‘Promoting equal opportunity and access’: 7 honored with Social Justice Awards

I have always admired the work of the Holland Human Relations Commission, a city body that has looked out for the voiceless and marginalized in our community. The HRC promotes diversity, equity, inclusion, and access in housing, education, employment, and public service.  

The commission, one of only two such commissions in the state, pursues a community of belonging for all residents, with consideration for groups that are underrepresented, underserved, or marginalized. 

Each year, the commission honors community members who have similar missions. I was honored this year to be among seven people or organizations presented with Social Justice Awards on Jan. 17 at Holland City Hall chambers. 

Mine was the first in the category of accessibility for my work teaching people and organizations ways to create access and equity on a variety of fronts, from buildings to housing to employment. The commission also noted my work as co-editor of the Disability Inclusion series, which reports on accessibility issues across West Michigan.
Earlier this month, Lakeshore co-editor Lucia Rios became the frist person honored with the city of Holland's new Social Justice Award for accessibility.
Over the past 25 years, the annual Social Justice Awards have recognized 114 individuals and organizations who exemplify the virtues of social justice by promoting equal opportunity and equal access for all residents in the areas of housing, education, employment, and government/community relations. 

In 2022, the HRC added the category of health services, and in 2023 the category of accessibility was added. The Holland Youth Advisory Council selects and awards the Youth Social Justice Award recipient. 

The Social Justice Awards are presented the week of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, recognizing King’s dedicated work for social justice to improve the quality of life for everyone.  

“The strength of our community proceeds from the equity of access for our community members,” says Catherine Ristola Bass, chair of the Human Relations Commission. “We recognize that we all start from different places, and we adjust our services, policies, and programs so that we all have opportunities to succeed. 

“That sense of fairness and justice is made possible by the creativity and dedication of individuals and organizations who work tirelessly to make Holland a community where everyone belongs. We celebrate their achievements and encourage others striving toward the same goal with the Social Justice Awards.” 

I feel honored to be recognized with six other recipients who have a tremendous impact in the Holland area and beyond. They are:

Education: Holland Museum
In telling the stories of all individuals, families, and communities that make up Holland, the Holland Museum’s 2023 exhibitions and Cultural Lens programing highlighted the voices of diverse and frequently marginalized local populations: “Black Eden: Idlewild Past, Present, and Future”; “United for Progress: The Story of LAUP”; “Contemporary Portraits of Native Americans”; and “YAS Queen! The History of Drag.”
Government/community relations: Sarah Leach
As executive editor of the Holland Sentinel, Sarah Leach’s writing and editing on Ottawa County government has helped build an informed electorate. By having access to this information, members of the community are better able to participate in the democratic process and the work that happens in local government. This allows for a greater diversity of participants in the decisions that are made.

Health services: Christine Plummer
Through the leadership of Christine Plummer (MSN, RN), City on a Hill Ministries Health Clinic has reduced racial and ethnic disparities in adult vaccination coverage within Ottawa County, where vaccination rates in the Hispanic and Latinx community are 7 percentage points below that of the non-Hispanic community. Through new relationships in the Hispanic community, Plummer and City on a Hill Ministries Health Clinic have facilitated an increase in access to medical and mental health resources, financial assistance, and other area resources.
Youth Social Justice Award: Yanyssa Ochoa
The Holland Youth Advisory Core Council (HYAC) has named Yanyssa Ochoa the Youth Social Justice Award winner for 2023. Ochoa works to make opportunities possible for all students regardless of race, ethnicity, social group, or financial need.  She does this through her involvement with Student Senate, the National Honor Society, and LAUP’s citizenship classes. A member of HYAC, Ochoa serves as a student representative on the city of Holland’s Human Relations and International Relations commissions. 
Lifetime Achievement Award: Deborah Sterken
Through her 42 years in Holland, Deborah Sterken has championed developmentally disabled young people, women and families facing racial/ethnic discrimination and/or lack of opportunity, students struggling to develop, and families lacking the means for housing or housing maintenance. Sterken was a principal in the creation of the Friendship House, which supports developmentally disabled young adults, and has served on the governing board of Friendship House USA, which has locations in multiple states. She has also been involved with the Holland Promise Scholarship Program since its inception and has served as president of the Community Action House, the Holland Community Foundation, the Holland Public School Board, Jubilee Ministries, and HomCor.
Lifetime Achievement award: Wayne Klomparens
With 38 years as an elementary school educator, a term as president of the Holland Education Association, and two terms on the Holland City Council, Wayne Klomparens’ heart beats for the people of Holland. As council liaison to the Human Relations Commission from 2012 through 2019, Klomparens’ first and foremost desire has been for Holland to be a warm and welcoming community that accepts everyone and where all can live, belong, and thrive. 
You can watch the presentation of the 2023 Social Justice Awards awards here.
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by Lucia Rios.