By BETH ALTENA
North Kent Community Services (NKCS) has been helping neighbors help neighbors since 1973 and since 2005 Sandy Waite has been the executive director of the local organization, which is by far the largest food pantry (among other services) in Kent County. Now Waite is looking forward to retiring at the end of 2012 and the NKCS board is looking for a new leader.
Waite said the right candidate will need to be a person who is capable of wearing a lot of hats during the course of the day. On any given weekday Waite may face multiple speaking engagements, be expected to crank out a press release or two and might likely have a couple of photo opportunities.
Over the 40 years the center has been providing services for families in need, there have been only three paid directors. Marilyn Lind was the first, followed by Tom Pearce, who went on to be the Rockford area State Representative, and then Waite.
Waite said the NKCS is a very busy organization, the only pantry in the area open 40 hours a week. The last decade has been a critical time for many families facing financial difficulties. Waite said she has seen an astounding climb from about 1,200 families seeking help to over 10,000. Need is still at an historic high, but has leveled off from the highest at year end 2009 and beginning of 2010.
Changes during Waite’s tenure include going from a pantry where volunteers pack boxes of food for families to becoming a pantry of choice, where clients choose their own food items. “That is a huge improvement. How can I be in a position to know what is in your pantry?” Waite explained. “You may have a child at home who is allergic to peanuts and I could pack peanut butter in your box of food.” She said the opportunity for families to pick out their own items is just one of many improvements she has been fortunate to oversee.
“We were able to change to an ID card check-in system with grants we received,” Waite stated. She said the center also has been able to add an additional refrigerator and walk-in freezer since she started. The center has also become a distribution point for Toys for Tots, which allows clients to select from locally-donated toys.
“This is a huge improvement,” she said. “Instead of donations going somewhere else, they come here and our clients can pick them up here.” She stated that the success of that change has made the center a model for other service programs. Since she started the center has implemented a backpack give-away for school children, and an Easter basket program. In addition the center offers services for tax preparation, holiday meals, birthday presents and cakes, layettes for new moms, and a Nutritional Wellness pantry.
Waite said there are eleven resource centers in Kent County which offer an assortment of relief services, and of them, NKCS offers 48 percent of the total services, leaving 52 percent of the other ten combined. In addition to being a food pantry, the center can offer assistance with utility bills, shelter/rent and medical co-pay needs. Shopping for clothing, household items, toys, books, bedding, video, supplemental items is offered as well as referrals to other social service agencies.
Waite said a typical day may begin with checking emails and phone messages, and making sure volunteers are in place for all the duties in the center. An administrative aid (Marketplace Business Manager) is another paid position which is becoming vacant, and until that job is filled Waite said she will double-duty to keep things running smoothly.
Waite said candidates for her job and the business manager job will include an ability to organize. Her job in particular needs a person who is outgoing, able to speak in front of groups, fundraise and communicate well. She said she will help train the new director and manager before enjoying her retirement.
Waite said most people who know her through the center probably don’t realize she has a commute of 78 miles each way, each day, bracketing her ten-hour work shift. From her home just a bit north of Baldwin, Waite sees a lot of landscape on her way to work, and as a retiree, she looks forward to putting boots to the ground on Michigan’s trails and parks. Since 2005 when she took the mantle of executive director, she has put 800 miles on her vehicle every week for a whopping total of over 330,000 miles. And that is just getting to and from her job and not including the trips she takes, going to organization meetings to speak and other drives.
“I want to get a dog,” she stated. She said one of her many goals is to walk the entire Michigan length of the North Country Trail, which locally crosses through Nelson Township on Cedar Springs Public School property and crosses the White Pine Trail near 17 Mile Road. She said most people don’t realize the trail—not fully developed in this area—begins in New York State, crosses Pennsylvania, comes through Michigan and goes all the way West to the Dakotas.
Waite said in addition to hiking here in her home state, she also plans international travel, noting there are only two states in the United States she hasn’t visited—Utah and Oregon—and only three continents—South America, Antarctica and Australia—where she has yet to set foot. “I won’t disappear, I will still be active in my church and in the community and volunteer,” Waite assures.
Those interested in finding out more about Waite’s job at the Center may email or send resumes to The North Kent Community Services at 10075 Northland Drive NE, Rockford MI 49341.