Category Archives: Interview

Woman finds shelter and compassion at local homeless shelter

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Renee Benner smokes a cigarette outside of the Isabella County Restoration House on Sunday, Nov. 26, 2017.

Renee Benner is no stranger to sleeping in her car.

Homeless for the second time, the 53-year-old from Shepherd, Michigan hit hard times starting five years ago when the trailer that she owned was condemned.

The ceiling and floors were collapsing in the 30-year-old trailer that Benner owned.

“I’m old and I can’t do everything like they wanted it done in lickety split time,” said Benner. “We just could not get it up to code in the time frame they gave us. When they condemned it, where do you go? It’s November.”

After losing her home Benner lived in her car and continued working her midnight shifts as a Customer Service Manager for Walmart.

“I was still working full-time,” said Benner. “I’d most of the time park my car in the parking lot at work, sleep all day, get up, get ready for work, go into work, get out of work, and then go to the soup kitchen for breakfast.”

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Renee Benner and Gary Wisniewski sit together at the Isabella Community Soup Kitchen on Sunday, Nov. 19, 2017 shortly after Benner got off of work from her waitressing job at Legends Diner.

Benner said she didn’t worry too much about where she parked to sleep though she said others have complained that police kick them out at night.

“I’ve slept in Mill Pond Park, one of the worst parks there is in this town,” said Benner. “I’ve slept there overnight and cops never disturbed me. They do at other parks because the homeless are not allowed there. The other parks close at 8 at night so they have to kick you out of them. I think the difference is they’re sleeping at night whereas I’m sleeping during the day.”

Benner continued that routine for two and a half months until she started going to the Isabella County Restoration House (ICRH) just before Christmas in 2013. She stayed at the shelter and continued working until she found an apartment in February of 2014.

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Renee Benner packages up the fixings for burritos and taco salad in the kitchen at the Isabella County Restoration House on Nov. 15, 2017. The food was transported to the overnight shelter where volunteers and guests were able to enjoy the meal.

The ICRH, located at 1114 W. High Street in Mount Pleasant, Michigan, provides temporary shelter and assistance to those in need in Isabella County. It is a rotational shelter and local churches provide shelter overnight and the churches where guests stay changes week to week.

“The first day I was scared out of my wits, I’d never been in that situation before. And Ryan made me feel comfortable,” said Benner.

Ryan Griffus is the Executive Director at the ICRH and has experienced the struggle of living homeless firsthand. He fled from his abusive father at age 12 and was homeless until he was 18 years old.

“My biological father was a monster,” said Griffus. “He was an addict, as violent as they come. There were a lot of events preceding my leaving that made me go, but one particular week, my fifth fistfight with him that week was my sign that I had to go. I packed up a garbage bag and I bolted.”

Griffus said his experiences motivated him to pursue a double major in child development and psychology from Central Michigan University. He later went on to study management at Davenport University.

“There was no way I was going to let what I had walked through for those years left in vain and not utilize that experience,” said Griffus.

Before becoming executive director at ICRH he worked with Child Protective Services, foster care, and the Department of Health and Human Services.

“I felt limited so I decided to go get a grad degree. I chose business because I wanted to learn how I could affect a community and the population I care so deeply about on a more macro level,” said Griffus. “It was a perfect storm because all of a sudden the homeless shelter needed an executive director, all the things fell in to place.”

The 2016 U.S. Census Bureau reports that in Isabella County, 23.4% of the 71,282 residents are living in poverty.

Griffus says the night shelter currently has 33 mats, which are essentially foldable mattresses that the overnight guests sleep on. Recently ICRH was awarded a grant for $2,000 that Griffus said will go toward ordering new mats to replace the old ones.

“We have some that are still in pretty decent shape, but they’ve been around for five years and they’re just beat up,” said Griffus. “They’re pretty pricey so that $2,000 I’ll probably use on 15 to 16 mats.”

Griffus said the shelter prefers using mats rather than cots because cots are problematic.

“When we first started this we considered cots and cots were a logistical nightmare,” said Griffus. “We talked with other shelters, visited other sites and talked about what worked good and what didn’t. Cots broke down a lot faster and were replaced constantly. It just wasn’t feasible as far as moving and storing either so we elected to go with the mats that are pretty heavy duty, but they take a beating. If you’re moved every week, you’re slept on every night, you’re going to get worn out.”

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Renee Benner enjoys a cup of coffee, what she calls her lifeblood, at the Isabella County Restoration House on Sunday, Nov. 26, 2017.

Benner says her typical day when she hasn’t been working the night before begins at the overnight shelter.

Guests are woken up at 7 a.m. at the overnight shelter and the bus leaves for the Isabella Community Soup Kitchen (ICSK) at 8 a.m. Benner said the churches feed some sort of breakfast ranging from an entire spread to just breakfast snacks such as doughnuts.

The soup kitchen opens at 8 a.m. and guests can either stay there until the ICRH day shelter opens at 1 p.m. or go wherever they would like at that point.

Computers were recently donated to the day shelter so guests can use the computers to apply and check on job applications, check email, or just keep in touch with friends and family. There are volunteers there throughout the day that are able to assist.

“It’s so important for me the interpersonal care that we’re able to provide and I love that about our organization because you actually get to feel like you’re cared for,” said Griffus. “Then we start hitting the areas of need and services, but first and foremost we just got to love and welcome.”

Nighttime intake, or sign up for those who will be staying overnight at the shelter, begins at the day shelter at 4:30 p.m. and the bus comes to the ICRH between 6 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. to take the overnight guests to the church. Once they arrive at the church, the guests are not allowed to leave, unless they have permission like Benner for work reasons. This excludes chaperoned smoke breaks.  The churches provide dinner for the overnight guests at around 7 p.m. and require lights out at 10 p.m.

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Renee Benner and another guest smoke outside the Isabella County Restoration House (ICRH) on Sunday, Nov. 28, 2017. The ICRH is located at 1114 W. High Street in Mount Pleasant which is leased from Victory Church.

During the summer of 2017 Benner found herself in hard times again when she broke her arm and was unable to work. Unable to pay rent, Benner decided to cash in $4,000 of her 401k, but she never received the check.

“There was nothing I could do to catch up. Somebody had gotten my check delivered to them by mistake instead of me and they signed the check and cashed it,” said Benner. “I took six months trying to track it down and they finally told me there was nothing they could do. I cashed in extra figuring I’d pay ahead. Well it didn’t work in that way. It worked in the way that somebody else got ahead and Renee got further behind.”

Benner appreciated her landlord who worked with her for as long as he could while she was unable to pay rent and attempted to track down her stolen check.

“I can’t blame him,” said Benner. “I mean six months with no money, what was he supposed to do? He didn’t evict me but he couldn’t keep letting me stay. I was paying rent but it wasn’t never going to get caught up. I hold no grudges against him. He could have taken me to court during all of this time, it’s been four months. He hasn’t. Sooner or later he’s going to want all of it, nothing I can do, I pay what I can. It isn’t much, but I pay what I can.”

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Renee Benner waits in the foyer on Sunday, Nov. 26, 2017 while guests at the Isabella County Restoration House get onto the bus that will take them to the overnight shelter.

Benner now works midnight shifts as a waitress at Legends Diner in Soaring Eagle Casino and Resort in Mount Pleasant, Michigan and has been there for just under four months. She lost her job at Walmart due to absences which accumulated because of illness, her broken arm, and hearing loss due to a bee sting to her ear.

The schedule of the rotational shelter is hard on Benner because she works midnights.

“It’s hard on the nights I work because unless I sleep in my car, most of the time I don’t get sleep,” said Benner. “Once in a while I can find someplace to curl up and sleep.”

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Renee Benner tries on shoes at Clothing, Inc. on Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2017 to replace her old shoes after the heels came off of them.

The building for the day shelter has couches, but there are no beds available for Benner to sleep. It is rented from Victory Church on a 3-year lease and they share it with other organizations such as United Way, Clothing, Inc., and The Care Center. Guests who come in to the restoration house and have need for hygiene products can find assistance at The Care Center and if they need clothing or a new pair of shoes Clothing, Inc. can assist them—all under the same roof.

“For the past two or three years we had been talking about what it would look like if we had the opportunity for all of us who deal with similar missions to not work in these silos anymore, you do this over here and you do this at that building,” said Griffus. “Last year I’d come in at intake, ask everybody what they need for clothing, take down these lists, drive down to the clothing closet across town, fill bags and bags of clothes and deliver them. It was labor intensive and cumbersome. That’s one example of how the creation of the center we have is so efficient. You get somebody in who has multiple needs and we can start to chip away within minutes we are addressing very emergent needs. What’s good about that is that it takes that initial worry off of the person who’s coming in, which is the most important, it makes them feel comfortable and cared for immediately, but also frees up our staff to be able to do different things now.”

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Volunteers at Clothing, Inc. show Renee Benner paperwork she needs to sign after picking out a pair of shoes on Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2017.

Griffus said he would love to have a permanent shelter and rotate volunteers rather than buildings.

“When we were researching what it would take to a community of this scale, it is about a quarter of a million dollars a year,” said Griffus. “Currently we are operating at about $117,000 budget per year for this. Some work to be done.”

The ICRH accept donations through its website and also has a wish list of supplies needed on Amazon.

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Renee Benner protects her candle from the wind at a homeless awareness event at Central Michigan University on Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2017.

As for Benner, she has an interview with EightCAP, Inc. on Tuesday, Dec. 4 to see about getting assistance for housing. EightCAP provides a variety of services for those in need, and housing for the homeless is one of them.

Benner said she was put at the top of the list because they prioritize housing assistance for those that are homeless, but it normally could be a five-year wait. She will find out during her interview if they will pay for a portion or all of the housing and will likely be in a home again within a few weeks.

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Brown Farms: Four Generations Strong

Since buying Brown Farms in Wheeler, Michigan in 1976 from his mother after his father’s death, James “Jim” Brown, 76, and his wife Phyllis, 75, have owned and operated the farm along with two of their four children, Matt and Darren, and a handful of hired workers. They farm cash crops and currently grow sugar beets, cucumbers, corn, soy beans, and black beans.

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Darren Brown carries material needed to mix in a tank to spray a soybean field on Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2017. 

According to their son, fourth generation farmer Darren, 47, he estimates Brown Farms now owns about 3,500 acres, a far cry from the 40 acres Jim bought in 1976.

Now a full-time worker on the farm, Darren started off as a residential truck driver and hauled propane until the day his daughter Ellie, now 14 years old, was born.

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Darren Brown holds the nozzle on a tractor equipped with sprayers after mixing fertilizer before spraying a soybean field on Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2017. 

He lives less than five miles away from Brown Farms with Ellie and Barbara, Darren’s wife of 17 years. Barbara is a teacher at Breckenridge High School and the couple have three children, two of which are from Barbara’s previous marriage: Benjamin, 24, and Lindsay, 21, both of which are working in Grand Rapids.

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Ellie Brown, 14, holds a picture of her showing her steer Bridget at the county fair in 2014. 

Ellie is a freshman in high school and an avid dancer with a passion for cows. She has shown steers for seven years and the family currently has 10 cows.

She hopes to attend South Dakota State University and work with cows.

“The cows outnumber the people in South Dakota,” Darren jokes.

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Darren Brown and his mother Phyllis Brown look through old photographs at her kitchen table on Thursday, Sept. 21, 2017. 

Darren’s parents Phyllis and Jim still live on the farm and Jim has yet to retire, still running for parts and driving the big tractor, but now taking off days to go golfing once in a while.

Phyllis grew up on a farm held an active role on Brown Farms and after marrying Jim.

“When the boys were little I used to drive tractors once in a while,” she said. “When they got tractors with cabs on them, I would put the kids on the floor on a blanket and they would sleep all afternoon while I drove. Back then, you took meals to the field. You packed the dinner and you took it to the field and all four kids, tried to keep them on a blanket so they could sit there and eat. There used to be more late nights then working, so sometimes that was when they saw their dad. They were in bed by the time he would come home.”

 

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Darren Brown (left), his daughter Ellie Brown (middle), and wife Barbara Brown (right) eat a quick dinner on Thursday, Sept. 21, 2017 before his wife and daughter leave for Ellie’s dance classes. 

Phyllis said she hopes to see the farm continue and became emotional about the uncertainty that her grandchildren will want to continue the farm.

“What do you do with the farm if your kids don’t want it? Or need it,” Phyllis said. “I think that’s basically what Jim’s worked for, is so that there’s something for them. We weren’t blessed with a lot of grandsons; we only have four. You can’t pick what the kids are going to do. As long as they’re happy, the ground is a good investment.”

 

 

Shadow in Saginaw

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Last week as part of an assignment for a class I spent the day job shadowing a working photojournalist. I ended up spending the day with Jacob Hamilton, 25, a native of Chicago who currently lives in Saginaw where he recently moved in with his girlfriend Ellen. Jake is an photographer for MLive Media Group and works between both The Saginaw News and The Bay City Times as a multimedia specialist.

When I arrived at The Saginaw News my first impression was surprise at how open and welcoming the office is. In my head I had imagined those depressingly ugly gray cubicles that workers try desperately to cheer up by pinning up photos, figurines, or perhaps a plant or two. The MLive Saginaw office is just one big room, save for the bathroom and the kitchen area. The main area has a few rows of desks with power stations where the employees can work from.

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Employees at The Saginaw News, a media news company owned by MLive Media Group, work out of their office located at 100 S. Michigan Ave. in Saginaw, Michigan on Friday, Sept. 15, 2017.

It was interesting to see how the staff communicated. The reporter had a story saved as a draft in what looked like could be a WordPress blog post and then Jake would upload the photos and at the bottom in the tag box he would tag his editor and just look over and verbally tell his editor that it was ready to be edited. No one had to get up from their spot or phone over to a different part of the office or send an email, it was just kind of easy going and fluid.

For the first assignment we went to Tasha’s Loc Shop, where owner Latasha Campbell plans to expand into a new location.

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Latasha Campbell works on a client’s hair at her new location on Dixie Highway in Saginaw, Michigan on Friday, Sept. 15, 2017.

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Latasha Campbell re-twists her client Leonardo Shack’s hair to tighten the dreadlocks at her new location on Dixie Highway in Saginaw, Michigan on Friday, Sept. 15, 2017.

It was a bit challenging to photograph here because the space was fairly narrow and I was trying to be hyper-aware to not get in any of my mentor’s photos. It was interesting to see his working style. There was also a reporter there and she was asking questions and every once in a while, Jake would ask a question, something I also like to do. Lots of people say photographers should be a fly on the wall but I feel like by asking questions and developing a small relationship there and showing interest in the subject’s life, it allows the subject to feel more at ease with you and the camera, therefore generating better photographs overall. It was reassuring to see a media professional doing something that I just did from instinct.

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Jacob Hamilton, photographs Latasha Campbell, owner of Tasha’s Loc Shop, and Leonardo Shacks while Campbell re-twists Shack’s dreadlocks on Friday, Sept. 15, 2017 at her new location in Saginaw, Michigan. Hamilton, 25, is a multimedia specialist for The Saginaw Times.

From there we went back to The Saginaw New’s office. Something I did not realize prior to this job shadow was how crucial of a program Photo Mechanic is in the industry. According to Jake, it is essentially the standard. I have used the program a sum total of once, so that was a bit worrying to me. I feel comfortable using Adobe Photoshop but watching him edit using Photo Mechanic seemed significantly more efficient and I made a mental note to learn as much as I can about the program. Adobe Photoshop seems really great to use from single photo editing, but from what I see Photo Mechanic makes more sense to utilize in terms of being able to see multiple photos at once and click which you’re going to use and then arrange for use in a photo story or a gallery much easier. You can’t really see arrangement in Photoshop so this seems like a much more useful tool in practice.

After that we drove out to Midland to photograph the Midland Balloon Fest. We got there a bit early so there weren’t a lot of prime photo opportunities yet, but once they got the first balloon up in the air it seemed like very quickly the rest of the balloons went up.

The experience I gained from this assignment in my opinion made it probably the most beneficial assignment out of any I have done thus far during my time at Central Michigan University because of its practicality.  It gave me the opportunity to see firsthand how the newsroom operated and gain a basic idea of expectations, deadlines, and editing procedures.

Prior to shadowing Jake I mentioned that I was unsure about my future as a photojournalist in regards to working at a newspaper. I was considering nearly any alternatives because I felt that there isn’t any job security in working for a newspaper. As someone who has strong family ties, living near my family is essential for me. As someone who also has anxiety, the uncertainty in having a job on a day to day basis I feel would not be good for my overall mental health. I voiced these concerns and Jake answered all of my questions with patience and kindness. Though I know it is unrealistic to find a job in this field I can work for 30 some years in the same place and then retire, it is worrisome to see recent graduates getting let go from jobs every six months or so and moving on. I’m not much of a nomad. Following this experience, I feel better prepared to look at newspaper jobs as a viable option.

It’s your rite (to be Wiccan)

Glenda Bartel along with her best friend Melissa Collingham opened up the Livingston County Spiritual Center (LCSC), an alternative and holistic health service, to educate, inspire, and heal others.

The two provide services such as Reiki attunement, tarot and medium readings, and chakra and aura healing. They also teach classes and host workshops at the center.

One of the classes is Wicca 101.

According to Thea Sabin in her book “Wicca for Beginners: Fundamentals of Philosophy & Practice” Wicca is an evolving religion and a Wiccan is a person who has either formally or ritually declared themselves a Wiccan or simply is following the Wiccan religion/spiritual path.

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Glenda Bartel teaches the Wicca 101 class at the Livingston County Spiritual Center in Pinckney, Michigan on Sunday, February 12, 2016.

Bartel is a medium/clairvoyant and though she no longer follows Wicca religion she still identifies as a witch and enjoys educating others about Wicca.

“I wanted to share my knowledge with people, because I know what it did for me,” Bartel said. “So why can’t this be for other people?”

Bartel said she first realized she was a medium when she predicted her grandmother’s death when she was 12 years old. At age 14 she saw her great-grandmother’s spirit, an encounter she described as “bloody frightening.”

As for being a witch, Bartel said she didn’t really know anything about Wicca until she was 22 years old.

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Faye Sweeny takes notes during the Wicca 101 class taught by Glenda Bartel.

“I noticed how sensitive I was with the moon phases,” Bartel said. “I paid attention. But I’m also a triple Scorpio.”

Howell resident Faye Sweeny attended the Wicca class to learn about the religion and satisfy her curiosity.

“It may sound selfish, but to get a better understanding of myself. What am I doing here, where am I going, what’s my purpose,” Faye said. “I think this will help.”

Bartel believes Wicca is a great stepping stone for spirituality.

“It gets you in tune with Earth,” Bartel said. “It gets you in tune with the elements, it gets you in tune with the universe. It makes you respect all living things. These are essential things to know and learn on any spiritual path, not just Wicca.”

Two years ago Bartel decided to stop following Wicca and explore other religions and her own spirituality. Wicca is still a fundamental part of her though due to her being a witch.

“I was looking for spiritual awakening, spiritual enlightenment,” Bartel said. “And that takes a lot of work outside of Wicca. And because it is a religion you do have things that you have to follow.”

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Faye Sweeny takes notes over “Wicca: The Complete Craft” by D.J. Conway, a book Wicca instructor Glenda Bartel recommended for beginners to Wicca.

The religion of Wicca is based on a simple moral code called the Wiccan Rede “An ye harm none, do what ye will.”

According to Sabin’s book, the earliest church documents mentioning witchcraft is in the “Canon Episcopi” which could date as early as 906 AD. “The Canon said, essentially, that witchcraft was an illusion that originated in dreams, and to believe in it was heresy, or against the teachings of the church,” Sabin said.  So ensues the witch hunts and trials.

It wasn’t until about the 1950s that Wicca popularized. Followers began to make their own form of it and the faith made its way to The United States. Wicca made its way into popular witchcraft-based books and television shows, such as Bewitched, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Charmed, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Popular media featuring witchcraft is still prevalent but strong stereotypes still exist such as Halloween dressing up as the ugly witch with the face warts or calling someone who is being nasty a witch.

When asked about stereotypes and what people think about her being a witch, Bartel had a quick and firm answer.

“I don’t base my life on other people’s opinion because that means they control my life, not me,” Bartel said. “And I’m not giving people that kind of power.”

The Livingston County Spiritual Center is located in Pinckney, Michigan but Bartel and Collingham plan to relocate. Updates can be found on their Facebook page at facebook.com/livingstoncountyspiritualcenter/.

The Living Canvas

This past weekend I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to follow make-up artist and world renowned body painter Andrea O’Donnell for the day leading up to film her artistic process for the Gala Grandiosa at the Detroit Institute of Arts.  Andrea opened up her home to me, a complete stranger, and without her kindness and my seemingly far fetched daydream of filming a body painter this video wouldn’t have been possible. And though it isn’t flawless, I know the lighting could be better and the audio is a bit rough, it is a learning experience and that’s really what doing these videos is all about.