Preserving and Empowering Those in Need through Thoughtful Mentorship

What better way to learn about and understand the challenges a particular group of individuals face than by holding a gathering with community members to ask them directly?

Nearly ten years ago, before it was officially formed as what is now called the Little Collaborative Program, the soon-to-be founders of the organization held a conference and invited both people in the area who were living in poverty as well as service leaders and providers who had the potential to help. After this meeting, all agreed there were tangible ways the community could assist individuals in need using services that already existed; they just needed to be more accessible.

“We realized that it was really difficult to navigate through certain systems if you’re looking for help,” said Karen Fulkerson, executive director of the initiative. Often, people will seek assistance but get declined for minor reasons like misunderstanding the kind of paperwork they need to complete.

In Traverse City, the poverty level is around 11 percent. The goal of the organization was to train a volunteer base to respond to a variety of difficult situations community members faced, and familiarize them with the resources at hand.

To facilitate this kind of assistance, the organization opened Helplink in 2010 with the intent to stabilize, educate, and empower those on the fringes of the community. They currently assist around 1,000 people each year, collaborating with Family Partnership and AGAPE Financial to provide longer-term support through mentoring and monetary guidance.

Fulkerson highlighted an example of the organization operating at its finest by telling the story of a woman who came in and met with a budget coach and mentor. During a follow-up call, the team learned that her progress had been compromised by an abusive spouse who was recently incarcerated, and this young woman was in need of additional assistance. While reviewing her budget, the Helplink team discovered that she had been part of a nursing program but was unable to continue courses because of an outstanding balance from a previous semester. The organization loaned her the money to pay off the debt and re-enroll in her classes. Fast-forward to today. This same young woman has found stable housing with a family member, graduated from the school’s nursing program, and is working as a full-time nurse.

In addition to these services, Little Collaborative acquired the Laundry Project, a program that provides homeless people the opportunity to get their laundry done once a week for free. It is especially helpful for parents, who use it to help keep their kids’ clothes clean through the school year, quelling a source of vicious bullying among young students.

In the words of a homeless man who, when asked how the community could best assist him, responded, “If I had clean clothes, I think people would treat me like a human.”

Fulkerson worked in career development and program management for the majority of her career. She knew that, once she retired, she wanted to do something to benefit her community at large. Admittedly, she had no idea the impact this new work would have on her personally.

“Helping people really understand the trials of those in need is both part of the challenge and reward of this job. You just don’t realize the barriers people are up against every single day of their life.”

Twenty-five percent of the people who visit Little Collaborative return at some point, though Fulkerson remains optimistic about that statistic and sees it as an opportunity to continue building a budding relationship.

Looking ahead, Fulkerson said she would love to expand their laundry program to make it available year-round and, potentially, open up another facility. Little Collaborative receives no government or state funding and is sustained through local grants and community members.

The organization would also like to strengthen its volunteer base and connect more people with their neighbors who are struggling. “The more people we can expose to these efforts, the more solutions we’ll be able to discover. I also feel that, when you know you were helped by someone in your community, you become a more invested stakeholder.”

The Little Collaborative/HelpLink 1105 E. Front Street, Traverse City MI 49686 / (231) 946-6278 l LittleCollaborative.org