Disability Advocates of Kent County identifies an organization that gives people with disabilities access to our county’s opportunities. As its mission states, this non-profit helps “people with disabilities live full and exciting lives.” They prepare their consumers for employment, and make sure their homes meet each one’s particular accessibility needs. In short, they help their people with disabilities achieve their own personal goals.
But there is more. It’s great to have a plan to improve life, but what if you can’t get to the places necessary to meeting your goals? Because a critical piece in living “full and exciting lives” is mobility, Disability Advocates also focuses on expanding public transportation. Disability Advocates’ simple and practical mission is to make sure persons with a disability who either can’t drive or can’t afford lift-equipped vans have a way to get where they need to go. Bus service is not a convenience for people with disabilities. It is a necessity. They need rides to their jobs, school, religious services, social events, and family visits.
The low-key philanthropist Peter Wege always had a heart for people dealing with tough challenges. And because Kate Pew Wolters, his good friend and fellow descendent of the Steelcase founders, was a passionate advocate for persons with disabilities, Peter took a special interest in this cause. And it didn’t hurt that public transit is also a major benefit to the environment. In 2000, Peter joined Kate’s active support for better public transportation.
After years of planning and advocacy, in 2000 the Rapid put its first millage request before voters. Faith In Motion, a collaboration of leaders in the religious community, business leaders, Disability Advocates, and supportive citizens campaigned for the millage as Friends of Transit.
According to Dave Bulkowski, executive director of Disability Advocates, “Peter Wege’s $40,000 contribution that year to the Friends of Transit campaign was absolutely indispensable. His leadership and generosity enabled us to get the public’s attention with billboards and flyers and mailings.”
The Rapid millage passed by a wide margin. But more needed to be done and Peter Wege didn’t hesitate to lead once again. In 2001 he pledged $40,000 a year for three years to support the further development of Faith In Motion. In 2003, he once again generously supported the next Friends of Transit campaign which led to another successful millage vote and more bus service.
Peter and The Wege Foundation next provided funding for a transit summit in 2005 that mapped out local action for the coming decade. Finally, Peter provided continued support for Friends of Transit in its campaigns of 2007, 2009, and 2011.
In addition to funding the millage campaigns, Peter continued his substantial support for Disability Advocates’ community organizing work on the transit issue every year until his death in 2014. The Wege Foundation has continued that support and through 2016 the total donations were $695,000; approximately $230,000 of this granted directly to Disability Advocates.
And this long-term support triggered another bonus. Because of The Wege Foundation’s high credibility, The Mott Foundation came on board in 2013 pledging $120,000 over three years to support public transportation in Kent County.
Today, one can see the very tangible results of Peter’s leadership and generous support. The Silver Line is Michigan’s first high-capacity transit line. The Rapid has extended bus routes and added more frequent service throughout greater Grand Rapids. Buses now run weekends and later than 6 p.m. Sixteen years ago that was the last bus of the day.
While Disability Advocates and its community partners still need to extend transit service into Kent County townships and beyond to Jenison and Greenville, they know the community owes an unpayable debt to Peter for his perseverance and commitment to a better future for all. “When you see a bus out at night,” Dave Bulkowski says with a grateful grin, “you can thank Peter Wege.”