Four Butler alumni are doing their part to make sure that 7,500 children in Grand Rapids, Holland, and Muskegon, Michigan, have dinner tonight and every night.
What are you having for dinner tonight? For 7,500 kids in Grand Rapids, Michigan, today’s evening meal will be a hard-boiled egg, banana, and bags of snap peas and trail mix packed in a brown paper bag by some of the hundreds of volunteers who show up at Kids’ Food Basket (KFB) every day.
Wearing T-shirts that say “Nourishing kids to be their best, in school and life,” they come to this 9,500-square-foot warehouse because they want to make sure that children in their community, who would otherwise go hungry, have something nutritious and tasty to eat when they go home from school. They come—lawyers, waitresses, and retirees alike, from all over the area—because they want to be part of the solution.
“We all come to this organization in different doses,” said Renee Tabben ’94, “but I believe and feel the outcome we’re all working toward is very pure.”
Tabben, a Director for Merrill Lynch, is one of the co-chairs of Kids’ Food Basket’s “Feeding Our Future” campaign to raise $6.4 million for the organization, and she’s one of four Butler graduates at KFB taking to heart the message that she learned as an undergraduate: We make a life by what we give.
“I thought I was going to Butler to get an education, so all the focus was on how many credits I can take every semester,” Tabben said. “And I took a lot. I realize now that it wasn’t about the academics. The academics were great, and I’m very proud of that work, but it was more about the life experience and the expectations that were put out there that you contribute in a meaningful way.”
Tabben, an Arts Administration major at Butler, started as a Kids’ Food Basket volunteer after she moved to Grand Rapids in 2014. She ran into Matt Downey ’95, a fellow Arts Administration major who also lives in Grand Rapids and volunteers with KFB. He recommended that Tabben give time to the organization.
Downey knows something about philanthropic organizations—he’s the Nonprofit Services Program Director for the Johnson Center for Philanthropy at Grand Valley State University.
“Not only is the mission important, but this is one of the most innovative, impactful organizations I’ve come across,” he said of KFB. “My team, we’ve worked with about 150 organizations in 17 Michigan cities every year. KFB has a way of thinking about their operations and innovation that is head and shoulders above most nonprofit organizations.”
Downey grew up in Kalamazoo and moved to Grand Rapids to take the job at Grand Valley State. It was there—in a master’s program—that he was “shocked” to meet another Butler alum, Afton DeVos ’05, who would later become the Associate Director of Kids’ Food Basket. DeVos had grown up in Grand Rapids and moved back after meeting her future husband, who had a thriving business here, at a wedding in Indianapolis.
DeVos, an Integrated Communications major at Butler, wanted to be in the nonprofit world—she had been active in Relay for Life and other philanthropic endeavors as an undergrad—but found that she didn’t have the connections or the experience. So she went to Grand Valley State and got her Master of Public Administration with a nonprofit leadership focus. That led to jobs with the Christian Reform Church, followed by Gilda’s Club Grand Rapids, a cancer support community. Then five years ago, Bridget Clark Whitney, the Executive Director of KFB, recruited her.
“The thought of a child going hungry was just unbelievable to me,” she said. “My husband and I had been regular volunteers at KFB, and my husband was on the finance committee. When the opportunity came to me, it felt like the right fit at the right time.”
DeVos has helped institute systems—like an ergonomically sound table, designed by Amway, which is headquartered here—to make the operation run more efficiently. In the last five years, KFB has grown to a mid-sized nonprofit with a staff of 36 and a reputation that Downey said is the envy of other organizations in the area for its ability to raise money and recruit volunteers.
Kristen Guinn ’01, a Grand Rapids-area native, started volunteering at KFB when she moved back to west Michigan in 2008. Guinn, who came to Butler to study Pre-Law, ended up being a Math major—and then went to law school and became a trial attorney. Her firm volunteers regularly at KFB. Guinn had known DeVos for 20 years—their older sisters were good friends in high school—and when DeVos asked her to be part of the fundraising campaign committee, she said yes.
“There’s definitely a Butler bond,” Guinn said. “With Afton and I, just because we knew each other before, there’s a mutual respect and trust. Adding Butler to it is nice. I know a couple of other Butler folks in the area. You just kind of assume they’re good people.”
And they are people doing good. If they have any doubts, they can look at the letters they get from children
“Thank you for the sack suppers!” one child wrote. “I love the pink yogurt and sweet [sandwitch]. Food helps me think better. Your friend, Luis.”