BC Pulse strengthens the heartbeat of Battle Creek

Kathy Szenda Wilson and Maria Drawhorn are in recovery.

"I'm a recovering funder," Wilson says.

"I'm a recovering service provider," Drawhorn says.

The co-executive directors are undergoing their recovery nicely under the auspices of BC Pulse in Battle Creek, a non-profit organization that the two refer to as a community resource.

"People talk about what's wrong with our community," says Drawhorn, "but what we need to do is spell out what's actionable."

That is what BC Pulse does. Call it a mediator, call it a liaison, call it a go-between. BC Pulse is an organization that ties up loose ends and makes connections where connections are needed. The goal, the two co-executive directors say, is to build a compassionate, engaged, vibrant community.

"We are an organization in our infancy," says Wilson. "Our current funding is a grant to Michigan State University (as our fiscal sponsor) from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation."

BC Pulse was born in July 2012, although Wilson insists there are no founders. Four people are currently on staff--along with the two co-executive directors are Lyssa Howley, associate, and Andrew Tyus, program coordinator.

"We're still working on our elevator speech to define who we are." Wilson smiles. "But the message we most want to convey is that BC Pulse is not about developing new programs. There are plenty of good programs already in place. What we do is help people to strengthen how they do their work."

Wilson worked for 17 years at the W. K. Kellogg Foundation, she says, and during that time, she learned about supporting residents of the community for better outcomes in their neighborhoods. "But I saw a disconnect. Voices were not being heard. Somebody has to pay attention to those voices. So a group of us started talking sometime in 2010. What would it take to develop a group that pays attention to these voices?"

"And I spent the last 15 years in nonprofits," continues Drawhorn. "Always putting out fires. I saw restraints in funding while there was increased need. It's difficult to think about making improvements when you are constantly putting out fires. For me, BC Pulse is a great opportunity to talk to others with similar goals, get more perspectives, and give a lens to see things differently. How are we doing the work? How can we learn from what we are doing?"

Wilson laughs. "We do a lot of talking around here."

Through all this talking, all this lively communication, the staff of BC Pulse hopes, will come solutions to bridge those places where good efforts sometimes break down.

Soon after BC Pulse called itself into being, they organized a gathering of more than 100 Battle Creek residents, service providers, and leaders. They called it a "community visioning session."

Wilson says: "Participants included residents from different neighborhoods; leaders from city government, school districts, the faith-based community and nonprofit organizations; elected officials, and direct service providers from the fields of health and economic security; as well as teachers, principals, and child care providers from the field of education."

The gathering of many minds, each with their own expertise, discussed making improvements to education in Battle Creek. Learning involves more than classrooms, chalk on blackboards, and textbooks. The group discussed how to provide children with economic security, safety, health, because all of these are factors in educational success.

Wilson explains: "We had superintendents sitting around the table saying 'we need to engage parents.' No one can argue with that, but how do we do that? How do you engage people? We talk to them, but we need to go beyond that. Parents want to get engaged, they come into the school office, and the office secretary doesn't know what to do with them. So BC Pulse talks to the secretaries, and we work with them on what to do. We touch on every point in the system to make it work. It's about the layers, the complexities of these situations."

"BC Pulse removes barriers," Drawhorn adds.

"We are the pollinators between these groups," says Wilson.

The co-executive directors give another example of working with a local hospital, looking for the missing links in how patients are discharged without getting the aftercare they need. "Turned out the nurses didn't know what experts were on staff," Wilson says. BC Pulse found the missing link and made sure the groups involved--nurses and health care experts--kept each other informed, making the discharge process that much more effective.

"Organizations often say they collaborate," Drawhorn says, "but they don't always coordinate with each other."

BC Pulse, the two explain, is issue neutral. No judgments, no pressure. BC Pulse makes it clear to all participants that they provide a safe space where anything and everything can be said without fear or ramifications.

"We are the accountability partner," Drawhorn says. "We don't come in with a motive; we just support the tasks that need to be done."

"That's what makes us unique," Wilson says. "BC Pulse creates intersectional innovations. We bring things together that are often apart."

Which isn't always pretty, Wilson warns. At least, not at first. "When systems are in place, there has to be some chaos at first, some dismantling. We ask people to take a hard look at how they are used to working, and then we ask them to shift the ways they do things."

At this point, however, still being the new kids on the block, BC Pulse is working on getting their own message out. They want Battle Creek to know: BC Pulse is here to help.

"We are getting in touch with our community." Drawhorn nods. "Just last week, we enjoyed an ice cream social with residents. We were all just hanging out, allowing opportunities to come up on their own."

Drawhorn pauses to reflect a moment. "We want folks to get to know us and to understand that we are reliable, and we are here for them … that BC Pulse is here to support them."

Contact BC Pulse at 340 Cliff Street in Battle Creek, or phone 269.441.9538 for more information.

Zinta Aistars is creative director for Z Word, LLC, and editor of the literary magazine, The Smoking Poet. She lives on a farm in Hopkins.  

Photos by Erik Holladay.
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