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Voices of AmeriCorps: Betsy Quakenbush

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MFPC-Member12Though my AmeriCorps time has been full of file keeping and database entry activities, the things I will remember more are the life stories I have heard; I have a whole file cabinet in the corner of my brain with the label “Crazy life stories.” This cabinet has slowly been filling up with the stories I have heard, and continue to hear, as I meet with foreclosure prevention clients at ICCF; it continues to be a very interesting time. I hear all sorts of stories and listen to people tell me things that are sometimes hard to hear and sometimes hard to process. Some days, I can listen to the stories, file them away in that cabinet in my brain, and continue to go about my day. But sometimes, I have to leave the file open on the desk right next to the cabinet, unable to file it away quite yet. I have to spend some time processing what I have heard and trying to make some sense of it before I file it away.

One client’s story in particular from this past quarter of my AmeriCorps time was like that. We’ll call this client Kelly. Kelly had been referred to me and called me one afternoon. I answered. Her taxes were behind on her house and she was looking for help-a very normal start to a triage and intake conversation, but the conversation quickly dove into a deeper retelling of Kelly’s life story.

Kelly told me about the deep depression she had been stuck in for a number of years- the onset caused by her mother’s death. Kelly had been able to keep her job the entire duration of her depression, but that was all she was able to do. She got up, went to work, came home, and went to bed. She did not realize how low she actually was. This went on for years, when finally Kelly decided to go to the doctor to see if anything could be done. The doctor prescribed some antidepressant medication right away. Kelly asked the doctor, “Well, doesn’t everyone’s mother die?” The doctor answered, “Yes.” Kelly replied, “So is the whole world on antidepressants?” The doctor replied, “Yes.” This was not a satisfying answer to Kelly. She refused the antidepressants. There had to be another way.

Since that visit, Kelly’s life has really been on the upward climb. She is going to school and getting a college degree, still working her steady job, and also encouraging others to let their mothers know how much they love them. Kelly not only experienced a recent change in attitude towards life, but also towards our housing counseling. She did not want to write her hardship letter when she first came into our office, as she knew it would bring up all of her hard emotions all over again, but by the time she was done meeting with our housing counselor, she was willing to write one. She slowly began to relax and allow the counselor to try and help her with her situation. Kelly is still working with our housing counselor, and though the outcome of her situation is unsure, trust has been built and Kelly experienced a drastic change of attitude.

My own mother lives in the Philippines, just about as far away as you can get from where I live, here in Grand Rapids. After that first conversation on the phone with Kelly, I knew I had to write an email to my mom to tell her I loved her. I did.

Betsy Quakenbush is an AmeriCorps member at Inner City Christian Federation in Grand Rapids.

This post is part of a blog series highlighting the viewpoints of Michigan AmeriCorps Foreclosure Prevention Corps members serving at different foreclosure host sites around Michigan. View information about the program or see more stories in this series.

Voices of AmeriCorps: Rene Halberg

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Beep! Beep! Beep! My alarm is waking me; I want to stay in bed. After all it’s cold and rainy, good dayMFPC-Member11 for staying in bed. I slowly move out of bed and gather my thoughts. Today is my Russ Mawby Service project; it’s an outside project, YUCK!! Really, does it have to rain? Couldn’t it just be a nice sunny day? As I gathered my water bottle, coffee, work gloves and jacket I couldn’t get the YUCK attitude out of my system. As I’m jumping in my truck for an hour and 15minute drive to Gaylord, I’m thinking… well at least I can go shopping after the project. We have a family dollar and one grocery store here in the UP. Any chance to go shopping in Gaylord is a great plus to my day.

When I arrive at Gaylord’s Otsego Environmental Learning Site I noticed I wasn’t really prepared for the weather and my “yuck” attitude was still strong. This is going to be a long day. I had a sluggish walk to the cabin and my tennis shoes were already soaked…UGH! Others services members had galoshes, rain coats, hats and smiles. I freshen up on my coffee, grabbed a granola bar and begin looking for familiar faces. I didn’t recognize a single face… UGH. Sometimes I have trouble mingling.

As the cabin continued to fill with volunteers I began to relax and have small talk with those around me. We divide up into several small groups each with a mission to accomplish. I was on the ponds habitat improvement team. The goal was to plant several flats of native plants around the pond. As I stood at the pond looking at all the flats of flowers/plants I realized there was no way I was going to stay dry during this project, which meant no shopping after the project as I didn’t think to bring dry clothing. I acknowledged that it was going to be a long drive back to the UP with wet clothes. I grabbed a flat of flowers and with a gloom I begin planting. Small talk began among my fellow AmeriCorps members and other volunteers.

It wasn’t long and my knees were wet, however, I noticed my “yuck” attitude was drying up. I suddenly realized I was enjoying myself regardless. With my first flat of plants planted I stood up and stepped back, wow they look nice. There was chatter going on behind me, I turned around, the gravel path project behind me was coming along beautifully. I felt a since of warmth on a cold rainy day. I walked along the pond and picked up another flat of plants. As I was walking back to my area of flower planting I could see a group of volunteers working hard at digging a hole. Hmmm what’s going on over there? My curiosity took the best of me and I wandered over to see the project. The group was constructing a hibernaculum for retiles. WOW! How cool is that. Again I felt a since of warmth on a cold rainy day. I walked back to the pond with a smile, knelt down on the wet ground and started planting my second flat of plants.

With my second flat planted I needed a fresh sip of coffee so I wander up to the cabin where again I felt the warmth of sunshine on a rainy day. There was a cheerful group pulling invasive spotted knapweed. Another group was collecting trash from the site. Inside the cabin was the smell of fresh paint. I was admiring newly painted bird houses that the volunteers had made. I walked back to the pond with pep in my step on the newly graveled path, grabbed another flat of plants and continued planting until lunch.

After a yummy lunch and great conversation I realized how fast the day was going. I stood on the deck of the cabin there was a fresh but heavy mist in the air, I looked around. What a difference we had made already. I noticed the educational forest trails had been trimmed and cleared. I could now see the disc golf course. There were educational boards and tools set up to study prairie wildlife. The pond was looking sharp with all the new plants. The afternoon flew by and the day came to an end: my knees were wet and muddy, my hair very damp, tennis shoes soaked and a stiff back, however there was a smile on my face and pride in my heart. What I thought was going to be a long cold yucky day turned into a short warm awesome day. I did not make it shopping that day, nor did I mind my ride home with wet clothes. I was filled with warmth during my ride home as I pondered on how great I felt, the fun I had, how wonderful it is to be an AmeriCorps Service member and the fact I made a difference at the Otsego Environmental Learning Site and in myself. 

We had more than 65 volunteers on a rainy day. The day ended with a beautiful gravel path leading from the nature center to the pond. There were thirteen bags of invasive species collected, five bags of trash, eight cover boards for the educational trail, an awesome hibernaculum for the reptiles to take refuge in for the winter, thirteen bird houses built and installed along with 1,260 native plants planted. All on a rainy day.

Rene Halberg is an AmeriCorps member at H.O.M.E. of Mackinac County.

This post is part of a blog series highlighting the viewpoints of Michigan AmeriCorps Foreclosure Prevention Corps members serving at different foreclosure host sites around Michigan. View information about the program or see more stories in this series.

Better Than A Webinar

Dequindre Cut 4We thought we solved the problem of people not being able to make it to in-person trainings with the invention of the webinar. Maybe with a webinar they wouldn’t feel the need to pull out their cellphone or laptop and answer emails during the presentation. If you’ve hosted a webinar, you know this to not be the case. Since the speaker is invisible and the audio quality is usually poor, people tune out or don’t even show up and just wait for the webinar recording to come out.

So why not just skip right to the recording?

We filmed some of our beginner Real Estate Development workshops. They are the exact same information you would get by attending in person, except as videos. You can go at your own pace and you get a copy to keep, so you can rewatch it any time you need a refresher.

Each online training is $15 for CEDAM members. You can purchase Market Analysis, Utilizing Land Banks and Site Selection & Due Diligence here.

We also have a phenomenal Conflict Resolution training that is specifically designed to be presented in video format. You can see a demo and read about what this training includes here. (P.S. This training will significantly improve your life at work and at home; it’s definitely worth it.)

Happy learning!

6 Steps for Writing a BIG Grant

training201Written by Olivia Courant, New Media Specialist

Julie Powers has been writing HUD grants for twenty years. She has written almost 60 grants, and every one of them has succeeded. During the 2015 Building Michigan Communities Conference, she shared her methods on how to write successful large grants that have multiple organizations involved.

Before starting, Julie emphasized that each grant should have one captain who makes all the final decisions, one person who does all the media and press activities and one editor. The biggest mistake is to piece these responsibilities out, because when this happens, the grant will read like it was written by many different people with no consistent message.

1. Write the budget first.

The rest of your application will be determined by your budget.

2. Write the needs section.

Properly footnote your needs with real data and real research sources. Even if your work plan is not solid, a strong needs section that proves you know your community will dominate.

3. All drama happens in the wee hours of the night.

Do not take vacation before the grant is due. Anticipate that something may go wrong at the last minute: a partner organization drops out, technology fails, a section of the grant is accidentally skipped, etc.

4. Get anything from others that you need before the deadline.

If multiple organizations and people are working on the grant, tell them the deadline is earlier than it actually is so they get their stuff in on time. The head editor needs to put everything together and review the final product before turning it in.

5. Be ready with solid internet.

Large grant applications take a lot of power to upload. If you have a weak or unreliable internet connection, go to a school or library.

6. Write only for things that matter.

The grant reader wants to hear inspiring stories about the difference the funding will make.

Tidbits

Tech Soup has copies of Microsoft Office, Quickbooks, Adobe software, Windows and all other types of software that nonprofits can get for dirt cheap.

• If you are submitting an application for a federal grant, it is usually done through grants.gov. Set up an account for your nonprofit now. It takes a few weeks to clear and be approved, and this has to happen before you can submit a grant application.

• There is a human on the other end who will receive the grant. They might be willing to help you make sure everything uploaded correctly. If something goes wrong, look for contact information for the application site.

• You might make frenemies (friend-enemies). When you have a vision and you know it will change the world, you will need to leave people/organizations out if they don’t bring what is needed to the table – even if they are great people and you like them. Choose only the strongest partners who you know will carry their weight, communicate and turn materials in on time.

• If you need to prove you have matching funds, but those funds will not be in your hands until after the grant application deadline, you can try the following:

Attach a letter saying you’ve gotten $X every year from XYZ organization for X number of years, and attach previous years’ grant letters. Say you intend to apply to that organization and get $X again this year, and there’s no reason to expect XYZ will not approve that application.

City Leaders Are Paving the Way Toward Financial Empowerment

Written by Megan Kursik, Michigan Communities for Financial Empowerment Coordinator

Two weeks ago, I spent a busy three days in Seattle at a CFE Coalition forum, learning from city leaders working across the country to promote financial capability for their residents.

The Cities for Financial Empowerment Coalition is a group of dedicated local elected officials and staff who lead initiatives in their communities that improve access to financial counseling, affordable banking products, small business support and longer term asset development. These leaders have also instituted local policy to restrict predatory practices, like high cost payday lending.

This year, the City of Lansing was invited to join the CFE Coalition after successfully launching a Financial Empowerment Center in 2013 and Lansing SAVE, Michigan’s first universal, automatic kids savings program in January! I got to tag along to the CFE Coalition forum with Amber Paxton, Director of Lansing’s Office of Financial Empowerment.

I learned so much from the discussions at the forum, I just had to share a rundown with CEDAM’s membership in Michigan. There’s something in here for everyone!

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Jose Cisneros with Megan Kursik

I’m also excited to announce that CEDAM will be welcoming a founding member of the CFE Coalition, Jose Cisneros, back to his home state of Michigan for our second annual Michigan Financial Empowerment Summit in August!

As Treasurer of the City and County of San Francisco, Jose established the first ever locally-based universal, automatic college savings program in the U.S. This year, the MI Summit will focus on building similar community-based children’s savings programs.

Find out more about the MI Summit here. I hope to see you there!

The Bright Side: Rural


We released a new series of videos about small towns and rural areas in Michigan. Learn how to bring investment to a small town and see how others found surprising opportunities in Michigan’s rural areas.

2 hussHuss Project, Three Rivers [watch now]

Visit a historic former school in Three Rivers and take a tour of the future community center and garden at The Huss Project with *culture is not optional.


3 conferenceMI Rural Conference, Thompsonville [watch now]

Each year leaders from small town communities gather at Crystal Mountain for the Michigan Rural Council Small Town and Rural Development Conference.


4 stormcloudStormcloud Brewery, Frankfort [watch now]

Go on a tour of Stormcloud Brewing Company, a local brewery in Frankfort specializing in Belgian-inspired ales. At the pub on the shores of Lake Michigan you can get beer, ale, mead, and great food!


5 olivetFarm to School, Olivet [watch now]

Kids in Olivet experience local foods during a farmer visit to their cafeteria on Farm to School month. Video produced by MSU CRFS.


6 cultivate miCultivate Michigan, Bangor [watch now]

Visit Michigan’s hispanic farming cooperative Farmers on the Move and hear about how Cultivate Michigan aims to help institutions purchase 20% of their food locally by 2020. Video produced by MSU CRFS.

 


7 milanEast Main Redevelopment, Milan [watch now]

Tour a model success story for any small town that wants to upgrade its downtown. The East Main Redevelopment in Milan is a full block historic redevelopment that will have 15 apartments and 8 storefronts.

The Impacts of Free Tax Preparation

by Ross Yednock, Program Director of the Michigan Economic Impact Coalition

“The income tax compliance system is represented by two separate, and distinct groups. The free preparation sites where IRS certified volunteers prepare and file taxes for no cost and the paid preparers who do the same service, for a cost. These are their stories.”

bookkeeping-615384_640Every year, more than 100,000 people in Michigan rely on free tax services to prepare and file their federal, state and city income tax returns. They come from all walks of life and all across the state. From Detroit to Traverse City, Benton Harbor to Cheboygan, workers, retirees, parents and all others go to free tax sites to save money on tax preparation fees and ensure they receive all of the tax credits for which they are entitled. Members of the Michigan Economic Impact Coalition are committed to serving these taxpayers and during the first three months of 2015, I interviewed some of these taxpayers. Here are some of their stories.

Velma

accounting-57284_640Velma used to go to a paid preparer to file her taxes. She did it because that is the way she and her husband would file their taxes before he passed away. It only cost $92, not a lot considering all the forms that were used and the seemingly endless numbers that needed to be entered. Besides, her return always was about $98 or $99 dollars – more than enough to cover the fee with a couple of dollars left to spare. Then someone told her about the free tax services offered by Community Action in Adrian. She figured it would give it a try. That was four years ago. She has come back every year since and even brings along her friend so he can save money too.

“It’s great,” she said. “They ask questions about rent and heating costs that the other guy never asked. Now, instead of paying $92 so I could receive a return of $98, I get about $400 back and I don’t have to pay!”

dollars-426023_640Velma’s story is not unique. Unlike some paid income tax preparers, every volunteer tax preparer at the Community Action’s free tax site is certified by the IRS and trained to know about all the federal and Michigan credits for which people may be eligible. That is why Velma’s tax refund went up – she was getting the Michigan Property Tax Credit, something her other preparer had missed.

Jerry

flag-216887_640A Vietnam veteran from Ypsilanti, Jerry used to be a computer programmer with a nice home in a middle class neighborhood. Then he got sick.

“I’m making a 1/16 of what I used to make before I got sick…my life has changed quite a bit,” he said.

Unable to work, he lost his home and ended up staying in shelters. That is where a program for homeless veterans in Washtenaw County found him. Thanks to their efforts and local community supports – including free tax assistance – he is now living in a Habitat Humanity home and back on his feet, despite the daily challenges.

“It is real frustrating… paperwork, taxes. I got a degree in computer science. I am not an accountant whatsoever. I know binary, octal, hexidecimal numbers all that but I can’t deal with forms like that,” he said. “By the time I am done (filling out all the forms), I am so wound-up and frustrated, so this helps tremendously. I’ve sent other people here before, at least a couple people every year and tell them where I get (my taxes) done and how great it has been.”

Jerry is grateful for all the help he has received and keeps the United Way’s 2-1-1 number on speed dial so he can get help when he needs it. As for how the United Way of Washtenaw County’s free tax program compares with the service he used to pay for he says “No difference at all. Actually nice people here. I haven’t had any one bad experience so far… (No difference) except for paying them a lot of money to do the exact same thing free (tax services) does.”

Liz

house-605227_640“Thank you, thank you, thank you.” That is what Liz had to say to the volunteers at the volunteer income tax assistance site run by the United Way for Saginaw County. Working as a customer service representative, she doesn’t make a whole lot of money or have complicated taxes.

“I own a home, but nothing special,” she said, but that didn’t stop the “big box” tax preparer she used last year from telling her it would cost $400 to do her taxes this year. The $250 increase from the $150 she paid in 2014 was more than she could pay. When she asked about the price hike, she was told that they “charge per form, not per return.”

bill-41817_640“I have a little deal where I have a 1099 this year,” she said. “That still seems way ridiculous to me just for one extra form…. I couldn’t afford it. This money I get back I use to pay my property taxes and I really need that because working minimum wage, I can’t hardly save enough to pay my property taxes.”

The free tax program not only saves her money on tax preparation fees, but also ensures that she gets all the credits for which she is legally eligible including Michigan’s Homestead Property Tax Credit and Home Heating Credit.

“I have my home and all my bills and the (heating) bill absolutely killed me (this winter),” she said. “I actually had to borrow money from family to help me pay my gas bill. They shut me off last year because I got behind.” She is hoping that this year, with the help of the Home Heating Credit, which is used to offset the cost of heating for seniors and lower-income households, will help her avoid a similar situation, again.

All of these stories come the MEIC’s Client Story Initiative. Throughout the 2015 tax season, the MEIC gave away 30 $50 gift cards to clients willing to share their story. For more information about the MEIC, please visit meic.cedam.info.

Placemaking Through Crowdfunding

Crowdfunding is a popular go-to fundraising method used by people to launch new businesses or projects, raise money to help distressful situations and almost every other imaginable circumstance. While many charitable projects have depended on donations in the past, modern crowdfunding has succeeded through the development of an online platform with different donation levels and a rewards system. Donations as little as $1 or $5 are accepted, providing a low-barrier to entry. Statistics show that overall more money is  raised through a lot of smaller donations rather than fewer larger donations.

arrow-21509_1280Organizations and other groups are now using crowdfunding as a strategy to make projects without formal funding a reality, and evolved to become a community-based investment. Participation is voluntary and is used to direct the development of their neighborhoods. While those with deeper projects have typically had more influence regarding funding decisions, crowdfunding and the internet help raise awareness about different opportunities and is a very low-entry way for a person to contribute and participate. Trends show that a little skin in the game helps a project because they are actively supporting it and have an invested interest in the project success.

Public Spaces & Community Places

Enter the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC). A long time investor in communities throughout Michigan, they are a funding source for community development corporations (CDCs) and other business development initiatives. As much as anybody, they want their investments to succeed and for communities to grow collaboratively.

Public Spaces & Community Places is their newer program in collaboration with the Michigan Municipal League offering funds to communities across Michigan through a crowdfunding match campaign. The grant program is available to municipalities with projects that are designed to activate public spaces and include parks enhancements, trail expansions, outdoor plazas and other community places and are working with therestaurant-766050_1280ir communities for local momentum. To participate, a community outlines the details of their project and proposes it to the MEDC. Once approved, they work with the MEDC and Patronicity, a Detroit-based crowdfunding company focused on community development, to develop a crowdfunding campaign. Once launched, there is a specified timeline to raise money, with up to $100,000 matched by the MEDC.

Locally Driven Momentum

Since the program’s inception, the MEDC reports that 100% of municipalities have raised their goal funds, and speculate that all projects have gotten underway within 30 days of receiving funds. They have high hopes for the future of this program, and believe that successful implementation is tied directly to community collaboration.

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The Beacon Soccer Field concept in Downtown Lansing.

One example of a project going on right now is in Lansing where they have a few days left to raise money to put a soccer field in an available parcel in an existing park downtown Lansing. The goal is to help connect youth and adults through health and fitness education, and provide access to those who otherwise are unable to afford participation. There is still time to participate in this campaign, and you can watch their video here.

See a full list of some of the different participating municipalities and their projects here.

The Implications for Michigan Organizations

While all organizations would love to be able to plan large-scale projects, smaller projects are more easily attainable and can be a catalyst for even more development once completed. The MEDC and MML are ahead of the game by offering the first program of its kind with potentially big impacts across Michigan. Not only are more communities able to participate, but this program helps organizations to better articulate and plan a project by developing a solid marketing plan based on well-crafted visions considering timelines, numbers and overall feasibility, with local support at the root of the effort. That’s half the battle of any project, and groups are getting help from the professionals and funders to leverage success. This process will prevent a lot of failed projects and feelings of detachment or disengagement.

marketing-toolkit-biggerFunders (even micro investors) want to see well-thought out plans and budgets. By creating a communications and marketing plan, organizations can understand how to find more sustainable funding, engage and reach their audience and grow their programming. CEDAM members can download communications and marketing planning toolkits for free to get started on some of this research.

So, what are the projects your community hopes to implement soon and do you have a plan for how to do it?

Have You Noticed Any Immigrants?

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Graduation from a family English Second Language literacy class in Grand Rapids. Video

In Southwest Detroit, Bridging Communities began to notice that not everyone was able to participate in their neighborhood programs. The small nonprofit had been developing housing, running intergenerational programs, a time bank and services for the elderly for a long time. Over those years the composition of their neighborhoods changed. Children from many new immigrant families that observed separation of men and women in sports couldn’t be in sports programs because the boys and girls teams practiced in close proximity to each other. Second generation bilingual children moved out of homes, leaving behind seniors who only spoke Spanish. The culture of the area had become more diverse.

Arab American business owner Edna Zaid shows how her firm's videoconferencing system works in Commerce Twp.

Arab American business owner Edna Zaid shows how her firm’s videoconferencing system works in Commerce Twp.

Diversity brings great benefits – such as the fact immigrants in Michigan are 3x more likely to start businesses, 6x more likely to start high tech enterprises and therefore create jobs – but it also brings challenges like those Bridging Communities faced. Like the challenges East Lansing faced when it noticed a boom in high income international students who spoke English well, but not to the degree needed to read legal documents or understand establishing credit or purchasing a home. Like the challenges rural areas face where migrant workers have transitioned to being permanent residents or citizens.

There’s a price to doing nothing. Macomb County has a diversity initiative called One Macomb, and as part of this they give presentations to key employers about how to welcome immigrants. After a presentation at a hospital, the hospital’s HR director said that they wished they’d seen the presentation sooner. Two of their very skilled new staff had left their jobs and moved because their families didn’t feel like the people in their community wanted them there.

Devi grows and sells local food in Lansing. She is a refugee. Video

Devi grows and sells local food in Lansing through Lansing Roots. She is a refugee. Video

If people were going to feel unwelcome, it was not going to be in Southwest Detroit with Bridging Communities. They took action. They adapted youth sports programs and put adequate distance between teams so children following the new religions in the community could play too. They did not have the money to hire a bilingual staff member full time, so they hired a part time staff member. The new person trained other staff on how to direct Spanish speakers to days and times they could get in touch with the part time staff member. Bridging Communities also began new programs that would help the cultures in the area learn from each other, for instance, through cooking classes where one person teaches a recipe from their culture.

World Refugee Day in Lansing. Video

World Refugee Day in Lansing. Video

Over in East Lansing, the municipal government found out how expensive it was to have 12 single pages translated into 5 key languages of the international students and families living there: $5,000. The city declined that outrageous price and instead developed a partnership with Michigan State University, where students in bilingual classes translate the documents under their professor’s supervision. Another service that some municipalities use for ESL residents is video remote interpreting. This is a cost effective solution where you access a web service and an interpreter translates the conversation between both parties. It saves a lot of time and complication in the courtroom, as well as settings like hospitals.

ACCESS gives a walking tour of food businesses immigrants and their families started in Dearborn. Video

ACCESS gives a walking tour of food businesses immigrants and their families started in Dearborn. Video

In April 2015, Michigan lifted the restriction that said we couldn’t resettle any refugees who did not have a friend or family member in the area. Newcomers will be curious about how to start a new life here, meet people, invest their money in a business, a home, an education, a family.

Have the people you served changed?

Have you changed to include them?