Baxter Opens  A New Nest For Sparrows

Baxter Community Center kicked off 2012 by filling a vital need in caring for their youngest clients when they opened a colorful new room filled with toddler toys. The sign on the door reads, “Ms. Melanie’s Sparrows.” Ellen Satterlee, CEO of The Wege Foundation, used her “naming” opportunity as one of Baxter’s 2011 St. Francis award winners by honoring Baxter’s long-time director Melanie Beelen.

The “Sparrows” name comes from the Biblical phrase, “His eye is on the sparrows” emphasizing God’s love for little children. By January 2012, nine 15-36 month-old toddlers were happy guests in Ms. Melanie’s room with more sparrows on the waiting list. This new room allows Baxter’s pre-schoolers to be divided into age-appropriate rooms: Little Lambs, two weeks-15 months, and King’s Kids ages three- to five-years old.

Baxter’s pre-school program is open from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. and has earned the highest level of national accreditation. While 4-1 is the  required child-teacher ratio, Baxter’s Little Lambs have one teacher for three infants.

This new Sparrow room for pre-schoolers was made possible thanks to Baxter’s successful November 2011 fundraiser. That was when Melanie Beelen announced Ellen Satterlee (top left) and Janice Flowers (bottom left), Coordinator of Baxter’s Women, Infants and Children program, as the recipients of the St. Francis Award. These women’s contributions to Baxter are reflected in the opening lines of St. Francis’s Prayer: Lord, make me an instrument of your peace; where there is hatred, let me sow love; where this is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair hope; where there is darkness, light…

The Baxter Community Center grew out of the 1960s race riots when members of Eastern Avenue Christian Reformed Church stepped in to bring people together. In 1967 the church converted its nearby Baxter Christian School into a haven where neighbors white and black could gather in a safe and supportive setting. BCC began with tutoring and gradually added preschool classes, day care, adult literacy, and counseling. Today its programs also include medical and dental clinics, tax preparations, food, and clothing help. From the beginning, Baxter’s message has been “to reveal God’s love by Christian witnessing.”

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Letters to Peter Wege from S. African Travelers

After the 1960s race riots, Eastern Avenue Christian Reformed Church members made a bold decision. They converted nearby Baxter Christian School into a safe haven where their neighbors white and black could come together as  one.  Some forty years later, Baxter Community Center continues to be “an island of hope” in the neighborhood with Grand Rapids’ highest crime rate.

Mizizi Maji, Swahili for “root water,” is Baxter’s mentoring program that offers children ages eight to 18 academic support with one adult tutor for each student. As the participants’ grades go up, so does their self-esteem and their hope for becoming “healthy, responsible citizens.”

“May God bless you for the kindness,” Calvon Owens wrote Peter Wege after the trip. “You have helped me be open-minded about many things.” In his thank-you letter, Tony Taylor wrote that the trip “gave me an idea of what I would like to do with my life and this is see the world for myself and be a living testament of God’s will.”

Shapell Gillon told Mr. Wege that she’d learned South Africa has 11 different languages, and they drive on the left side of the road. “Did you know,”  Nyah McKinney wrote to Peter Wege, “they burn grass to make it grow back faster in the summer?”

Raqhelle Millbrooks  told Peter Wege that TV was wrong about all Africans “being starved with flies on their faces.” Instead she saw the people as “singing or laughing no matter what place they are in.”

Baxter’s leader Sharon LaChappelle called the trip for these young people at such susceptible ages “a strong counter to all the negative things that seek to pull them down.” What they took home was so positive, Sharon wrote, “it was as if “the whole family went!”

A powerful incentive for the Mizizi students is a trip. The first two years the students who kept a 3-point GPA for three straight years went to Canada. In 2011, nine Mizizi students ages 13-15 traveled to South Africa for ten days, courtesy of The Wege Foundation.
A powerful incentive for the Mizizi students is a trip. The first two years the students who kept a 3-point GPA for three straight years went to Canada. In 2011, nine Mizizi students ages 13-15 traveled to South Africa for ten days, courtesy of The Wege Foundation.
Raqhelle Millbrooks  told Peter Wege that TV was wrong about all Africans “being starved with flies on their faces.” Instead she saw the people as “singing or laughing no matter what place they are in.”
Raqhelle Millbrooks told Peter Wege that TV was wrong about all Africans “being starved with flies on their faces.” Instead she saw the people as “singing or laughing no matter what place they are in.”



The Wege Foundation’s Fifth Pillar is Community Service. Peter Wege’s name is well known in the inner city of Grand Rapids as a man who cares about all the residents of his home town, especially those in greatest need. Two of Grand Rapids’ declining areas are newly thriving as a result of The Wege Foundation’s gifts to rehabilitate several buildings in those neighborhoods.

Baxter Community Center, pictured above, typifies The Wege Foundation’s Human Services outreach. An inner-city non-profit created to make life better for neighborhood families, Baxter Community Center grew out of the race riots of the late 1960s. That’s when the mostly white members of the Eastern Avenue Christian Reformed Church in the Baxter neighborhood decided they had to do something to heal the racial tension.

What they did in 1967 was convert the former Baxter Christian School—around the corner from the church—into a safe and supportive haven for their neighbors. From the beginning, this Christian-based program welcomed people of every faith, color, and age with the same caring arms. (See accompanying photos.)

The Baxter Community Center began with church members offering recreation and tutoring. But the founders quickly realized the families coming to the Center needed more programs and support. They gradually added preschool classes, day care for children, adult literacy, and counseling.

More recently, the Baxter Center’s staff and board has added services that meet their families’ “human needs” in the most practical ways. A medical clinic. A dental clinic. Child care. Mental-health counseling. A market place with free clothing food and household goods. Tax preparation. Budget counseling.

By the early years of the 21st Century, it was clear that taking care of all these human needs called for more room than the old Baxter Christian School had. Baxter turned to the greater community for help. They launched a $2.4 million campaign to remodel the existing school and double Baxter Community Center’s space with a new addition.

The Wege Foundation’s name came up early as Peter was already beloved at Baxter for what he’d done to restore and renew their neighboring business district on Wealthy Street. The Baxter leaders knew about Peter’s strong loyalty to his native city—how he’d helped rejuvenate the inner-city’s Heartside neighborhood. They knew from his generosity to the core city that he cared deeply about underprivileged children and their families.

As always with Peter Wege, it did not hurt that his good friend Dick Becker from Steelcase was a member of the Baxter capital campaign. Not did it hurt when Dick brought Peter and Ellen Satterlee to visit Baxter Center so they could see for themselves the good work going on there.

However, in 2002, at the time Baxter approached The Wege Foundation, Peter had just added a new requirement to all capital gifts. The Foundation would not donate to any new construction unless it was certified as LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) by the U.S. Green Building Council.

Impressed as both Peter and Ellen were by what Baxter was doing, Peter stood firm on his green stipulation. On the spot, as he often does with a project he likes, Wege made Baxter Center’s Executive Director Melanie Beelen an offer. He would donate $250,000 for the new addition if it was constructed in accordance with the LEED program.

Melanie and the board members were understandably grateful for Peter’s generous offer; they wanted to do right by the environment as well. But they also knew the higher costs for building green weren’t in their budget. That’s when Melanie and her board got resourceful. Using Wege’s offer as part of Baxter’s new donor base for leverage, the Center applied for a Kresge Challenge grant. It worked, and Baxter won another $175,000 from the Kresge Foundation.

But that was just the start of what The Wege Foundation’s gift accomplished. His insistence on LEED building turned out to be far more valuable than he or anyone else could have dreamed of. Melanie found out that the Kresge Foundation had another kind of grant that promotes green building. In order to encourage more environmental construction, the Kresge Foundation offers an unrestricted “bonus grant” for non-profits like Baxter if they built green.

With Baxter already committed to LEED architecture because of Wege’s gift, the Center applied for and won a second Kresge grant of $150,000. This unrestricted bonus grant will be awarded in 2007 when the new addition passes the U.S. Green Building Council’s inspection. In gratitude for Wege’s visionary nudge into LEED building, the Baxter Center presented Peter Wege with the St. Francis Award in 2004. This honor is given to people who model the attitudes and character listed in the Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi.

By the winter of 2005-06, Melanie Beelen and her staff were already earning a return on their green investment. When heat and electricity costs skyrocketed to historic highs that winter, the Baxter Center’s energy-efficient new addition helped them duck the higher utility bills, thanks to Peter Wege’s pushing them into LEED construction.

Melanie Beelen sees The Wege Foundation’s gift to the Baxter Community Center in far larger terms than financial. “The strongest gift Peter has brought us and taught us is that life comes full circle. It’s our belief that not one detail in life’s circumstances gets wasted. Peter is not wasting his later years but using them for the greater good.”

Baxter’s programs “are going full circle—from babies to seniors.” Lives are being restored at Baxter, their 2005 annual report says. “Young people are discovering their purpose. Children and families are finding a safe place to grow. Hope is being inspired.”

Education. Environment. The Arts. Health Care. All these other “areas of interest” for The Wege Foundation are honored at Baxter as well. But the number-one Pillar served in the building pictured above is that of Human Services