Echoes of applause for DisArt



The city of Grand Rapids welcomed DisArt Festival to its events calendar on Friday, April 10, with a special toast at the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts (UICA) and the Grand Rapids Art Museum (GRAM). Festival staff and supporters smiled with anticipation, as a glass was raised to the event aimed to change the city’s perceptions.

“I think it’s fantastic,” says Miranda Krajniak, Executive Director of UICA. “It’s a fantastic opportunity for Grand Rapids to showcase artists that work within disability. The partnership for this festival between UICA, Kendall College of Art and Design and Grand Rapids Art Museum is really wonderful.”

Photos by Bryan Esler for stellafly

Among those in attendance was City of Grand Rapids Mayor, George Heartwell. When first approached with the concept of the festival, Heartwell had just one thing to say: “Let’s make it a year!”

“Why not make it yearlong instead of just a month?” says Heartwell. “Let’s bring lots of opportunities throughout the year for people to engage around the theme of creativity and disability.”

Each day of the festival’s 15-day run is filled with family-friendly, free events that are open to all. From performance pieces to gallery shows to artist talks, DisArt’s mission is to take the city by the hand and lead it to a place where art is everybody.

“I hope this [festival] helps shape perceptions about the abilities of disabled individuals and a new recognition is found,” says Heartwell. “People are not defined by their physical disability, but rather by their creativity and innovation; their ability to see the world in a way the rest of us cannot and to open us up to that vision.”

Redefining ‘different’ through art and disability



From the moment he was born, Dr. Christopher Smit and his parents knew he was different, but not just because he was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy. Smit is a go-getter, a conversation starter; the person to always ask why. Growing up, Smit’s parents didn’t let having a disability label his gifts and abilities as ‘special’ or ‘extraordinary’ given his condition.

Photos by Bryan Esler for stellafly

“I was encouraged to do whatever I wanted to do,” says Smit, who serves as the Director of DisArt Festival and Director of Arts and Access at Kendall College of Art and Design. “Nothing held me back. I was ‘mainstreamed,’ meaning I just went to high school. I was just a typical kid.”

With encouragement and support to press him forward, Smit didn’t realize his physical disability until just 12 years ago.

“When I got married in the 90s to my wife, Lisa, and then went to graduate school, we began to realize that we were, and still are, a different sort of couple because of my wheelchair,” says Smit.

Not letting the heavy judgments of society burden him, Smit says he’s found peace and contentment with his disability.

“I’ve gotten to a point in my own faith life, for example, where I understand God has made me this way for a purpose. I am an intended creation. We’re all intended creations, designed to be exactly the way we are for a purpose,” says Smit.

Another person living purposefully is community organizer and DisArt Festival Developer, Jill Vyn. Vyn accepted the offer, honored that her purpose of bringing communities together would have a unique place to shine. As she began her new journey with the disabled community, Vyn knew there was growth to be done.

“While I came into this knowing about disability, I never thought about it as its own culture,” says Vyn. “So this experience has been really eye-opening because I realized it doesn’t matter if I am connecting with people in the Hispanic community, with an immigrant population or with people with disabilities. It’s a culture. And I wanted to know how can we all feel included so that we learn to take the time to listen to each other’s stories?”

Photos by Bryan Esler for stellafly

Why DisArt? Grand Rapidians are fortunate enough to live, work and play in a community that celebrates new and progressive thoughts and ideas.

“Grand Rapids needs [DisArt] because it’s the next step in the progression,” says Smit. “We’re in a unique place in the world where people think of ideas, and they get together and grab them. People support them and we send them off and do amazing things. Grand Rapids is a city that always wants to be better. We are not docile.”

DisArt Festival will take place over 15 days, as a celebration seeking to change perceptions about disabilities through art. The festival will begin downtown Grand Rapids on Friday, April 10, and will showcase the work of artists with disabilities through performance pieces, fashion, discussions and art.

“There are over 20,000 disabled individuals in Grand Rapids that want to be a part of what this city does and not just be a patron or a client of it. They want be involved in its space,” says Smit.

DisArt Festival strives to put Grand Rapids on the map in the world of disability arts. The premiere of the international exhibit, “Art of the Lived Experiment,” will mark the first time an international disability art display of this magnitude has traveled anywhere in the United States. Along with the family-friendly activities, free festival attendance, and curated shows in the city’s well-known spaces, DisArt seeks to engage its guests in a deeper conversation.

“Through this work that we’re doing with [DisArt], we’re seeing organizations work together in ways they may not have done in the past, and finding how we can all fit together,” says Vyn.

As Grand Rapids opens its streets and spaces to a new way of coming together, there is just one requirement its asks of its guests: check words like ‘different’ at the door.

Finding purpose in the cadence



Purpose. It’s what makes us feel important. It gives our lives meaning. For some its getting up early to start the coffee maker so the others can have their morning cup, or paying for the person waiting behind them in line. For others, it’s serving people, be it within the walls of a local chiropractic office or by being an empowerment to those around them.

Two Priority Healthy Champions show us how running cannot only improve your health, but help uncover purpose in the cadence.

Courtney Warsen has made it her personal mission to enrich the lives of others by focusing on health.

“Thinking about the population of people who don’t have homes because of health issues is what keeps me going,” says Warsen.

When she graduated from Aquinas College in May 2014, Warsen focused herself on the homeless population by interning with Dégagé Ministries in Grand Rapids.

Photos by Bryan Esler for stellafly

“I fell in love with serving and helping people,” says Warsen. “Many of the individuals I served come bad circumstances. Most of them have lost hope. I want to help them discover a new vision and purpose for life.”

After spending some time impacting lives on South Division, Warsen found herself accepting a position with Rivertown Family Chiropractic in Grandville as a chiropractic assistant. Warsen works with clients who suffer from anything from minor aches to throbbing pain.

“People who come in have been feeling sick for so long being able to change their life in this way and get them healthy again is encouraging and very rewarding,” she says.

In addition to healing physical pain, Warsen heals emotional pain through The Grand Rapids Dream Center. The Dream Center began in Los Angeles by Matthew Barnett and Tommy Barnett, who gave it its mission to connect with others but not by focusing on taking people out of their local environment. According to Matthew and Tommy Barnett, the mission of The Dream Center is “reach people from within.” Through her involvement with The Dream Center, Warsen says she’s been gifted the opportunity to continue the work she was doing with Dégagé.

“We work alongside those who’ve lost their way or struggle with addictions. We help reconnect with their dream and their life,” says Warsen.
Helping others discover their purpose has helped Warsen discover hers. As a cross-country runner in high school, Warsen lapped the fields and did the races, but never thought to impact others through the sport. In January 2014, Warsen ran her first marathon and the light turned on. She began using her love for running as a way to support people and causes she cared about.

“I like running for a cause,” says Warsen. “Being able to fundraise and give back in this capacity makes me feel better about racing.”

Today, Warsen runs for a variety of causes, including Gran Fondo, My Team Triumph, and the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. Using the gift of kindness and the sport of running, Warsen discovered not only her passion, but what she says is her “purpose.”

Sometimes our purpose in life isn’t as obvious. In fact, it can a little selfish. Until Jamie Peltier discovered that in order to better care for those around us, she needed to take care of herself first. Peltier has struggled with her weight for most of her life.

“I was on a track time in high school,” says Peltier, “but only because my friends were.”

She left the sport after shortly after high school. Peltier reunited with running a couple years ago, only to be left rejected.

“I felt like I was going to die. I absolutely hated it,” she says.

In June 2014, her husband, Kevin, encouraged her to try the Couch to 5K training app and to give running another chance. He said, “Just give the eight weeks of the program and see how it goes.”

Eight weeks came and she never looked back. Peltier is now a 5K veteran and she has even run her first 10K.

“When I came home [from running] that day, I was really emotional about it,” says Peltier. “This was a big deal for me; to recognize the big difference between me from a year ago and who I am today.”

Photos by Bryan Esler for stellafly

Running has not only helped Peltier’s physical health but her mental health as well. Having struggled with anxiety and depression for most of her life, Peltier says she owes her newfound confidence and peace of mind to her mileage.

“Running gives me time to just be me. I don’t have to think about anything I don’t want to. I think about whatever I want or nothing at all,” says Peltier. “It’s my own little world.”

Because running awards Peltier the time she desires to be alone, she now finds herself getting closer with her husband and three kids. Her husband, Kevin, who is also a runner, will race alongside Peltier.

“He usually finishes first,” she says. “But having him encourage me and seeing him at the finish line means the world.”

Peltier has also seen her relationship with her 10-year-old son take on a new course.

“As my son gets older, it’s harder to find ways to connect,” she says. “But going out on a run with him has been awesome. We have time to talk. We’re active together. And watching him push himself has been encouraging.”

Now on the other side of the hill, Peltier finds purpose in empowering others to do the same.

“I want to encourage [women] to believe in themselves,” she says. “To let them know that they’re worth it. Whatever they do to make the changes, if it’s running or something else. They’re worth it and they’ll be amazed at what they can do.”

By caring for herself, Peltier has found new hope in darkness.

Finding our purpose in life isn’t always what they show us in the movies. Most times there isn’t a big flash of light or a vertigo-like feeling that overcomes us, leaving us wiser and with all the right ideas. It comes from setting ourselves aside and helping those around us, like Courtney Warsen. It’s about overcoming something we never thought we could do, like Jamie Peltier. Finding purpose sparks from the moments we take to slow down just a few extra beats, lend the other hand, or simply just keep going.

After all, life isn’t a sprint. It’s a marathon.

Join Courtney and Jamie at the Gazelle Girl Half Marathon & 5K, held April 19, 2015. Click here for more information and to register.

A doggone good time: Local nonprofit toasts community during annual event



“This event is a great way to get behind the community. I believe we should always give back more than we receive,” says Trudy Ender, executive director of Humane Society of West Michigan (HSWMI).

And Grand Rapids agrees. Over 750 guests filled the ballroom at DeVos Place on Monday, for the third annual Paws, Claws & Corks.

“We’re 100% donor-funded, so everything we do has to be from donors and sponsors,” says Nicole Cook, marketing & events coordinator of HSWMI. “Events like this help us continue to raise awareness about animals and our organization in the community.”

Photos by Bryan Esler for stellafly

In its inaugural year in 2012, Paws, Claws & Corks boasted a guest list of over 400 names. This year, the event raises a glass to its over 750 guests.

“Our community really cares about shelter animals,” says Ender. “They truly believe from their hearts, and their pockets, that Humane Society of West Michigan serves a community need for neglected and abandoned animals.”

The event ticket granted each guest to enjoy creative and unique silent auctions items, participation in the live auction and samplings of local wine, beer and cuisine. Twelve local restaurants showcased a taste of their menu at the event, from apple and blue cheese bruschetta served by CitySen Lounge to bacon-wrapped dates from Olive’s Restaurant and Bar. Keeping things local not only helps Grand Rapids restaurants generate awareness, but strengthens the partnerships and relationships HSWMI has with community.

If there’s one thing Ender wishes each guest leaves with after the event, it’s a full heart.

“I hope the guests are touched and that they recognize that it’s what each they do that makes the impact,” says Ender.

To Ender, her team, the HSWMI directors and the board, here’s to warm feelings, good stories and many more (dog) years.

Development Day of the Western Michigan Chapter of The Project Management Institute (WMPMI)


Manage Projects Like a Superhero!

That was the rallying cry for the 2015 Professional Development Day of the Western Michigan Chapter of The Project Management Institute (WMPMI) on Tuesday March 17 at The Pinnacle Center in Hudsonville, MI. With over 300 Project Management Professionals in attendance, this event was a marked success.
The WMPMI Professional Development Day is an annual event, staged in order to provide an educational opportunity for Professionals, a networking event for attendees, companies and sponsors, and to promote project management as a profession.



For more information on WMPMI, visit the website at Be sure to LIKE them on Facebook, too!

Michael Hughes, Samuel Bowles, James Snyder and keynote speaker Daniel Burrus all spoke to the group, delivering key messages on Networking, Software and Connectivity, The Past and Future of PMI, and Shaping the Future of Project Management.

Dr. Burrus crafted his remarks to fit our profession and brought in salient points from speakers earlier in the day.  He eloquently tied all the threads together and challenged attendees with tools and to use different mindsets to revolutionize the Project Management profession.




The Professional Development Day was made possible by event sponsor Experis IT ManpowerGroup, with other sponsors Initech Global, LLC, Open Systems Technologies, Select-Resources, TEKsystems, International Institute for Learning, C/D/H Technology Consulting, New Horizons Learning Centers, and 4 Pillars of Success.

Going forward, please join WMPMI for THEProject collegiate project management competition on April 13, 2015. Sponsored by Spectrum Health and Dematic, this event will feature over 70 students, representing 20 Colleges and Universities, with a reverse career fair and award ceremony.

The Project Management Institute, (PMI) represents the largest project management association in the world. They have over 700,000 members and credential holders in 185 countries. Seasoned top performing certified Project Management Professionals (PMP), provide a common methodology to efficiently manage projects earning attractive incomes and held in high regard in the community.  PMI recently released a study stating there is a need for 340,000 project management positions for the next 10 years.  Many colleges and universities have recognized this trend and have responded with several courses and degrees with a focus in Project Management.

LaughFest wraps up fifth annual festival with National Stand-Up Comedy Showcase



Laughfest closed the books on its fifth annual 10-day festival on Saturday with the National Stand-Up Comedy Showcase, an event that invites up-and-coming comedians from around the country to share their craft with Grand Rapids audiences.

A packed third floor of Grand Rapids venue, The B.O.B., boomed with laughs as unique as the people making them. One of the comedians making laughs was winner Dan Soder, a self-proclaimed ‘smart-ass’ and Colorado native turned New Yorker. Soder has practiced the art of stand-up for over 10 years and has performed on Conan O’Brien’s late night show, “Conan.”

“I’ve always loved comedy,” says Soder. “I didn’t have what some people would consider a ‘normal childhood.’ I developed a sense of humor through those experiences.”

Always the kid to get kicked out for saying “smart ass remarks,” Soder tried his hand at stand-up when he was 21-years-old. Since then he’s been traveling the country, poking fun at anything from being a single child of a single parent to tattooed, “pretentious” freelancers at coffee shops.

“This is my first year participating with LaughFest and it’s been great,” says Soder. “It’s a fun festival and it’s in Grand Rapids, which is cool.”

During his stay in Grand Rapids, Soder says he feels a little bit like he’s in a movie.

“I constantly feel like I’m on the set of some bad ass action movie,” Soder chuckles. “Grand Rapids is pretty cool looking.”

Photos by Bryan Esler for stellafly

Another Grand Rapids admirer is comedian, Kyle Grooms. What started as a hobby for Grooms, turned into a 20-year career and performances on “The Chappelle Show” and “Inside Amy Schumer.”

“I used to be a graffiti artist, then dabbled with TV graphics,” says Grooms. “After I started getting good enough with comedy and could feed myself off it, I thought ‘Ooo, I want to do this full time.’”

Grooms is no stranger to the “chill river” and other sights of Grand Rapids. Ten years ago, he performed at The B.O.B.’s Dr. Grins. When LaughFest invited Grooms to be a part of the festival, the answer was easy.

“I like that I get to see comedians doing their work,” says Grooms. “You know as a comic, you’re a lone wolf. You’re out there by yourself.”

Grooms commends the festival for its innate nature of bringing all the comics together.

“It’s really cool. We get to just hang out, laugh, and enjoy being comics together,” says Grooms.

As another 10-day celebration came to a close, Grand Rapids said ‘goodbye’ with a full heart, sore abdomen, and a bigger smile on its face.

Grand Rapids flocks to downtown for fifth annual Irish on Ionia



If there are two things all Grand Rapidians have, it’s a love for beer and local pride.

Over 20,000 individuals gathered on the bricks of Ionia Avenue on Saturday to raise a glass to good beer, good people and good times. As you made your way through the crowd, the bass of the music vibrated your cup while belly laughs and the sounds of new friends being made were heard.

“It’s a little bigger this year,” says Kate Dulaney, Social Media Coordinator with Barfly Ventures. “We hid coins around town this year to add to the hype of the event. But our focus is to always bring people together and to have a great day.”

Photos by Eric Tank for stellafly

Overcast conditions and a subtle, stiff breeze did nothing but encourage event guests to move in a little closer and make new friends. One of those people was Irish On Ionia (IOI) veteran, Jen Perrin. Perrin has been to IOI since its conception in 2010.

“I’m Irish and it’s a great place to go and celebrate my heritage,” Perrin says, decked in beads of green, sipping her green-tinted brew. “I love how [IOI] brings a lot of people from all over to one place.”

Lansing, Kalamazoo, Grand Haven; people traveled from all over the state to participate in the fifth annual Irish celebration. And if IOI has showcased anything over the past five years, it’s the coming together of people and setting differences aside.

“My favorite thing is how everyone dresses and comes together,” says Perrin. “It’s not about racism or any kind of prejudice. It’s just about the day, what it represents, and enjoying one another’s company.”

GRAM kicks off LaughFest in style with sponsor party



Over 100 Grand Rapidians filed into the art-filled spaces of the Grand Rapids Art Museum for LaughFest’s 5th annual sponsor celebration. Tabletops beamed with bright yellow smiles, welcoming gracious festival supporters and guests as they entered. A warm, comforting aroma of local cuisine, sweets and spirits satisfied hunger and soul.

No stranger to hospitality, the 10-day festival was created with one central goal in mind: to connect people together through the power of laughter. LaughFest comes to Grand Rapids from its very own Gilda’s Club, named after the late SNL actor, Gilda Radner. Among those in attendance at the event was Radner’s brother, Michael.

Photos by Bryan Esler for stellafly
Photos by Bryan Esler for stellafly

“I love it when I come to Grand Rapids because people actually know who I am!” jokes Michael Radner. “What I love even more is seeing this community come together and support something so important like Gilda’s Club.”

Michael Radner comes to LaughFest every year and enjoys witnessing Grand Rapidians wrap their arms around the seriousness of grief and cancer support.

“Gilda would love [LaughFest],” says Michael Radner. “She would love that it is all about making people laugh and making them happy. She would love it even more because it’s for a good cause that’s helping people.”

Helping people heal through laughter during a time of year that isn’t that funny at all: Michigan in March.

“What’s more unfunny than Michigan in March?” jokes Wendy Wigger, President of Gilda’s Club Grand Rapids. “But what has been amazing is after you turn the corner, you’ve got these bright smiles decorating the city. We don’t all laugh at the same things, but we do all laugh and that’s what this festival is about- connecting through laughter.”

Wigger and her staff welcome over 1,000 engaged volunteers to the festival this year.

“This really could not happen without the volunteers, donors, and sponsors of the community,” says Wigger. “It’s the totality of all of that partnership that makes this festival successful, year after year.”

LaughFest runs through March 15. For more information, visit


Top Five Reasons to See South Pacific


On a brutally cold February night, I went to the dress rehearsal for the Grand Rapids Civic Theatre’s production of Roger and Hammerstein’s South Pacific. The musical, originally presented on Broadway in 1949, will run in downtown Grand Rapids from February 27 until March 22, 2015. You can get tickets online by visiting

Set on an island in the East Solomans during World War II, a young Navy nurse from Little Rock, Arkansas is totally cool with dating a middle aged French plantation owner who admits that he’s a murderer on their first date. Near the end of the first act, however, she has a complete freak out and runs out on their second date when she learns that he is the father of two mixed-race children.




How can these two shallow, cockeyed pyschopaths possibly resolve their differences to find their happily ever after? Oh, you’ll find out all that — and more — in Act II.

Other than that bit of suspense, here are your top 5 other reasons to see the 66 year old musical based on James A. Michener’s Pulitzer Prize winning book, Tales of the South Pacific.

1. It’s a mini-tropical vacation. By now, you’re sick of enduring weeks of subzero, single digit, and otherwise idiotically bleak and frigid weather. South Pacific offers the weary West Michigan community a 2 and a half hour vacation to bask in the glow of a colorful set filled with palm trees, sandy beaches, blue skies, a glowing tropical sun, and even a romantically realistic full moon. You will be instantly whisked away to not only a different place, but also a different time.

2. You’ll recognize the music. I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of my Hair. Bali Ha’i. Some Enchanted Evening. Happy Talk. A Cockeyed Optimist. Honey Bun. There Is Nuthin’ Like a Dame. (I’m in Love with a) Wonderful Guy. This musical features these and many other songs that have become part of the soundtrack of American living. Many of the tunes in South Pacific have become classic standards. Even if you don’t know the lyrics, you’ve undoubtedly heard the many of the musical’s popular instrumental versions.

3. The singers can belt out the tunes. Emile de Becque, the French plantation owner played by Jose Alejandro Amoros, stirred the audience with his impressively strong and sweeping baritone. Ensign “Knucklehead” Nellie Forbush, the cockeyed optimist nurse played by Jessica Doyle, sings beautifully and delivers a consistently energetic and terrific vocal performance throughout the show. Andrew Schneider as Carpenter’s Mate Luther Billis and Eva Switek as Bloody Mary are two substantial vocal standouts playing comic roles.


4. You appreciate controversy. This musical, with its theme of racial prejudice, was wildly controversial in the 40’s and 50’s. It remains divisive today, albeit for different reasons. Today, the musical’s overt sexism, racist stereotyping, and normalized pedophilia can be painful to watch. While some will dismiss the cringe-worthy depictions as merely products of their time, others will argue that continuing to present these stereotypes only serves to slyly extend oppression. How will you feel when you are presented with cloying racial stereotypes and blatant sexual objectification? Does this presentation have anything new or meaningful to teach us? Discussing these and other difficult questions can lead to greater awareness, understanding, and needed social changes.

5. You’re older than 80. At the dress rehearsal I attended, the audience appeared to be largely composed of the over-80 Caucasian set. Indeed, two women in front of me admitted that they each drove a bus filled with senior citizens. South Pacific features popular music and imagery of their youth. I saw dozens of smiling dentures as the octogenarian crowd left their seats and slowly made their way up the aisles. For many older seniors, South Pacific can be happy nostalgia. (I asked an under-80 senior to attend with me, and he declined — citing that the show was too outdated for him to enjoy.)

As I walked out of the sunny theater, I sourly faced 7 degrees Fahrenheit and sighed. I turned the corner away from the busloads of seniors, and came face to face with two shivering 20-something women who had turned the wrong way and were turning back.




“That was weird,” said one woman to the other.

“What?” said her companion. “The blind alley we just walked down, or the play?”

“Oh, the play,” said her friend. “The whole damn thing was weird.”

They walked away in my opposing direction, out of earshot, and I grinned. I suspect that South Pacific might not resonate well with today’s young people. Why would it?

South Pacific is running now through March 22nd. For ticket information: