The encore movement is thriving because of its diverse leadership, from big and small towns, nonprofits, government, congregations, colleges and corporations. In mid-September, the Grand Rapids Foundation sponsored an impressive Community Conversation that connected 250 older adults to share stories, build connections and identify what they need to flourish as older adults.

The event leveraged more than a decade of Foundation experience tapping the talents of older adults, and an energetic leadership group with deep community roots. Keynote speaker Elizabeth White, author of Fifty-five, Unemployed and Faking Normal, addressed financial challenges faced by many older adults with humor, practical advice and policy recommendations.

Grand Rapids is a growing West Michigan city, a bright spot in an economically challenged state. Despite its strong economy, residents in several high-poverty areas, primarily African-American and Latino, continue to fall behind. In 2016, the Grand Rapids Foundation defined a new “North Star” for its work:

For West Michigan to grow and prosper, we must make sure that everyone can apply their talents and creativity to fuel our future.  It is only by connecting across perspectives and overcoming inequities that we can build and sustain an inclusive economy and thriving community. (Highlights from the original.)

As Foundation CEO Diana Sieger said, “How can the Grand Rapids region truly thrive when a large segment of its core continues to fall further behind?”

The Community Conversation brought that inclusiveness to life, and dovetailed with Grand Rapids’ Age-Friendly City application, which has benefited from extensive input from local residents. City Council member Ruth Kelly, the Age-Friendly champion, participated actively in the Community Conversation event.

An early encore leader

Kate Luckert Schmid, one of the Foundation’s Program Directors, has championed older adults as a resource since the early 2000s. In 2003 the Foundation joined the Community Experience Partnership, engaging seasoned adults in projects that reduced homelessness.

In 2013, Kate recruited two Encore Innovation Fellows to launch the Foundation’s Encore program: journalist Tom Rademacher and former volunteer center lead Jane Royer. Three more Fellows joined the team in recent years: marketing/PR expert Mary McLoughlin, community organizer Tera Qualls and community organizer and entrepreneur Shannon Cohen. The Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce recognized Shannon’s high-impact work with their Athena Young Professional award this year. Meet the Fellows, read Grand Rapids encore stories and learn more about the program here.


The Encore team hosted events and engaged a volunteer leadership team, partnering with the AARP Life Reimagined program, nonprofits, colleges, churches and other community organizations. The Community Conversation marks the conclusion of this phase of Encore work, as the Foundation continues to define priorities with the North Star lens.

Speaker Elizabeth White (middle) with fans from the Grand Rapids Red Hat Society.




Highlights of the community conversation
The community conversation, orchestrated by Shannon Cohen and an energetic volunteer committee, brought together the Foundation’s encore and equity work, engaging 250 participants, of whom almost half were people of color.

Small groups discussed their experiences as older adults and provided feedback for the Foundation. Elizabeth White’s experiences of midlife financial crisis, and her down-to-earth advice, resonated strongly with the audience.

In addition to the roundtable discussions, exhibitors highlighted local resources for older adults including AARP Life Reimagined, the Grand Rapids African American Health Institute, a homeshare program, a wellness collective, a senior support program and Second Acts, a just-launching job placement program.




Participants had glowing feedback for the program:

  • Elizabeth White was phenomenal and I appreciate her transparency.
  • Loved our roundtable discussion. We will meet as a group and maybe do some great things for each other and the community.
  • This was an eye-opening experience for me as a newly retired person.
  • My Lord, this was outstanding! I couldn’t ask for more.

Kudos to the whole Grand Rapids Foundation Encore team and volunteer planning committee- – you created a high-impact program that fostered important conversations among people who don’t connect often enough. We look forward to following the Foundation’s next steps and Grand Rapids’ Age-Friendly efforts.

Published September 25, 2017