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Meet civic investor Tami VandenBerg: Investing in the other

Tami VandenBerg believes that we all should have access to a great city. Her work at Well House as well as starting both The Meanwhile Bar and The Pyramid Scheme are all a part of making Grand Rapids great- for all.

/Eric Tank

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Tami VandenBerg, executive director of Well House, went to church one Sunday morning at age 5, heard a missionary tell about the conditions people in Africa were living in and saw the pictures he had to share of the work he was doing. Her mother likes to tell the story of how she went directly home and gathered all of her money to give to them.

"That’s just been my theme," says VandenBerg. "I have always been the kid on the playground looking for who didn’t have someone to play with, going to hang out with that person... If there was someone who was considered an other, I was usually connecting with that person, trying to bring them in."

When VandenBerg graduated from Calvin in 1997, leaving the city was the norm. When she moved back "because this is where my people are," she wanted to make sure it was a great place to live.

She decided that if she was going to be here, she was going to make this city better, building things that she wanted to do and places where she could spend her time. VandenBerg describes an opportune moment, laughing about the vacant storefronts and lack of nightlife. She wasn't deterred.

"I’m not going to complain, 'oh there’s nowhere to go.' I’m going to focus all my energy," she says. "I want to funnel all of that frustration into action."

Over six years ago, fueled by that drive, The Meanwhile was born. The bar, started by VandenBerg and her brother Jeff VandenBerg, was the first to feature all Michigan beers on tap, with only Pabst Blue Ribbon rounding out the selection. That risk, choosing local over national brands, as well as the regular funding and awareness events held at the bar, exemplifies how VandenBerg finds the most satisfaction in her own life.

"I like to bring fun, and I like to work on justice issues," she says. "And I strike a good balance I think."

A year and a half ago, VandenBerg moved into the role as the executive director of Well House, breathing new life into a long-term housing shelter and centering it on the Housing First model.

"I don’t think that there’s just certain groups of people that should be able to have good lives and have fun and enjoy the city. I think everybody should be able to do that," she says of the combination of roles she holds. "It’s just absurd that in this day and age there are people living on the street. To me it’s just ludicrous, and there’s no reason for it. So again, i’m not going to just complain about it. I’m going to take action."

VandenBerg has been at the forefront of so many well-known businesses, organizations and events that one might wonder how she makes time for everything. Along with Well House and The Meanwhile, she opened The Pyramid Scheme, a music venue downtown. She's behind the founding of LadyFest Grand Rapids and Bizarre Bazaar, and has been involved in multiple other projects and organizations over the years.

"The two things in my life have been community service, more from a justice model than a charity model, and then... having fun!” she laughs.

"I fully recognize that I cannot take on these issues myself. So I need to build collaborations and bring people together." She's had to train herself to become "a phenomenal delegator," she says, so that she can stay hyper-targeted on what she needs to do.

VandenBerg, like many others, understands the struggles that local businesses and nonprofits can have to maintain the attention of the media.

"When I was compiling all of our media and news for our Well House website, and we’ve been really fortunate in how much media attention we’ve gotten in the last year, but I clearly saw all of the different angles The Rapidian took. There was an article on our food growing, there was an article on our 19:1 campaign, there was... It was very comprehensive of our work and it’s hard to get other media sources engaged like that," she explains. "We’ve had some luck, but really if there’s a shooting or a major accident, whatever you’re doing, you’re gone. You’re off the list. But The Rapidian is consistently interested."

VandenBerg can often be found encouraging people to get involved, and confesses she always has pamphlets of great organizations to put into people's hands. She insists that things really can change when people get involved, but knows that it can often be hard for people to find a place to start. She has seen that helping others become aware of ways to get involved in making their own city a better place to live- for everyone- does more than just help those in need. 

"When we work together, when we take concrete action, we can have really positive concrete results," she says. "It’s so worth it. What else are you going to do with your time? What am I supposed to do, just watch t.v.?"

VandenBerg, a regular reader of The Rapidian to keep herself informed of what's going on in the city, says for those who want to become civic investors themselves, there's just one way to do it.

"You just have to start. You just have to go and do something and you’ve gotta find people that want to do the same thing," she says. And if you get discouraged?

"Try again. Go again."

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