Dick Bulkowski directs Steepletown Neighborhood Services in Grand Rapids with a great interest in the lives of the young clients served through GED and career programs. But unlike many nonprofit executives, Bulkowski brings real-life experience to the table having gone through a family crisis that he candidly shares with others to illustrate his vigorous resolve.
Michigan Nightlight: What does being a leader mean to you?
Steepletown Neighborhood Services Program Director Dick Bulkowski:
I read a book a while ago called “A Whole New Mind,” by Daniel Pink. The basic premise of the book is that those who lead most effectively are able to connect the dots in the community -- to realign the energy and resources that already exist for greater impact and success. This requires a lot of listening and understanding. The paradigm is not one where I am on a pedestal saying “blah, blah” but one where my Too many of our children and youth experience things that cause a lot of emotional and psychological harm. The impact is seen later in their lives in the unhealthy, dangerous, and careless choices that are often made.
sleeves are rolled up and, through a common dialogue, others and myself come to a moment of “Ah-ha.” I believe another way to express this is being a servant leader.
What is your dream for kids?
A dream I have for kids is that they simply be allowed to be kids in a safe and caring environment. Too many of our children and youth experience things that cause a lot of emotional and psychological harm. The impact is seen later in their lives in the unhealthy, dangerous, and careless choices that are often made. This is one reason that Steepletown is part of a couple of community initiatives that address the need for parent education and support. Many of the young people with whom Steepletown works are themselves parents, and many are poorly equipped for this responsibility.
What is one concrete thing that could be done to improve the environment for social sector work in Michigan?
Human capital is our greatest social asset.
Unfortunately, many of our young people have endured some great hardships and trauma in their lives already, which has caused much of the disengagement noted among certain populations of youth. I believe the social sector has the commitment and tools that can make a difference. However, too often the necessary funding is tied to immediate outcomes, which diminishes the necessity and quality of long-term, caring relationships that these youth need and that ultimately make a difference.
How do you know you’re making progress?
There are 51 youth who completed their GED this past program year and another 38 who only have one or two tests remaining. Many of them are enrolled in post-secondary education and/or have found better employment. However, there are many more youth who came for a week or two and stopped attending the GED preparation for any number of reasons.
Steepletown's ability to reach so many youth has greatly increased this past year in large part because of funding from the Heart of West Michigan United Way.
...Steepletown has become a place of hope and opportunity for older youth who have dropped out of high school and desire to get back on track with life.
With the ever-increasing number of youth coming each week for their GED, Steepletown hired a certified teacher in February. This has made a tremendous difference in our ability to address the academic needs and challenges of the youth.
What are you most proud of?
Over the past few years, Steepletown has become a place of hope and opportunity for older youth who have dropped out of high school and desire to get back on track with life. I want to share a little about my own story so that you realize my determination and commitment.
My son, Eduardo, was expelled from Union High School in Grand Rapids when he was 16 years old. The circumstances surrounding his expulsion were exaggerated at best – but, then again, you expect to hear that from a parent.
For a few days, he attended the alternative school for expelled students, but he found that it was a warehouse of young people interested in anything but learning. So he just “hung-out” and gave me a lot of restless nights for the next two years. When he turned 18, my wife and I offered him two pieces of paper: one was a list of items that needed his attention to stay in the house and the other was an eviction notice from 61st District Court.
Two days later, he moved out of the house. Here I was, a highly educated person, with a son who just became a dropout statistic. Over the course of the next year, the challenges with him and between us continued, but as grace would have it, we were able to eventually reconcile and let go of the past. At 19 when he decided to attain his GED, Steepletown was one of only a few places in all of Kent County that offered this opportunity for youth under the age of 20.
Now he is 22 years old, working full-time with a local company and making decent wages and benefits, while seriously considering the next steps in his education.
Reflecting on your career, what would you say was your greatest professional learning experience?
The experience I want to talk about has spanned the past ten years. Early in my career, I saw the value of interacting with elected officials, as they are the ones who are empowered to make the needs and goals of the community a priority. In 2002, I was asked by a couple of elected officials to consider running for the Kent County Commission. I did, I was elected, and am now finishing my fifth term. Working with budgets in the hundreds of millions, developing a savvy for the political dance of compromise, and gaining further understanding of how systems work -- or don’t work -- in Kent County has given me insight and tools that I have used in my work and will continue to develop.