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Sharon Loughridge: We need Grand Rapids to love all children as if they were their own (Guest column)

Tue, 02/05/2013

By Dave Murray |
on February 05, 2013 at 7:32 AM, updated February 05, 2013 at 7:38 AM

Sharon Loughridge is executive director of D.A. Blodgett – St. John’s, the oldest child welfare agency in West Michigan,

The organization is encouraged by Mayor George Heartwell’s State of the City address and the shocking statistics reported in the Kids Count Annual Report.

The Mayor challenged the City to keep the momentum from last year’s “Year of the Child” alive. With the stats published through this new report, the Mayor’s message is critical.

By Sharon Loughridge

GRAND RAPIDS, MI -- Grand Rapids’ official “Year of the Child” is over. Yet, the number of children living in poverty sharply increased, more children are experiencing abuse and neglect and our city’s youth are pessimistic about their future overall.

Last year, Mayor Heartwell challenged the city to think deeply about how we treat our community’s children.

During his State of the City Address on January 26, the mayor shared encouraging stories and anecdotes of success. As executive director of the oldest child welfare agency in West Michigan, I will share that the urgent problems facing the children DABSJ serves are greater than ever even though the official “Year of the Child” is over for Grand Rapids.

Mayor Heartwell is commended for challenging the city to continue the critical discourse initiated last year and asking three new questions. His questions could not come at a better time.

According to the MLive article “Child Poverty Spiked in Kent County as Great Recession took its toll on Michigan’s Economy”, child poverty rates skyrocketed, there is an underinvestment in early childhood programming, and confirmed victims of abuse and neglect rose 16.6% with a shocking 33,438 children victimized.

The economic implications disinvesting in children causes is overwhelming. Taking an early and preventative approach to children’s urgent needs only saves dollars at the local, state and federal level.

The best way to invest in the success of our children is to take a deep look at the three questions our Mayor asked during his State of the City.

1. How do we nurture a child-and-teen friendly culture in our community where children truly feel valued?

2. How can we demonstrate to children and teens that we will prioritize their needs?

3. How might the community positively support parents and caregivers and raise the importance of their role within our community?

The answer to these important questions is simple:Ttake action. Volunteer. Become a mentor, foster parent, reading buddy, or tutor. Share your time, talents or treasure with our community’s most vulnerable.

This is my challenge to the community.

D.A. Blodgett – St. John’s provides 22 different programs including preventative counseling, emergency shelter care, school services, foster care, residential treatment and adoption services.

From this vantage, we are in a unique position to answer the Mayor’s questions. Our diverse programs allow us to answer his call, but it is our philosophy that I find the best response.

We nurture a child-and-teen friendly culture allowing children to feel valued by loving children in need as if they were our own. I see this every day in the foster care workers that search for bus passes, dishes and couches for their clients aging out of the system.

I see it in the family support services social worker who searches the city for just the right trampoline to help a client with autism. I see it in the counselor who comes in on their day off to go shopping for a new youth in residential care so they have a winter coat in time for their first day at their new school.

We show children and teens that we prioritize their needs by answering their call. The Johnson Center’s report, “Community Conversations About the Children of Grand Rapids,” asked teens age 15-17 how to help solve issues stemming from home instability. Teens answered with a simple request, mentor us.

When you listen to children, they will tell you what they need. These are not lofty requests that require huge sums of money. They are things the average Grand Rapidian can do.

Bake cookies with a young girl in residential care. Donate that used television to a former foster care child who is venturing out on their own for the first time. Become a mentor to a teen mom struggling with school, work and raising a child.

We support parents and caregivers by giving them ownership of their schools, neighborhoods and family. We give struggling parents a “hand up not a hand out.”

We provide a mother the tools to help her child succeed in school like the Kent School Services Network worker who empowered a mother to walk door to door making sure her neighbors were sending their children to school. Our job is to give families the tools they need to succeed.

My question to our community is this: If my child were in the child welfare system, what would I want for them?

Regardless of the year, regardless of the mayor’s questions, this should always be in our minds. If as a community we begin to treat struggling children as if they were our own, our attitudes and therefore our actions would change.

I am proud to serve as executive director for an agency that has been loving children as if they were our own for 125 years. But I am here to say, we cannot do it alone. We need our community to answer these questions. We need Grand Rapids to love all children as if they were their own.

Dave Murray is the Grand Rapids community engagement specialist. Email him at and follow him on Twitter @ReporterDMurray or on Facebook. 

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