Herman Miller response to pandemic benefits local, global communities

During her 30-year career with furniture manufacturer Herman Miller, Inc., Penny Garlock has taken business trips to nearly two dozen countries, traveling to far-flung places that have expanded her perspectives immeasurably.

Now, in the midst of a global pandemic caused by a coronavirus, Garlock is leaning on her experiences abroad to help cultivate and coordinate Herman Miller’s efforts to make and distribute personal protective equipment (PPE) for health care workers in West Michigan and around the world.

“I have a tendency to run toward a crisis instead of running away from it,” Garlock says. “I’ve seen some of the difficulties people face every day in places like Calcutta, India, and it’s made me more compassionate and more aware of just how much we are blessed. It’s a true privilege to be in a position to serve others in their time of need.”

Hundreds respond

Garlock, who lives in Spring Lake and works as a project manager on Herman Miller’s information technology team at the company’s main site facility in Zeeland, is among hundreds of the company’s employees and retirees who have responded to the COVID-19 crisis.
Penny Garlock with her husband, Mark, who is also an employee at Herman Miller and has helped with the PPE project.

“When COVID-19 hit,” says Linda Brand, President, Herman Miller Cares, the company’s corporate foundation, “we immediately marshaled our resources to focus our giving and our volunteerism on this effort.”

Brand continued: “Our people began sewing masks. People like Penny Garlock — active employees, retired employees and friends of employees — all started sewing masks that we are donating. Our manufacturing plants were at minimal capacity, and our Ops people were coming in to design and make PPE — masks, face shields and, in some areas, even gowns — for our local West Michigan community as well as national and global Herman Miller communities, from California to China.”

‘Beautiful humans’

Garlock estimated that Herman Miller’s team members and retirees made more than 40,000 masks in the first couple months of the COVID-19 pandemic. A significant percentage of those masks have gone to Holland Hospital, Mercy Health Mercy campus and Mercy Health Hackley campus in Muskegon, and Mercy Health Saint Mary’s hospital in Grand Rapids. Others have gone to charitable organizations that serve vulnerable populations, such as nursing homes and homeless shelters.

“These are beautiful humans helping other beautiful humans,” says Garlock. “A lot of the employees in our factories were coming forward, asking how they could help. So, we started meeting daily in early April to come up with a plan to do something to make a difference. And Herman Miller was super supportive of us doing the work. That’s what I love about Herman Miller — it’s a company that’s so giving to the community.”

For much of its history, Herman Miller’s charitable activities were largely anonymous. The company’s founder and longtime leader, D.J. De Pree, was a devout Christian who strongly believed in donating a portion of the profits generated by the business to charitable causes — but did not believe in publicizing giving for recognition. 

Herman Miller Cares now gives back more than $2 million each year, and giving is now directed globally by 50 employees who serve as representatives in Herman Miller communities. 

Focused philanthropy

Under Brand’s leadership for the past five years, Herman Miller Cares directs its philanthropy in three focus areas — inspiring future designers, preserving the planet, and strengthening communities. 
Herman Miller Cares donated face masks to Hand 2 Hand.
Brand said the outbreak of COVID-19 prompted the company to address the greatest needs in communities where Herman Miller has a presence, whether it be West Michigan Lakeshore communities, North America, Europe, or in Dongguan, China, where there are about 1,000 Herman Miller employees, the second-largest concentration of the company’s global workforce of about 8,000 people.

“Herman Miller is one with its community,” Brand says.  “Every community where our people live, work, and play is important to us.”

‘A holistic approach’

Allie Hopkins, who assists Brand on the staff at Herman Miller Cares, said the company is taking “a holistic approach” in its response to the pandemic.

“As a company committed to the health and well-being of our people, planet, and communities,” says Hopkins, “we’re focusing our philanthropic efforts on organizations serving some of the most vulnerable populations who are being disproportionately affected by COVID-19.

“Unfortunately,” she continues, “members of these communities often worry about meeting basic needs, and the charitable organizations that serve them often lack access to the same supply chains as larger organizations. Recognizing these disparities, we’re finding ways to help organizations that may be overlooked but serve people who are important to us.”
Funding, PPE

These include an array of West Michigan organizations:
  • Grand Rapids Pacific Asian Festival, which is using Herman Miller Cares funding to buy gift cards from Asian markets for families in need.  
  •  Residential Operations, Inc. (ROI), a therapy center for people with autism, which is receiving PPE for its learning centers, and independent living facilities around Michigan.    
  • MOKA, a nonprofit serving individuals with disabilities, also is receiving PPE from Herman Miller Cares. 
  • Hand2Hand (H2H), which seeks to address and eliminate weekend hunger by providing meals to children and families confronting food insecurity, is receiving funding and PPE.
  • Kids Food Basket (KFB), which provides evening meals to children living in vulnerable circumstances, is receiving funding for its mission. 
  • Mel Trotter, the largest emergency homeless shelter in West Michigan, is receiving PPE.
  • 3-11 Youth Housing, a nonprofit whose mission is directed at homeless youth, is receiving PPE.
  • Nestlings, a centralized source for collecting, storing, and distributing diapers to shelters, food pantries, churches, and other social service programs supporting those in need, is receiving funding. 
  • Resilience: Advocates for Ending Violence and Children’s Advocacy Center, nonprofits that seek to help individuals living in abusive or volatile domestic environments, are receiving funding.
  • Mosaic Counseling, providing much-needed counseling services, is receiving masks.
  • Ottawa Area ISD, providing child care to essential workers who do not have it, free meals to students and their families, free mental health resources, and more services, is receiving PPE from Herman Miller Cares. 

Garlock finds motivation and deep satisfaction from seeing the breadth and depth of impact that has been made. 

“Giving multiplies when we invite others into the effort to serve our communities well,” she says. “At Herman Miller, we’re still probably spending more time doing than we are talking about it. But that’s OK, too.”

This article is part of The Lakeshore, a new featured section of Rapid Growth focused on West Michigan's Lakeshore region. Over the coming months, Rapid Growth will be expanding to cover the complex challenges in this community by focusing on the organizations, projects, programs, and individuals working to improve conditions and solve problems for their region. As the coverage continues, look for The Lakeshore publication, coming in 2020.
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