"Unconditional love is what drew me to this ministry," said Marge Palmerlee, Executive Director of Dégagé Ministries, an organization that offers help—and hope—to homeless and disadvantaged individuals in Grand Rapids' Heartside Neighborhood.
Marge first walked through Dégagé Ministries' doors more than 20 years ago, searching for a place where she and one of her two sons could volunteer. At the time, the ministry provided meals seven nights a week and coffee every few mornings. She served in the kitchen, "flippin' burgers."
It was not long, however, before she left her job of 24 years in accounting at Rogers Department Store to join the Dégagé staff as Ministry Coordinator.
One year later, she was asked to step into the role of Executive Director.
This year, Marge celebrated her 20th year anniversary in leadership, and Dégagé is celebrating 50 years of service.
According to the Grand Rapids Area Coalition to End Homelessness, approximately 700 to 800 people in Grand Rapids are considered homeless on any given night. In 2016, there were over 3,500 individuals who were considered homeless or at imminent risk of becoming homeless.
Of those individuals, 400 to 500 walk through Dégagé's doors daily.
Over the years, the services have grown. What began as a ministry serving burgers and coffee to homeless individuals has grown into an organization offering hygiene facilities, job and housing assistance, aid with attaining legal identification and more.
In 2003, Dégagé launched the Open Door Women's Center, which provides a safe haven and services for adult women in crisis, and has served over 3,600 women since introducing the program. Dégagé also partnered with Pauls' Moms' Cookies, a social enterprise, that provides jobs for women in the program.
"All of our programming has come from the people we serve expressing a need or desire, rather than the administration saying, 'This is what we think is going to make your life better,'" Marge said.
"We want to foster dignity and respect. When someone has the opportunity to give their opinion, it makes a big difference on how they view that service. It's so important they have a voice. So often in life, they don't. They may be struggling with homelessness, but that's not who they are."
Throughout her 20 years working as Executive Director, Marge has learned leadership is not a solo project.
"You can't do it alone. You need a staff. We have a very committed and dedicated staff." Patrons tell Marge they always feel welcome at Dégagé, and she credits her frontline staff for setting that tone. Staff members seek not only to fill needs of those they serve, but also "desire to walk alongside them."
It's more than staff members, however.
It's the community.
Marge believes Dégagé's greatest success over the past 20 years is neighborhood collaboration. Today, the ministry is part of the Heartside Neighborhood Collaboration Project.
"It's exciting to see agencies working together for the good of the people we serve. When I started here 20 years ago, we were pretty much silos. We saw each other as competition, whereas now, it's: How can we collaborate?"
In the future, Dégagé will be working closely with Mel Trotter Ministries on the community center and services to single women.
"Home is a place where you feel physically and emotionally safe. For so many of our patrons, this is the first time they've experienced unconditional love," Marge said. "Volunteering here, I felt I could invest in the people walking through these doors. To this day, that's why I still stay here. Wanting to impact lives and make a difference."
"This has been a wonderful opportunity—to work alongside dedicated staff, wonderful volunteers, great donors and the people we serve."
Written by Cassie Westrate, staff writer for West Michigan Woman.