After spending seven years in a Michigan federal prison, Troy Ropp’s criminal record held him back from getting employed and moving out of a halfway house in Grand Rapids.
But in 2013, a fellow parolee introduced Ropp to the Westown Collaborative – composed of 10 local agencies working to improve the lives of residents in Grand Rapids’ Westown neighborhood – which helped Ropp find temporary work before being hired as a laborer with one of its partners.
“It has really been beneficial for me,” said Ropp, now the proud owner of a lawn service with client referrals from the collaborative. “They’ve helped me and they’re still helping me.”
With support from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the collaborative launched in 2012 by Other Way Ministries, Westown Jubilee Housing and Servants Community Church to better connect with residents in Westown. The collaborative has tripled its partners since its launch, and connects residents with education, housing and employment opportunities.
The Westown collaborative uses Asset Based Community Development (ABCD), helping spur development in communities through the strengths and talents of residents. With ABCD, the collaborative provides meeting spaces for residents to discuss community issues, share ideas and address common concerns, and helps residents manage and execute community goals.
“We wanted to connect neighbors with each other so they could help and uplift one another,” said Karl Williams, who handles community engagement for the Westown Collaborative. “We want to try to stabilize our residents and our community.”
Westown residents have especially struggled with a dearth of affordable housing and unemployment. Since an influx of college students triggered rent increases in the area, Westown Collaborative staff and volunteers have worked to help connect residents to housing and have advocated for affordable housing strategies.
In 2013, the unemployment rate for Westown, which has a population of 9,378 residents, was 23 percent. The collaborative provides job leads and clothing for job interviews and support advocacy efforts to eliminate felony conviction check boxes on most job applications.
“Employers and agencies are seeing that even if a person has a record they may be the best employee they could have,” Williams said. “It’s been a joyous fight to try and get people gainful employment.”
Williams also takes great joy in the collaborative’s Proud Fathers program, a 13-week men’s discussion group he oversees. The program – open to all Westown’s male residents – supports the personal development of fathers to help them become better parents and partners for their families.
“It’s all about becoming a better person for that family because at the end of the day, it’s all about family,” said Williams, adding that participants have organized coat and food drives for the homeless and fundraisers for residents struggling to pay their bills. More than 100 men – including Ropp – have participated in the program.
“It showed me that I am a good father, and I did a pretty good job with raising my kids,” said Ropp, a father of three. “My two oldest daughters are in college and my son didn’t get into trouble while I was away so I did something right.”
For children in Westown, the group is working on an initiative to improve third-grade reading proficiency among African American and Hispanic students, where fourth graders at Westown’s Sibley Elementary School averaged 40.9 percent in reading on the Michigan Educational Assessment Program in 2013. Comparatively, 70 percent of students in the state achieved third-grade reading proficiency, according a report from Michigan’s Third-Grade Reading Workgroup.
“This will be a targeted effort to catch kids who are slipping through the cracks at the early reading level,” said Kurt Reppart, The Other Way Ministries executive director, adding the collaborative would like for more local organizations to join them. “We really want to have every nonprofit on the Westside linked to the collaborative so we can be in harmony.”
Meanwhile, Ropp is focused on expanding his lawn service, which he hopes to someday pass on to his son. It’s a goal he wouldn’t have thought was possible had it not been for the Westown Collaborative.
“I don’t think I’ll be where I’m at now without their help,” he said.