United Methodist Community House reimagines itself — and Grand Rapids’ Southeastern Community November 11, 2019

The team at Grand Rapids’ United Methodist Community House (UMCH) has done more than just visualize the 118-year-old organization’s upcoming expansion into a new, state-of-the-art campus. They’ve captured the reimagined campus in a 25-page document bursting with vivid details.

A mouth-watering array of fresh, culturally diverse dishes cultivated and prepared by older adults and community members learning to become food entrepreneurs at a bustling activity center. The laughter of hundreds of children receiving care at UMCH’s expanded early childhood education facility. The buzz of energetic teenagers participating in an after-school leadership program. The rumble of a fleet of buses circling the campus to shuttle residents to appointments across the city. Sparkling rows of light-filled, modern housing units — complete with holiday decorations in the windows — for older adults who might otherwise have been priced out of the booming Grand Rapids market.

By 2021, it all could become a reality for residents of Grand Rapids’ Southeastern Side — a low-income area of the city that, between 2012 and 2017, received only 1.5% of private investments fueled by government tax incentives.

We’re one of the few places in Grand Rapids where you can hug a three-month-old baby and a 95-year-old older adult at the same time.

The $40 million expansion, which IFF is helping UMCH plan for and finance, will be built across the street from the nonprofit’s current location at 904 Sheldon Avenue Southeast. The project will increase the breadth and depth of UMCH’s already-vaunted programs supporting individuals and families through every life stage.

“We’re one of the few places in Grand Rapids where you can hug a three-month-old baby and a 95-year-old older adult at the same time,” says CEO Eric Williams. “We also work with the public school system on after-school programming for youth.”

Chief Operating Officer Carla Moore adds, “UMCH is an intergenerational place where different populations can come together and create purpose for one another.” One example is UMCH’s work placing older adults in classrooms as teacher aides — a program provided in collaboration with a community service partner, Senior Neighbors, which the organization is eager to bolster in the coming years.

The new campus will allow UMCH to grow in three key areas, accommodating:

  • More programs for Grand Rapids’ growing population of older adults, all under one roof. Despite being Michigan’s second-largest city and home to more than 50,000 residents above the age of 50, Grand Rapids lacks a major resource center designed to address older adults’ specific needs. “While west Michigan is extremely rich in resources, there is not a lot of coordination among providers in the older adult sector,” Moore explains. “We need to come together to coordinate service delivery.” That will be possible with the expansion, which will allow UMCH to go from serving approximately 50 seniors daily to hundreds on a daily basis. On-site amenities may include a medical clinic, café, credit union, community room, and exercise facility.
  • More early childhood education slots for a community with a severe shortage of them. “Thanks to the study that IFF conducted [on early childhood education in Grand Rapids], as well as from simply being located in the heart of the Southeast Community, we know childcare is a big need,” Moore says. IFF’s research shows that there are 330 infants and toddlers aged 0-2 in the Southeast Community who do not have access to licensed childcare. UMCH hopes to reduce that number by increasing the children it currently cares for from approximately 100 to 240.
  • Affordable and market-rate housing for older adults at risk of being displaced. Developing housing will be a new endeavor for UMCH, but it is one the organization feels both equipped and inspired to take on – with help from nonprofit partners who have experience in developing and managing affordable housing projects. According to Williams, “Grand Rapids is growing and transitioning, and gentrification is a real problem — not only for Black and brown people, but also for older adults who can no longer afford their properties.” UMCH is in the process of determining how many units it will build; Williams expects the final number to be in the range of 60-80.

Combining innovation and inclusion

UMCH’s expansion is the logical next step for an organization that has championed innovative approaches to community support since a group of visionary United Methodist women founded it in 1902. In 1936, the women opened Grand Rapids’ first nursery school. In 1972, the organization began serving meals to senior citizens – long prior to the well-known Meals on Wheels Program in which the organization now participates.

“Innovation is our hallmark,” says Williams, who hopes the new campus will be a model for other organizations in the community development space. “We’re not afraid to do different, to think different, to be different.”

At the same time, UMCH’s bold choices are deeply rooted in real community needs. In 2018, when the organization began thinking through how it might grow and have an even bigger impact, it turned to the community for feedback.

Hearing from the community and being data-driven are so important.

Williams, Moore, and other members of the 50-person staff embarked on a listening tour, in which they met with more than 300 individuals representing a wide range of interests: residents and community leaders, local government representatives, school superintendents, funders, staff at medical centers, and leaders from both the corporate and nonprofit sectors.

The tour affirmed and deepened UMCH’s desire to grow its early childhood education and older adult services — and opened their eyes to the pressing need for senior housing. “It helped us formulate a plan that made sense,” Williams says. “Hearing from the community and being data-driven are so important.”

UMCH’s leaders also practice inclusivity in how they manage staff. One of Williams’s goals as CEO is to be one of the best places to work in west Michigan. “When we invest in our staff, they invest in the families they serve,” he explains.


IFF flexes to meet UMCH’s research, real estate, and financing needs

An expansion like UMCH’s is only possible with support from multiple partners —service providers to round out the senior center’s amenities, university researchers to evaluate UMCH’s programs over time, donors to the capital campaign Williams plans to launch in 2020, city administrators, and neighborhood associations, to name a few examples.

IFF is proud to be pitching in, in more ways than one:

  • IFF’s research on early childhood education needs in Grand Rapids fueled UMCH’s decision to grow its services for infants and toddlers
  • IFF’s $1.7 million loan helped enable the purchase of the expansion site: a property across the street at 900 Division Avenue South
  • IFF’s real estate team completed a feasibility study designed to help UMCH determine how the property can best accommodate the square footage and programs planned without threatening the organization’s long-term sustainability

Sustainable facility planning is a big hurdle for any nonprofit organization — and one UMCH is determined to clear. As Moore explains: “One of our overarching goals is to become financially independent from grant funds for our operations. We will still seek grants to enhance our programs, and those dollars will go directly to the end recipients. But our operations and overhead will be covered internally by the revenue streams we generate through memberships to the new older adult center and the increase in childcare services we provide.”

IFF is helping UMCH strategize how to bring that idea to life. “We aren’t looking for funders — we are looking for partners,” Williams says. “And IFF has been that. We’ve built a very strong relationship, one where we bounce ideas off of them as we devise ways to grow sustainably.”

“They make us feel like family,” Moore adds.

Learn more about IFF’s work in Michigan.