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Our Community's Children director retires, looks back on public service

Lynn Heemstra led Our Community’s Children since its inception in 1998. The office supports local young people through programs and community collaborations that better prepare them for college, work, and life.
Lynn Heemstra (center) with her now-former teammates, Shannon Harris (left) and Shayla Willis (right); pre-pandemic.

Lynn Heemstra (center) with her now-former teammates, Shannon Harris (left) and Shayla Willis (right); pre-pandemic. /OCC

Heemstra with students from Burton Elementary; pre-pandemic.

Heemstra with students from Burton Elementary; pre-pandemic. /OCC

Heemstra kayaking with students.

Heemstra kayaking with students. /OCC

After more than two decades as executive director for Our Community’s Children (OCC), Lynn Heemstra retired from her role Jan. 5, leaving behind a legacy of youth advocacy.

OCC, a public-private partnership between the City of Grand Rapids, Grand Rapids Public Schools (GRPS), and community partners, serves Grand Rapids youth through programs that better prepare them for college, work, and life. Heemstra led the organization since its inception in 1998.

Over the years, Heemstra and OCC have built community collaborations and partnerships such as the city’s LEAD program, the Mayor’s Youth Council, connecting children to nature, and many others.

OCC’s programs are still running, with successes to show. Its To College, Through College (T2C) Studio, for example, has helped over 1,800 Grand Rapids students get to and through college to degree. Most of these students have been first-generation college goers and people of color, the City of Grand Rapids reported.

When I first started, Our Community’s Children was a concept on paper,” said Heemstra, reflecting on how OCC all began. “It really was a result of a number of influences.”

Launching OCC involved a variety of community members joining around a need for more resources for young Grand Rapidians’ success. Around 1998, former Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell, then a city commissioner, and Grand Rapids Board of Education member Dan West were becoming exposed to ideas like OCC through the National League of Cities. Combined with a city task force that recommended an office like OCC, the office was born.

Tasked with leading OCC’s way forward was Heemstra. In order for the office to make an impact for children and youth in the city, she said she knew she had to work through partnerships and collaborations.

That’s how I’ve done my work throughout the 22 years,” Heemstra said. “It’s been through community partnerships. It’s through a collective impact. It’s through coming together, sitting around tables, and creating a vision for what we want to see happen for young people.”

One of Heemstra’s early contributions to OCC’s mission was helping establish a Grand Rapids Youth Master Plan. This was developed in large part through OCC hiring youth to be part of that process. Several community meetings were held around goals and what all wanted to see the office invest in for children and youth.

By 2008, the Youth Master Plan became a foundation for OCC’s work ahead. Insights gained pointed to a need among young residents for quality after-school programs to prepare them for college, as well as youth employment to gain hands-on skills for their dream jobs in the workforce, among others.


Our Community’s Children responds to local youth needs

An example of OCC addressing needs identified in the city’s Youth Master Plan is the office’s LEAD program. This program provides training in civic engagement, leadership, and employability skills to Grand Rapidians age 15 to 24. Among its activities for those who apply and are accepted are free workshops in résumé and cover letter writing, interviewing, and financial literacy.

Those who complete the LEAD program become eligible for jobs in the Mayor’s 100 Campaign. The campaign consists of 100 local businesses that have agreed to hire young people who have gone through the program. OCC receives grant dollars from community partners, such as the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, to cover half of these new employees’ wages for up to 240 hours. Participating employers cover the other half.

Securing grant support for programs like LEAD is something Heemstra has put much effort into over the years. By the time of her retirement this month, she has secured more than $90 million for local youth initiatives, according to the City of Grand Rapids.

I can't say enough how much I have appreciated Lynn’s dedication and work to make this a great city for children and families,” Grand Rapids Mayor Rosalynn Bliss said in a statement about Heemstra’s tenure. “She has put Grand Rapids in the national spotlight repeatedly for our collaboration in after-school programming, for connecting children to nature, and in post-secondary success with the T2C Studio.”

As the years added up as OCC’s executive director, Heemstra has been able to meet up with grown-up versions of these students that the office supported along the way. Many of them have returned to see her and show appreciation to OCC for its role in their college and career successes.

That’s the awesome thing, is when they come back and see me,” Heemstra said.So many of them are actively engaged in the community.”

I just feel so honored and privileged to have been a part of their lives in a small way,” she added. “That they really saw some purpose and meaning, and then they have pursued their interest in giving back to the community.”


Moving the mission forward

Securing strong partnerships and grants for OCC’s work wasn’t easy, Heemstra said. Her passion for seeing young Grand Rapidians prepared for adult life is what helped her propel the office into making those goals a reality.

“This is hard work,” said Heemstra. “You have to be bold, you have to be brave, and you have to be courageous. Because you are ‘finding a way,’ as John Lewis said, ‘to get in the way.’”

Sharing Heemstra’s enthusiasm for breaking down barriers that hinder academic and career success for young people are her two former OCC colleagues, still active in the office. Shannon Harris, previously program manager, is now leading the office as its interim executive director. Shayla Willis continues as the studio coordinator for its T2C Studio.

Harris and Willis, who worked closely with Heemstra, look back on her youth advocacy with reverence.

“Lynn has been a true asset to Grand Rapids,” Harris said. “Her legacy will be one that is long-lasting and serve as a reminder to us all that sacrifice, creativity, advocacy, hard work, and thick skin are necessary components to ensuring the absolute best outcomes are realized for children. Her work ethic was unmatched and her resolve, unwavering.”

Heemstra may now be retired, but her commitment to youth success is driving her to keep working for related causes within the community. She’s still on several community boards, she said, has various projects she’ll be involved in, and has reminded her former colleagues she's just a phone call away.

She will also be taking time out to enjoy her life more generally, and her family.

I’m excited about learning new things,” Heemstra said of her extra free time ahead. “Certainly post-Covid, I’d like to travel a lot more. My husband has a book that’s coming out in the spring, and we’d like to go to England and promote that.”

As Heemstra begins her next life chapter, Grand Rapids children and youth continue to have a support system in OCC to prepare for their own, built in no small part on her decades of public service.

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