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Everyday Community Leaders

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Last year’s Larry Bratschie Award Finalists show what it’s like to be a good neighbor
(L to R) Denise Wade, Emmanuel Ibarra, Gari Bekker, Daniel Richards, and Erika Townsley

(L to R) Denise Wade, Emmanuel Ibarra, Gari Bekker, Daniel Richards, and Erika Townsley

Read the Nominees' Full Profiles, and Nominate your Exceptional Neighbor!

Check out the full interviews between these 2022 Finalists and past community leaders by navigating here. Anyone can nominate a Dwelling Place resident for the Larry Bratschie Award - submit your nomination using the link above. Your nomination will be reviewed by a committee of Dwelling Place staff and board members, and the nominee will be considered for the $500 stipend award!

“I think of the problems that we have in society – if we want them to change, we have to be the ones to change them. It’s not like someone else is going to change things for you. Every year, dozens of residents are nominated for the Larry Bratschie Award, a resident leadership accolade that honors those who embody this message of direct action. These are the doers, the thinkers, and the behind-the-scenes leaders that make things happen, that bring about change. The award goes to a Dwelling Place resident who best exemplifies extraordinary characteristics of a community builder; who by their actions, contributes substantially to improvements in their community, the neighborhood where they live and/or the apartment community that they call home. Read on to learn about this year’s winner and finalists! 


Denise Wade (2022 Award Finalist) 

“Opportunity doesn't come and knock on that safe place where you are, behind those closed doors. You still have to go out and face the day,” shares Denise Wade, a downtown resident of Ferguson Apartments and a Degage donor, whose insightful wisdom comes from putting herself out there. Indeed, the advice comes paired with a history and mission of compassionate action. Braced by an experience of homelessness, she’s committed to being there for other women in need. “I want to be able to be, if this makes any sense, like a friend to women. I want to be the friend that I didn’t have when I was in a shelter right before I moved [into Ferguson]. I want to be that support.”   


Erika Townsley (2022 Award Winner) 

“What I'm really passionate about is giving people the tools and the agency to understand, ‘Hey, if this is affecting my quality of life, of myself or my neighbors, I'm not helpless in feeling that way.’” Erika didn’t always consider herself a leader. Her calm presence and quiet affect make her a naturally good neighbor, but "leader" wasn't a role she saw herself playing. “A lot of times people think that leadership is being the loudest voice in the room, being the one with the megaphone. I'm not that person.” But after years of observing the leaders around her and learning about the different shapes that leadership can take, she sees it differently. “One of my biggest takeaways has been identifying the different types of leadership that there are. And for me, that’s been really empowering.” Erika serves as the Historian of the Heartside Downtown Neighborhood Association and is also involved in the Heartside Business Association. 


Daniel Richards (2022 Award Finalist) 

“Work keeps me going. Keeps me moving.” Daniel Richards is the active type. He moves fast, bouncing from one neighborhood spot to the next, picking up trash and singing a tune as he goes. He keeps his apartment building, Commerce Courtyard Apartments, in Heartside, looking clean and tidy, and can be found once a week volunteering at Dwelling Place’s Community Building & Engagement offices. But when asked, Daniel shrugs off his dozens of hours of volunteer work. “I'm a hard worker. I love to work. I come from Chicago; I've been volunteering and working since moving to Grand Rapids. I love doing this!”  He finds a lot of meaning in activity, especially when it’s for the benefit of the community. “There’s nothing like doing things like that, helping people with my work.”   


Emmanuel Ibarra (2022 Award Finalist) 

“A key thing that community can do for you is make it all easier. Having people around you who are willing to lend a hand or willing to advocate for you or support you in some way - and Heartside could be – and is – that place for that love. It can be a thriving community,” shares Emmanuel Ibarra, small business owner and Heartside resident.  Over the past few years, the pandemic disrupted a lot of sources for community for him and a lot of people. So, he says, “I was thinking about, ‘how can I create that again? How can I be a part of it? How can I meet the other people of Grand Rapids?’” Enter Otono, the curated consignment shop that Emmanuel co-owns with his partner.  Emmanuel serves on several volunteer committees to further quality of life issues in Heartside. “I think of the problems that we have in society – if we want them to change, we have to be the ones to change them. It’s not like someone else is going to change things for you.” 


Gari Bekker (2022 Award Finalist) 

Gari Bekker, a longtime resident of Midtown Village Apartments in Holland, has been a part of the Midtown community garden since its inception in 2011. The garden there has humble beginnings, which is hard to believe given its resplendent presence. The way she tells it, “it was me and another gal, and she planted a couple of tomatoes over by the generator, and that’s how it all started.” More than decade later, the garden is a sprawling centerpiece, welcoming residents, guests, and passersby into the neighborhood with dozens of varieties of flowers, several fruits, and oodles of vegetables and herbs. Gari, 92, reflects on her achievements stoically, but with her signature wit. “It’s a lot of work, but it’s fun too. Especially to see what happened over time. I used to work the fields, doing this and that. Gardening has just come natural. Keeps me out of trouble,” she says with a wink.


With a mission to improve the lives of people by creating quality affordable housing, providing essential support services and serving as a catalyst for neighborhood revitalization, Dwelling Place serves families and people in 4 counties across West Michigan. Dwelling Place is powered by volunteers and numerous staff persons, guest writers create our Rapidian content. Thanks to AmeriCorps VISTA Rasheedah Gillespie-Muhammad for her reporting for this piece and to Brian Molhoek for editorial contributions.

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