A place to gather in Greenville

In any rural community, there are many needs.

And, it turns out, there are often many willing helpers.

That’s the case in Greenville, a city of nearly 9,000 residents in southwestern Michigan, where a group of people have come together to create The Gathering Place, a collaborative of residents with time, talent and energy to contribute to the community however they can. 

The organization spearheads its own endeavors to help the community and also works with other nonprofit groups and charities, helping with projects already in place and not duplicating efforts. 

“We are an idea,” says founder Jan Wheelock, “of wanting to connect the people across our communities, to build on our rural roots of helping one another and knowing our neighbors … Our goal is not to duplicate what (other organizations) are doing or step on toes.”

Members choose their level of involvement, from an occasional one-off project to more regular commitment of time or funds, but “I do push that they need to be involved,” Wheelock says, “not just reading our Facebook page or receiving email.”

To date, projects have ranged from writing and addressing postcards to help another group get a local school millage passed to providing magazines and snacks to a 4-H club to supplying socks, candy bars and hot chocolate to veterans home residents.

Wheelock says members work hard to keep partisanship at bay. “We do not endorse candidates, but we do support active citizenry. So we wrote cards to voters, to promote the vote and activate young voters," she says. "But our personal politics remain personal.”

Grace Peterson and Carol Rasmussen at the recent open house at The Gathering Place.
About 70 people are either members of the group’s private FB page, or are in email or personal contact. Active members are from Greenville, Perrinton, Stanton, Six Lakes, Lakeview, Trufant, Belmont and beyond, and the group reaches out to people and programs in Ionia, Montcalm, Gratiot and Kent counties. 

The group is self-funded, with the exception of a grant from Michigan Rural Advocates. The grant was used for furniture, stamps and office supplies, and the Alzheimer's/Dementia Resource Library, a collection of books and resources for patients, families, caregivers and interested others. 

“Many of the traditional places communities used to rely on for addressing challenges, like Granges, or even rural school districts, have disappeared,” says Rob Lyerla, chairman of Michigan Rural Advocates, “and as a result, communities are left with no common place for even ad hoc community engagement.  We feel that ‘The Gathering Place’ is a great  experiment to address that gap and hope that it will be a model for other rural communities.”

Lyerla’s organization is interested in promoting and supporting activities that bring communities, particularly rural communities, together to solve problems or concerns that are specific and focused on rural issues.  

“Whether it’s a local health care issue, broadband coverage, school bussing, or any other community concern, the possibilities for resolution are greater when everyone knows and respects one another,” says Cathy Albro, a rural advocate who is chair of the Michigan Democratic Party Rural Caucus.

How The Gathering Place started

Wheelock organized The Gathering Place during the isolating days of the coronavirus pandemic, bringing together a “motley crew – friends who knew each other from different contexts.”

“Isolation was a concern, when people couldn’t gather and didn’t feel able to make a difference as just one person,” Wheelock says.

Using drop-off and pick-up boxes, volunteers worked at that time on correspondence outreach to ease the isolation of local residents. “We are social beings and missed being together,” she says.

Initially, the group worked together without a bricks-and-mortar location. When space became available in downtown Greenville in February, Wheelock jumped at the opportunity to rent the place. 

Main Street in downtown Greenville, where The Gathering Place has found space to pursue its goals.

The space is next to the Women’s Action Network office and near the Habitat for Humanity office and Restore. She is personally responsible for the rent and utilities, and others have donated furniture, office supplies, cleaning supplies and such.

With a spot to call their own, The Gathering Place can now set up portable tables and folding chairs for luncheons, work sessions, special projects and public events.

“We are only open when we need to be,” Wheelock says, and there is no public use other than when we either gather to work or invite the public in.”
The Gathering Place held a holiday open house this month to welcome the community and recruit more members.
That happened earlier this month for a holiday open house, a chance to let the community see what the organization does and to invite participation.

Projects so far

The Gathering Place has worked with Ionia Montcalm Child Advocacy Center, We Care For Kids, United Way, League of Women Voters, the Montcalm Conservation District and is lining up programs for 2023, starting with the Montcalm Area Reading Council. 

In addition, the group has:
  • Created and distributed more than 1,000 holiday cards this year.
  • Created an Alzheimer's/Dementia Resource Library, a collection of books and resources for patients, families, caregivers and others interested others to borrow, open one Sunday afternoon each month. 
  • Organized a Community Book Exchange – bring one, take one
  • Held a Book Bash/Open House in March for teachers before they went on spring break.
“We  are overwhelmingly proud of our progress to date,” Wheelock says. “We are in the process of distributing our holiday cards to nursing homes, long-term care, hospitals, assisted living and adult foster care homes. We also wrote 130 cards for the veterans home. We deliver in person to the site, as we can’t afford to mail them.”

After The Greenville Daily News published a story about the group, Wheelock was invited to speak to The Sidney Women's Club. The Per Gradus Club was next. These organizations have their own projects, but are interested in working together.

What's next

Wheelock recently sent out an Activity Assessment form so volunteers could self-determine and plan for 2023. “Not everyone will turn it in,” she says, “ but it will help us to be able to talk about what involvement means. Then we will have a planning meeting in January to organize a calendar.”

In 2023 volunteers from The Gathering Place will visit senior centers across Montcalm County to see what resources they have and see if they are interested in having a lending library in their facilities. At the same time, a new Alzheimer Support group is beginning in February.

For more information, you can reach The Gathering Place at PO Box 731, Greenville, MI 48838. 

Rosemary Parker has worked as a writer and editor for more than 40 years, most of that time in Southwest Michigan.
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