Personally and professionally, Sonja Forte takes pride in being someone others can count on; a person who actively and fully shows up for other people. As Executive Director of Baxter Community Center, Forte puts these attributes into practice daily, leading a team that offers services to neighbors and spaces where the community can come together to feel not only cared for, but wholeheartedly welcomed.
Born and raised in Flint, Forte considers her childhood to have been traditional, with a mother who worked for Ameritech (AT&T) and father for General Motors.
"They've always been big on making sure I was involved in the community and extracurricular activities," Forte said, noting the massive influence both her parents continue to have in her life. "I'm my father socially and I'm my mother at work. Everything I know professionally came from watching her. Both of them are quiet givers and show up for family and friends. They're the people you can count on, and that shows up in me ... in all pockets of my life."
Forte made her way to Grand Rapids to attend GVSU, where she earned a degree in hospitality and tourism management with an emphasis in event planning and conference management, something she pursued after attending conventions with her mother while growing up. From there, her career trajectory has been anything but linear, an increasingly common reality for many.
"My career journey to where I am now has been completely insane," Forte said. "I've probably worked every type of job humanly possible."
From internships at the Amway Grand Hotel and Disney's Wilderness Lodge, to a stint at T-Mobile and TGI Friday's, to being a public relations assistant, to working in affordable senior housing for Porter Hills Village, Forte's breadth of experience is vast. She eventually landed at Baxter Community Center in 2012, not having any idea at the time she'd one day be its leader.
"I believe everybody should have to work in hospitality in some way, shape, or form. It's just a great way to cut your teeth into humanity," said Forte, who stepped into the Executive Director role at Baxter during the early days of the pandemic. She explained how all of her varying experiences have been fundamental in her continued approach to service and commitment.
"Our Disney handbook talked about exceeding expectations, and that's something I'm really big on, even still today with Baxter," she said. "People ask, 'Well, what's the correlation?' and it's all about how you see and treat people.
"I've told folks, I want to be able to give Ritz Carlton-level service on the southeast side of Grand Rapids."
With two main areas of focus—health and education—Baxter's offerings certainly go above and beyond. Operating all under one roof, the center offers everything from childhood development and adult education classes on nutrition, finance and fitness, to dental and holistic health services for those who are under- or uninsured, a greenhouse, special events and more.
Forte shares that Baxter's Marketplace, which includes fresh produce grown on site nine months out of the year, serves about 500 families every month—a 20% increase over the last year.
"When you're talking about a community center, you have to have everybody in the community in mind if you're really going to have any type of significant results or progress," she said, adding that the center hopes to expand their programming, staffing and hours of operation in 2023. "It's about bringing people together so everyone has an opportunity to enhance their quality of life and has a place to land."
Forte, a self-professed goofy introvert who loves gift giving, considers her greatest professional accomplishment to be leading her current team, many of whom are new and emerging leaders themselves.
"The ability to walk that journey with them and help them develop their own leadership styles and find their own voices is great," she said.
Forte reflected upon recently coming together with fellow GVSU alumni spanning decades to organize the Black Alumni Network Weekend, after the pandemic halted the network's usual gatherings and efforts.
"It was great because it's so important we didn't lose that, because you do have a different lived experience as a person of color at a PWI (predominantly white institution). Coordinating was exhausting, but exciting," she said. "You know, I'm not there for all the fluffy stuff; I'm not at everything. But when it counts, I'm going to show up, and I'm going to give you 110% and make sure things happen and that we don't lose what's important."
Plenty of lessons have been gleaned over the years, but one in particular rises to the surface for Forte:
Don't jump to conclusions.
"I remember the saying, 'Everything you need to know, you learned in kindergarten,' and I'm starting to realize as I get older just how true that is," she said. "Leadership teaches us that there's a lot that goes on behind the scenes the world will never know about. And it's easy to assume what's going on from what you read in a headline and hear by word of mouth. There are typically so many more things at play. I try not to assume, give people the benefit of the doubt, and really look into something before jumping to a conclusion."
If she were to offer some advice to her younger self, Forte would assure herself that no matter the path, everything is going to work out OK—whether you believe it to be true or not.
"Oftentimes, you go through life thinking you have to have so many things accomplished. I'd spent so much of my life focused on thinking I had to do this one thing to make the next thing happen, and you realize life doesn't actually work like that," she said, emphasizing that for the majority of people, there's no one straight line.
"Even then, your line isn't the same as somebody else's. Things work if you roll with the punches, figure things out, are flexible and decide what's good out of whatever it is you're experiencing."
In her free time, Forte can usually be found near or in water, enjoying live music, cooking and baking, and listening to a good audiobook or three (at a time).
"You know, I'm 43. And you think to yourself, 'You're supposed to be an adult adult by now,' and I'm not an adult yet. I know it. I'm not there. I haven't arrived. I've still got stuff to figure out."
You can learn more about Baxter Community Center and getting involved by visiting wearebaxter.org.
Written by Sarah Suydam, Managing Editor for West Michigan Woman.
This article originally appeared in the Feb/Mar '23 issue of West Michigan Woman.
Photos Courtesy of Kelly Braman Photography.