Q & A: Jan Wheelock of The Gathering PlaceHow volunteers offering ‘hands, feet, and heart’ can make a huge difference in small communities

Founded during the pandemic, a time when isolation, and social distancing from neighbors was actually mandatory, The Gathering Place was created as a way to come together. The network of volunteers donate their time, energy, and talents to better their community. Together, they have decorated lunch bags for students, wrote letters to veterans, sent postcards to encourage voting, hosted lunch and learn events, hosted community book drives, and more. 

Rural Innovation spoke with the founder of The Gathering Place, Jan Wheelock, about her relentless commitment to enriching the community and her reaction to being named 2023 Women's Action Network (WAN) Woman of the Year.

What inspired you to start The Gathering Place in Greenville? 

Jan Wheelock: I wanted a space that we could share to work on community projects. 

How has the vision changed, grown, or adapted, based on community needs? 

Jan Wheelock: We have become an affiliate group of United Way and are now called Women United at The Gathering Place. This gives us nonprofit status enabling us to accept contributions toward our projects.

What are some of the specific needs and resources you see Greenville residents are particularly in need of? 

Jan Wheelock: This isn’t about Greenville, we link women across a wide rural area in Ionia and Montcalm counties. Our projects and volunteers focus on enhancing the outreach and success of other established organizations. For example, The Montcalm Prevention Collaborative had a grant to buy first aid kits in which they would add Narcan, a rescue drug. Once they received the 200 kits, our volunteers did the physical work of inserting the medication. We offer hands, feet, and hearts, rather than funds.

Why is this volunteer work important to you? 

Jan Wheelock: In a world that is most often loud and angry, it is important to find a spot of quiet worth. Every volunteer here knows that they are contributing to a more positive vibe.

Do you have any mentors or close friends/family, or colleagues who you look up to and get inspiration from? 

Jan Wheelock: I am inspired by the history and sisterhood of women whose nature is nurturing and giving. 

How does it feel to bring together other volunteers in a combined effort to help their fellow neighbors? It's got to feel rewarding. 

Jan Wheelock: The success in this effort shows how ready people are to come together with purpose. We have created an outlet for creativity, energy, talent and time. Women can opt in or out of projects, work at home or on-site, learn about other organizations and community needs. 

Volunteer work can be extremely tiring. What are some activities you do to destress, relax or recharge during your 'own time'?

Jan Wheelock: I get physically tired at times, but the projects actually generate energy and fuel creativity. Pastimes include genealogy, reading, coloring, and enjoying nature.

What keeps you from getting burnt out? 

Jan Wheelock: We share the work and share the fun. 

What are some highlights or specific projects you've been able to accomplish with The Gathering Place that you're particularly proud of? 

Jan Wheelock: We started an Alzheimer’s/Dementia Resource Lending Library for families and caregivers. We opened on certain Sunday afternoons for public access. We soon realized that this was not the right venue, so we retooled and created Book Boxes to place where seniors congregate. We have four boxes on location at present. We were awarded $20,800 in May by 100 Women Who Care and will be able to create and house kits across the county. This makes me happy and proud.

When you received the Woman's Action Network 2023 Woman of the Year Award, what was your response? 

Jan Wheelock: I was stunned. It was a complete surprise. WAN has its own niche of activism and service to the community. It was a great honor to be selected by them for this recognition.

What is your advice to other residents in different communities who are looking to start the same type of organization? 

Jan Wheelock: Having your own space is important. It allows for gatherings of people and also the ingathering of products needed for community outreach.

COVID-19 brought about much loss for small rural communities, but also reminded people that connection with their neighbors was absolutely vital. What positive lessons or ways of community coming together have you witnessed in the past three years that give you hope? 

Jan Wheelock: This was our response to Covid and incivility. What is the saying … 'When you can’t see the light, be the light.' We have created or written thousands of greeting cards for shut-ins and vets, collected food for the homeless, pennies for Alzheimer’s, sent cards of appreciation to nurses, teachers and others, helped write cards to get out the vote, collected socks for the Grand Rapids vet home, added Narcan to nearly 200 kits, gave books to libraries during Women’s History month, etc. Each of these venues touched the life of someone in need. We are connecting with purpose.

What are your hopes for The Gathering Place in the future? 

Jan Wheelock: We hope to encourage establishing volunteer hubs in more area towns and cities. As for Women United at The Gathering Place, onward and upward to welcome more volunteers and develop more outreach.

Sarah Spohn is a Lansing native, but every day finds a new interesting person, place, or thing in towns all over Michigan, leaving her truly smitten with the mitten. She received her degrees in journalism and professional communications and provides coverage for various publications locally, regionally, and nationally — writing stories on small businesses, arts and culture, dining, community, and anything Michigan-made. You can contact her at sarahspohn.news@gmail.com.
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