Baxter Community Center | Est. 1969 | Baxter Neighborhood, Grand Rapids
Taken from Stacy Ladenburger’s “Planting Seeds and Singing Songs: In Celebration of 40 Years of Faithful Service.”
In the late 1960s, a time of profound civil strife, ever-widening urban decay and pervasive racial inequality, several members of Eastern Avenue Christian Reformed Church and the surrounding community recognized a shared desire to tangibly respond to the social injustice and unmet needs in their neighborhood. At that time, housing covenants encouraged by the federal government kept black and white populations separate. Tensions gripped the public school system, kept alive by a predominantly white school board claiming to represent a multi-ethnic city and division between the West and Southeast sides.
Dennis Hoekstra, an education professor at Calvin College, noted the needs of the community and wanted to bring people and institutions together in response, particularly the Grand Rapids Public School Board, local churches, the police force and neighborhood residents. Baxter thus began as Eastern Avenue Community Center, an infant organization housed in the small office space located above Bierling Bakery on Eastern Avenue. Providentially, the local Baxter Christian School had just recently closed, leaving its building unoccupied. Leaders from the fledgling Community Center on Eastern met with the Grand Rapids Christian School Board and arranged to rent the building at a rate of one dollar a month for the first year. In the summer of 1969, Baxter Community Center was officially established in its current location in the heart of the Baxter neighborhood, a site with ample space for existing operations and a great deal of room to grow.
As Baxter moved into the new building the board searched for the organization’s first official executive director. From the thirty applications submitted for the position, the board chose Herschell Turner, a basketball star from the University of Nebraska playing for the Chicago Majors, Pittsburgh Pippers, Harlem Globetrotters and the Grand Rapids Tackers, an amazing artist and a fixture in the Grand Rapids community. He brought the passion and leadership that Baxter needed; he was respected by young people, hungry for change and motivated by a vision for a better future. Young people flocked to the programs created for them; in the summer, hundreds of kids came each day to play basketball, receive a free meal and spend their summer days in a safe and welcoming environment.
Baxter quickly became a meeting place in the community, just as Hoekstra had envisioned. In the early 1970s, the Center became home to the Freedom School, students’ refuge during a three-week boycott of the public school system. In these turbulent times, although riots and nightly curfews disrupted normal city life and threatened to maintain division, people from divergent groups and differing backgrounds knew that they could come together at Baxter Community Center. They also knew that Baxter would meet their needs with its ever-expanding array of services. During that period, a Calvin professor created the income tax preparation program and enlisted his students as instructors. Instead of simply offering referrals to food pantries around the city, Baxter began its own food pantry and then added a clothing pantry as well. When the amount of clothing grew too large for the small table, she moved it to the basement. Baxter’s Boutique, as it was christened, quickly filled with donated clothing in a small version of what has become the Marketplace.
In 1978, Gene Proctor, who had worked with Herschell as Assistant Director for a short period in the early years, became Baxter’s next significant and enduring leader. As Executive Director, Gene brought resourcefulness, determination and ever-expanding ideas for new activities and fund development.
At Baxter’s inception, the only medical service it offered was the well-baby clinic. With the support of Dr. Bob Bulten (Alger Pediatrics) and his wife Ina, a nurse, Baxter’s pediatric clinic opened its doors. The clinic steadily expanded to become what it is today: a truly wholistic service. Expansion began with the extension of care to adult clients, followed by the establishment of vision, prayer and dental clinics, and in 1999, the clinic became a Women, Infants and Children (WIC) site. In 2007, the dental clinic partnered with Strong Beginnings to begin Brush Up For Baby, a project that seeks to reduce infant mortality.
In 1996, Gene stepped down from the position of Executive Director. His years of leadership had been marked by his integrity and his heart for the people he served.
Prior to Gene’s departure, Melanie Beelen served as Executive Director of Jubilee Jobs, a nonprofit housed in a portion of Baxter’s building. One afternoon, Gene stopped Melanie in the parking lot and told her she ought to apply for his job. Melanie smiled, looking down at his feet. “Gene,” she said, “we just don’t wear the same size shoe!” Yet despite her initial reservations, Melanie applied for and received the job of Executive Director at Baxter Community Center, offering wisdom, grace and vision as the organization’s third and present director.
Baxter has developed significantly under Melanie’s leadership. The Mizizi Maji Youth Mentoring Program was born in 1998 as a three-year pilot project. The pilot met with success, and today, the program flourishes. Baxter’s programming has continued to grow as needs change and emerge in the community.
After four decades, this once tiny seedling has truly sprouted and flourished. Its history testifies to Baxter’s commitment to Christ and active response to his call to do justice and to love others, and it offers a glimpse into the organization’s future, as these central values will not be abandoned. With roots running deep and branches far extended, Baxter will remain where it was planted, offering hope and vision and continuing to act as “A Christian Response to Human Needs” within the ever-changing, ever-evolving realities of the surrounding community.
“Now let us begin. Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long-but-beautiful struggle for a new world.” – Martin Luther King Jr.
Baxter’s response includes addressing immediate needs, assisting individuals to become responsible, productive and self-sufficient, and affirming the positive qualities in individuals and the community.
The Baxter neighborhood is without a doubt a community in need. But it is also filled with wonderful neighbors, talented and with unlimited potential. The Baxter neighborhood is bound on the north and south by Wealthy and Franklin streets, and on the east and west by Fuller and Eastern. The high incidence of crime and drug use has put a strain upon the neighborhood and the hope of the people who live there, but together we can transform our community and become a thriving neighborhood once again!
Families living with under $25,000 per year
Households with an income under $15,000 per year
Unemployment rate in the Baxter Neighborhood
Baxter clients who reside in the Baxter Neighborhood
Baxter responds to immediate needs like food, clothing, medical care and shelter through a variety of programs and services.
Baxter comes alongside neighbors in securing access to personal development tools that equip individuals to escape the cycle of poverty and thrive both personally and in the community they live.
Working alongside our neighbors and other organizations and government agencies, Baxter seeks to secure access and foster equity for all.
©2016 Baxter Community Center