the nonprofit community are not so prominent, but they provide a valuable service to all of us who assuage our lucky parentage guilt through donations. Many people who give money also volunteer to do the dirty work. God bless them. No, I mean really. God bless them.

Heartwell is known because he was mayor and ran a successful business.

I wonder if I felt a little anger toward the mayor because he is a liberal or it could be because he is better looking, wears a suit better, gives a more thoughtful speech, is younger or better known. Anyway, the people who care for our less fortunate are worthy of our financial help and respect. When you sit on a park bench, remember it is available because men like Heartwell and others are working hard to remove the term homeless from our community.

One last thought: A contribution to a nonprofit organization is deductible on your federal tax return. You kill two birds with one stone. In addition to support for whom you determine is doing the most good, you deny the organization that wastes money like a drunken sailor. I apologize to all drunken sailors. Nobody wastes money like U.S. Congress.

Paul Hense is the retired president of local accounting firm Hense & Associates and past chairman of the Small Business Association of Michigan.

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