The Rapidian

Getting off the carousel: Andy Odehnal on the transformative power of Guiding Light

This dispatch was added by one of our Nonprofit Neighbors. It does not represent the editorial voice of The Rapidian or Community Media Center.

Board Member Andy Odehnal shares how Guiding Light has transformed over the years to make a real difference in the lives of men struggling with homelessness and addiction.
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About Guiding Light

Founded in 1929 as the West Fulton St. Mission, Guiding Light has grown into a robust recovery and re-engagement community designed to help those living at society’s margins fulfill their God-given potential. The nonprofit has been building on a near century of compassion and celebrated more than 90 years of serving Grand Rapids. Through its Back to Work, Recovery and Iron House programs, Guiding Light works with men struggling with addiction and homelessness to return to society. Since 2017, Guiding Light has earned a Platinum Seal of Transparency from GuideStar, which underscores our commitment to accountability and transparency. For more information, visit guidinglightworks.org

Andy Odehnal

Andy Odehnal

When Andy Odehnal joined the board of Guiding Light in 2010, the nonprofit was still very much a traditional homeless shelter – providing warm meals and safe overnight beds to the men in Heartside.

An accountant by training, Andy had been introduced to Guiding Light by a fellow classmate in Leadership Grand Rapids. The Christian values of the nonprofit “totally fit” with Andy’s desire to get involved and to give back, so he said yes without hesitation when asked to join the board.

“I could certainly relate to the work Guiding Light was doing back then for those experiencing homelessness,” Andy says. “Our day room was open; we took in men at night and provided a lunch every day.

“I love how we’ve evolved since then. When I joined the board, we didn’t have a dime on our balance sheet and had to tap into our line of credit. Strategically, we were lacking a sense of identity and what really made us different from our peers within a three-block area of Heartside.”

Andy credits the leadership of Executive Director Stuart Ray, who brought a business leader’s eye and acumen to the nonprofit, and the vision of the board for transforming Guiding Light into an organization focused on getting men off the street and onto a payroll.

“We started down this strategic planning journey and asked ourselves: What are our gifts? How can we differentiate ourselves?” Andy recalls. “That’s what started us down the road of focusing on Recovery.

“One of the biggest things we struggled with is the revolving door and this constantly unaltering life pattern. The men we served were trapped in homelessness and addiction. While giving them a meal and shelter was good and important work, it wasn’t getting them off the carousel. We decided to give men a hand up rather than a handout so we could make a real difference in their lives.”

Today, Guiding Light Recovery is an intensive drug and alcohol recovery program designed to give men structure and opportunity to engage in change. The four- to six-month residential program combines evidence-based practices, life-coaching, therapy, support groups, spiritual direction and resources to equip men to stay sober and live life in a new way.

Recovery is provided at no cost to those who qualify. Men who enroll are provided with educational classes based in principles of behavioral therapy. Each week, they attend group therapy sessions and individual therapy sessions with a licensed counselor specializing in addiction.

Men also have weekly sessions with a life coach and a spiritual director, as well as daily personal contact with outside community support groups who are all committed to their recovery. Those who complete the Foundations portion of Recovery have the option to move to Iron House, Guiding Light’s sober-living apartment setting that provides a safe and secure environment in a residential area outside the inner city.

“We struggled at the beginning, and I remember a lot of heated conversations,” Andy recalls. “We realized we had to demand something of the men, so we established a rigorous intake process many have deemed controversial since we turned people away.

“If they’re not willing to do that good work and abide by our strict rules, we don’t accept them. The men have to have skin in the game, too.”

This earned Guiding Light Recovery a reputation on the street as “no-joke recovery.” Andy points to the stats as vindication: 78% of the men who complete Foundations and move to Iron House are still sober a full year later. By contrast, only 33% of men in other recovery programs are still sober 12 months after leaving their programs.

Guiding Light’s transformation paralleled Andy’s own career overhaul. A native of Kalamazoo, Andy completed a degree in accounting at Western Michigan University. During college, he worked part-time for a homebuilder and loved it, but listened when “everyone said work with your head not your hands.”

Andy married his high school sweetheart, Becky, who is now a nurse manager at Spectrum Health, and the couple moved to Hudsonville. He started his career in public accounting, earned his CPA designation and then completed an MBA at Grand Valley State University, which allowed him to move in-house with some large West Michigan companies doing internal auditing before transitioning into the role of CFO.

“I always loved homebuilding and knew I someday wanted to start my own company,” Andy notes. “I gave the accounting thing a shot, but kept coming back to working with my hands. I had gotten my builder’s license in college, so started acquiring the tools I would need.

“I wasn’t sure I was ready, but when the last of my three sons became a senior in high school, I knew it was time.”

Andy launched Welcome Home Remodeling in 2017, specializing in residential projects. His sons have all helped out with the business, which has grown steadily, and he’s now preparing to welcome his youngest son, Mason, into the company full time after he graduates from college this spring.

Over the years, his whole family has volunteered with Guiding Light to help serve holiday meals to the community. Just as Andy was taught the importance of giving back for your blessings, he’s raised his sons to see the importance of volunteering with an organization that resonates with them.

“Faith is central to who I am as an individual,” Andy says. “I’m thankful to God for how blessed I’ve been. I wanted to select an organization to serve with, and faith had to be a critical component. Christ is at the center of the mission of Guiding Light, which fits well with my personal values.

“You can’t deny the power Christ has in changing people’s hearts and lives. It’s pretty clear how God has blessed this organization. We’re doing the right things. Donors are seeing and understanding that. Success begets success. When you’re doing good work, it’s easier to win others to your cause.”

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