Student and Alumni Stories
Five Potter’s House alumni joined me last month on GRTV’s “Time to Talk” with Argie Holliman. We were asked to be to the set by 7:00 p.m. to prepare for the 8:00 show. When I arrived at 6:50, all five alumni were already at the studio.
They were proud to share their experiences at The Potter’s House and the pivotal difference the teachers made in their lives, and I was proud of them. You’ve probably heard me tell their stories before, in person or through a newsletter, but I want you to hear them retell their experiences in their own words.
First up is Janvier, originally from Rwanda, but forced to flee during the genocide in the 1990’s to Tanzania, where he lived for 14 years as a refugee. This is his story.
Aaron Collier (‘04) is on a mission to impact the youth of Roosevelt Park. A Roosevelt Park native, he learned the value of positive role models through his teachers and mentors at The Potter’s House. Now he wants to see area youth empowered to influence their peers for the better.
Aaron recently accepted a position as youth pastor at The Edge church just up Grandville Avenue from The Potter’s House. After working with Henry and Jacque Bouma and Kelvin Jackson in their neighborhood ministry for 10 years, he sees his new position as a way to minister to neighborhood youth to a greater degree. Kelvin and Henry inspired him to pursue youth ministry.
“I want to do what they did for me in other young men’s lives,” Aaron said. “Kelvin and Henry gave me hope that I could be something.”
I remember Aaron coming to my office frequently, starting in Kindergarten. Aaron said, “I was respectful to authority until I disagreed with them.” It took maturing and years of consistent role models in his life to help him learn to respect authority in every situation. He said Henry was the only consistent father figure in his life.
“I didn’t realize what [Kelvin and Henry] did for me until my senior year of high school.”
Henry sensed that Aaron was doubtful of his motives as a mentor. Yet he saw Aaron as a respectful young man.
“What I’ve always appreciated about Aaron is that he’s dependable,” Henry said. Aaron was the only kid he mentored who was always ready and waiting when Henry came to pick him up.
Even though Aaron struggled in school, to the point of getting kicked out of Kuyper College his freshman year because of low grades, he persevered to complete his ministry degree. He attributes his success to the mentors, teachers, and tutors he met through The Potter’s House, people like Jacque Bouma, who tutored him all through high school and college.
The Potter’s House teacher that comes to his mind the most for Aaron is Mrs. Bell from middle school.
“She always believed in me when I didn’t and others didn’t,” he said. “To this day I thank her for that. All the teachers held our best interest. They walked the walk.”
Now that he’s working at The Edge in addition to serving with Navigators, Aaron’s vision for the neighborhood is to see negative statistics turned into positive potential.
“Seventy percent don’t have high school diplomas, and 20 percent don’t have their fathers’ names on their birth certificates,” he reported. “I want those statistics to change. I want them to know that education is important. They might not have a father, but others in the neighborhood can help them, just like Henry who poured into me. It’s about walking life with them.”
For more information, visit Aaron’s Navigator’s profile.
Abdoul lived in a refugee camp in Africa for seven years before coming to the United States with his grandma and brother. Shortly after arriving in the U.S., Abdoul and brother Amani were enrolled at The Potter’s House. Neither spoke English, and it was a tough road for them as they worked through ESL classes for the first couple of years.
“Learning a new language was like a punishment,” said Abdoul. “Every time I moved to a new country, I learned a new language.” Still, he was grateful to be getting an education here because school wasn’t an option in the refugee camp. They walked more than an hour outside of the camp to retrieve clean water and firewood for cooking, and the trek to the nearest school was two hours.
Life in the camp meant survival, and for Abdoul and Amani, it was survival without parents.
“I wish I had parents when I was struggling,” Abdoul said. “I didn’t view peers as myself because they had it easier.” He wrestled with a deep anger, wishing for the parents who weren’t there to support him, and wishing he could do something for the kids who were wasting their lives in camp.
Abdoul’s family was Muslim, as were many of their relatives and neighbors. He is actually named after the Islamic word meaning “Servant of God.” Abdoul had never encountered Jesus. He knew how to pray in Arabic, but not how to pray to “the Jesus.” He knew about the Bible, but he couldn’t read it.
He attended a Christian church in Africa for the first time in 2009, giving conditions to the leaders that they would not ask him to sing, pray, or give money, otherwise he’d be out. At the service, he witnessed adults weeping at the front of the church.
“Adults only cry if someone has died or something is going very wrong,” Abdoul explained. “But these adult Christians were crying for joy.”
Similarly, on his first day at The Potter’s House, he attended chapel and observed students praying. He wanted to know what it meant to be a follower of Jesus and was excited to take religion classes. His mentor from the high school, Henry Bouma, made himself available to talk whenever Abdoul had questions about Jesus or life in general. Now Abdoul is a man of prayer and a spiritual leader at the high school.
“All this spirituality I wouldn’t have without him,” Abdoul said. “I look up to him and have no shame to ask him anything about spirituality.”
Before enrolling in ESL classes at The Potter’s House, Abdoul couldn’t speak English. His teachers encouraged him to speak up to learn.
“Mr. Kuipers told me, ‘Say it wrong, and we’ll correct you; don’t say it, and we don’t know.’”
Abdoul says The Potter’s House has had a positive impact on him, growing him educationally and spiritually. He plans to study International Relations at Calvin College, then move to law school to become an international lawyer.
Jerry Rodriguez (class of ‘07) was in the middle of painting superheroes when his brother asked why he paints what he paints. His reply tells not only the goal of his art, but the thrust of his life story.
“Each hero represents a sense of hope,” he explained. “Through my art, God gives a sense of hope in people’s lives.”
Jerry lives in Los Angeles and opened his studio, Thus Art, in 2013. He’s been commissioned by the city to paint a restaurant storefront and by his church to paint a mural.
He says the more he paints, the more God grows his talent. Whereas he used to mimic other images, he can now paint from an original image in his mind.
“It really is God who plays the main role in this,” Jerry acknowledged. “He’s allowed me to really develop and take the talent and make it a discipline… God opens the hearts of people. [My art] relates to them, and they purchase it.”
Jerry met Jesus after his mother became a Christian when the family lived in New York. Their neighborhood was broken, filled with alcoholism and gang activity. They moved to southwest Grand Rapids when Jerry was eight years old to seek a healthier environment. Shortly after the move, Jerry and his siblings began attending The Potter’s House.
“What Potter’s House provided for me was a sense of hope,” he said. “It was a light in my life. It’s the relationships that made a difference.” Jerry got involved in the arts while at The Potter’s House, including the school play with Mrs. Dean, which he participated in every year from fourth grade through graduation.
After graduating from The Potter’s House, Jerry attended Moody Bible Institute and graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in pastoral ministry. During that time, he said God asked him to give up art. It was a difficult four years, but he grew in his identity with God as a result.
Now, as he lives off the pieces he creates, Jerry looks back on the life experiences that shape his art. He has painted several pieces stemming from his hope for New York City.
“New York wasn’t glamorous for me,” he explained. “It was a broken city.” One painting depicts the city rising out of the foundation of God’s Word and includes the text from Psalm 23, indicating that God is the Shepherd of New York. “Even in the brokenness of the city, this is the prayer. This is what we live for.”
I read a letter written recently by our Athletic Director, Brett Geertsma, and I wanted to share a portion of it with you. It captures the heart of The Potter’s House through the story of Brandon, one of our star athletes.
Brandon never met his dad, and his mom passed away of heart disease when he was four years old. From there, Brandon went to live with his uncle and aunt and hopped around to numerous inner-city schools in tough neighborhoods. During that time, he got highly involved in gang activity that included drugs and violence.
“While in middle school, I witnessed several friends get shot, and was the target of shots as well,” said Brandon. “I was heading down a very dangerous path.” Brandon’s uncle and aunt noticed the changes in his behavior, and they decided to send him to The Potter’s House High School in order to get him away from the gang activity.
Heading into his freshman year at The Potter’s House, Brandon didn’t know what to expect. However, he was pleasantly surprised.
“From the moment I walked through the doors as a freshman, I could tell The Potter’s House had a family atmosphere,” he said. “The students treated their friends like family. The teachers cared about me as a person, rather than only about my grades. When I joined the basketball team, the coaches not only made me a better basketball player and teammate, but they taught me about responsibility, discipline and accountability. They motivated me in the classroom, at home, and in my personal walk with Jesus Christ. There is no way I would’ve graduated high school or be the man I am today without the coaches that mentored me.”
Brandon’s growth as a man during his time at The Potter’s House was life changing.
“There is no doubt in my mind that if it wasn’t for The Potter’s House, I would either be in jail or homeless today,” said Brandon. “Almost all of my classmates from middle school are either in jail, still involved in gang activity, or hopping from house to house not knowing where they are going to sleep the next night. But with the help of The Potter’s House, I graduated from high school and am enrolled at Grand Rapids Community College with the hopes of someday owning my own small business. Most importantly, though, I hope to someday be the husband and father that my dad never was for me.”
It is only through the love of Jesus in the context of a nurturing, Christ-centered school that Brandon found what he was missing – family. This family environment is what helped him not only graduate from high school but move toward his hopes and goals for the future. Thank you for helping to make Christ-centered education available to at-risk kids like Brandon. Your gift changes lives.
We just received great news from PH alumnus Jorge, who graduated from nursing school in December (you can read the article about him on my blog here). He announced that he accepted a position in the emergency department at Spectrum Health.
Here is an email he sent in reply to a note of congratulation from Marilyn Scott, one of our faithful teachers who has been with us since the early years of The Potter’s House:
Hi Mrs. Scott,
Thank you for all the kind words. My journey to completing the nursing program has not been easy! I ran into many obstacles along the way, but my desire to make a positive impact was stronger than all the obstacles combined. You are right! Any time when I needed a little extra push, I asked God to give me more strength because giving up was not an option. The Potter’s House helped me develop a strong spiritual foundation; I knew that with God in my life I was capable of reaching my goals.
Our alumni continue to bring the heart of The Potter’s House mission to new contexts. I want to tell you about one such young woman I ran into for the first time in years last summer. I hope that hearing what she’s doing now and understanding the journey she took to get here will inspire you.
Erika Purcell-Williams lived in South Africa and Washington, D.C., but found her sphere of impact in a repurposed convent on the northwest side of Grand Rapids. A former Potter’s House student, Erika’s goal is to promote health and wellness among vulnerable populations through effective communication. Her avenue is through her role as the Program Director for Steepletown Ministries.
Steepletown’s mission speaks to their focus on community empowerment: Neighbor helping neighbor live with dignity and hope. Erika oversees the programs that give west side residents tools to build a foundation for themselves, including GED, relationship-building, and budgeting classes.
Erika’s passion for education of vulnerable populations developed over the course of her own educational journey. She attended The Potter’s House and completed a bachelor of arts in African American studies with a minor in biological anthropology at the University of Michigan. Erika then decided to pursue teaching opportunities in an HIV/AIDS module with the University of KwaZulu-Natal and areas of Johannesberg, South Africa. When she returned to the states, she earned her master’s in public health communication and marketing from George Washington University.
“I’ve been to three continents, got a couple more to go,” Erika said. “I want to interact with as many people on as broad a scale as possible. I’m passionate about a lot of things, but education is one that stands out, especially within an urban community.”
Erika’s memories from Potter’s House include Family Worship with Miss Scott and middle school band, where she wanted to play the trumpet, but ended up with the saxophone—her mother preferred woodwinds—and then drums, which she still plays for her local church.
She recalls the trouble she caused her sixth grade teacher, Miss Bell, and the connection Miss Bell established with her mother.
“I thought that was really unique that a teacher would have that connection with a parent,” Erika said. “She really did care a lot about us as students. Now that I look back, I was really a knucklehead, but her patience was definitely needed, and I think it really encouraged me to do well academically.”
Erika says The Potter’s House prepared her to work in a diverse setting, which is just what she’s doing at Steepletown. She is helping shape the dual enrollment model Steepletown subscribes to for family education. Their preschool program offers a doorway to interact with parents through field trips and volunteering. Interaction leads to relationship-building and the parents opening up about their education experiences. Many dropped out of school or never attended their graduation ceremony.
“We offer them the opportunity to earn their GED, experience a graduation, and consider attending college,” Erika said. “The parent can take GED classes while the child is in preschool or daycare. It removes that barrier and allows us to really push the idea of education to give them the tools and resources and connect them with the programs that will allow everybody to succeed.”
Erika’s work brings to mind the early years of the Living Waters community before Potter’s House was established. The group originally thought the way to reach a neighborhood was to start with the adults and work down to the children, but they quickly learned that it is more effective to teach children, which opens up doorways to their parents and grandparents.
One of our goals at The Potter’s House is to minister the love of Christ to the entire family by sharing available resources for specific parent programs designed to help with budgeting, teaching children at home, discipline, and nutrition. Our alumni, and Erika is a case in point, have experienced this sharing and are now taking this vision of impacting entire families and neighborhoods through children to their own callings and careers.
In less than a week, Potter’s House alumnus Jorge (class of 2009) will graduate from nursing school. I have known Jorge for more than 10 years. He lives on one of the roughest streets in the Roosevelt Park neighborhood. Even as members of Jorge’s family have struggled with some of the common problems of our neighborhood, I have watched him take a decidedly different path. He has constantly made positive decisions that would ensure him a bright future. Jorge has refused to connect with gangs and drug activity in the neighborhood, and he stayed focused on his studies here at The Potter’s House School where he attended from middle school all the way through high school.
In recent years, I have run into him at the local Little Caesars’ Pizza Place and at Fifth Third Bank, very faithfully working in order to support himself in school. I am very proud to say that Jorge is the first one of his family for generations to attend college. It has always been Jorge’s desire to be a role model for his younger siblings. He comes from a big family who faced some struggles, including the separation of his parents. During those struggles, some of the children took on great animosity which left them very troubled and vulnerable to gang activity. Jorge has intentionally attempted to fill the gap left by his father and be a positive influence on his younger siblings.
When Jorge shared his desire to be a nurse with me, I was very encouraged. He has the potential to be an excellent nurse. His character is definitely one of compassion and caring. The Potter’s House has invested in him for years, and he has continued to prove himself a man of character and purpose. We are very proud of how he has lived his life in this neighborhood, how he has dedicated himself to his studies, and how he is striving for a very positive future for himself and his family. Please join me in celebrating Jorge’s success in achieving his goal of becoming a nurse.
We praise God that former Potter’s House student Saulo Montalvo graduated from The Urban Ministry Institute (TUMI) on October 25, 2014, with a certificate in Christian Leadership Studies. It is exciting to see what God has done in Saulo’s life and in the prison where he was sentenced to life without parole.
Saulo made some poor decisions as a young man of 16. He began to run with the wrong crowd, and two of his friends told him to drive his car for them as part of their plan to rob a neighborhood store. Saulo hid, not wanting to get involved, but the boys found him. After the other two grabbed the cash and murdered the store clerk, Saulo drove the getaway car.
Although he was not the gunman, Saulo was sentenced to life in prison without parole. One day he heard a woman singing, “Jesus Loves Me,” and recalled the song from his childhood. He cried out to God and surrendered his life to Him. He is deeply repentant for his part in the crime.
At one point Saulo said he would choose forgiveness from the victim’s family over getting out of prison. God honored that choice, and the family of the murdered store clerk offered forgiveness to Saulo.
A little over three years ago, Saulo had the opportunity to begin TUMI, which is an urban ministry leadership development program. Saulo and the other graduates of TUMI have established 24/7 prayer teams in the prison. He taught himself to play guitar and leads worship for the prison church, and he now works as the Events Clerk, running sound and doing set-up and tear-down for prison events.
Saulo attended The Potter’s House through middle school. While a student at TPH, he took an art class from Janae Dean, who noticed a hardening of heart during his last year at The Potter’s House, and suspected it was due to some struggles his family went through at the time. He attended a different high school because The Potter’s House did not have a high school at the time, but he soon dropped out.
This is a story of a young man, who like the majority of his peers in the city, fell into the trap of negative peer pressure, gangs, and crime. But unlike most of his peers, he had the foundation of God’s Word to fall back on when his world crashed around him. This solid foundation led him to repentance for his sin and continues to give him hope for the future in spite of the bleak prospects of his prison cell. God has already done an incredible work in Saulo’s life, and we look forward to what He has in store.
The Potter’s House High School recently performed “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” as its first musical. The addition of choreography and music added a new kind of energy to this year’s play.
From initial auditions to opening night, preparing for this play was a very meaningful process. Mrs. VanderArk said there were glimmers of something special as early as initial practices. “You almost see a light in their eyes that reveals the excitement they feel in being able to perform this.”
Other students and parents also pitched in to make this a meaningful theatrical piece through set-building, playing music, sewing costumes and managing the stage. A very special community was created as a result of everyone’s cooperation and hard work. Mrs. VanderArk says that “Incredibly tight bonds are forged between students who wouldn’t otherwise be interacting a lot in school. You take a very hard job, with everyone giving their all to deliver a great performance, and you have to be in community for that job to be completed well.”
Mrs. VanderArk teaches kindergarten, and also directs at the high school. This means that she often gets to nurture kids in the very beginning of their schooling life, and then direct them in theater as soon-to-be graduates. Four of the six main characters in “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” had been in Mrs. VanderArk’s kindergarten class. Ten years ago she taught these children their alphabet, and this fall she was able to witness them performing as young adults with emerging talents. Brenda shared, “I get to invest in these kids during kindergarten and then see them blossom into young adults. There is a huge sense of pride in seeing the positive impact of a Christian education come full circle.”