GRAND RAPIDS – Stepping in to save the day brought Christina Wade more good fortune than she could have imagined. The 33 year-old recently became the new executive director of The Network in Grand Rapids, taking over from longtime leader Pat Ward.
In October 2012, Ward suffered a stroke that left her unable to return to work. As the Network’s only paid staff person, much of the center’s day to day operations depended on both her presence and expertise. The Network closed its doors.
But Wade could not stand to see that happen. “People depend on The Network and the groups here,” she said. “What if someone came here for their first time looking for help and there was no one here?”
She volunteered to come in each day and staff the front desk just so someone could be there to take phone calls and make sure the center was open. Wade had been volunteering as the Women’s Group facilitator for the previous two years, so she had keys to the building and some knowledge of the way things worked.
After a few weeks it became clear Ward would not return. “The board members noticed my efforts and they wanted me to keep the doors open while they figured things out,” she said. They offered her the office manager position.
Then when the search began for the next executive director, Wade said she applied after being encouraged by the board to do so.
“Christina’s dedication to the community and her passion for the role will only solidify the new direction of The Network. I look forward to working with Christina as we grow the organization into one of the top LBGT organizations in the country,” said Network Board Member Mike Hemmingsen.
Wade has an unusual small business background that she hopes will help her think outside the box in terms of promoting The Network. As a food stylist, Wade is an expert at creating picture-perfect images for food and product advertising. Clients have included Whirlpool, Kellogg’s, Chicken of the Sea and a slew of local restaurants. Her degree is in photography from Lansing Community College, a program that included training on running a small business.
Though she grew up in the Lansing area, Wade knew that food styling opportunities were more plentiful on the west side of the state where there are many food production facilities and independent restaurants.
The move to Grand Rapids, almost five years ago, helped Wade blossom past the age of the occasional trip to the gay bar, into a woman fully invested in the lesbian community. “A mentor advised me to get involved in a Women’s Group and I fell in love with the center. I became close with a lot of the women. Moving to Grand Rapids I didn’t really have any friends. When I went into the center I made friends with a vast age group.”
The Women’s Group meets twice a month at The Network, plus one or more times off site for things like game night, movies or dinner. They’ve also offer bigger adventures, like going to the Fredrick Meijer Gardens or to the beach in Saugatuck. Wade became facilitator of the group two years ago.
Another group that struck her fancy was the Wellness Group, where people meet to talk about nutrition, weight loss, exercise, meditation and other health issues.
When she took over as office manager, and again as executive director, the concern of the community came through. “The camaraderie of the LGBT community is very tight knit. When I came in word traveled very fast. All these people were calling and wanting to know who I am. They are all very caring and I’m very fortunate. And when we need something, people have come through. When we put word out that we needed a fridge for the center, we had one within a week. People always stop in to ask how Pat is doing.”
In the past few months Wade has learned more about the other programs, and even surprised herself by finding a nurturing streak that she’d never recognized before. The youth group is what did that.
It started out with just one or two kids that would stop in, but in a matter of months it’s grown to a steady group of 15. “We keep a fun atmosphere and the youth feel comfortable. I don’t let them drink the coffee though, and I know when they leave here they go to the coffee shop up the street. It’s the first time in my life I’m telling kids what not to do. Like don’t drink the coffee. I’m very protective of these kids and it’s funny. When did that happen?”
The youth range from age 13 to 18 and they often watch movies, play games or have discussions. Recently they had a “mocktail” party where the youth made hors d’oeurves and fancy drinks out of Kool-Aid. Over 30 young people attended.
Wade loves seeing the expansion of the youth program. “We’re going to need them to be here at the center to keep it open for the next 25 years,” she said.
The thing that has surprised Wade most has been the generosity of the community. At the end of 2012, membership renewals went out. “It’s super common for people to throw in extra for their membership. It surprised me tremendously how supportive our community is.”
This is the 25th anniversary for the Network, and both Wade and the board are looking excitedly into the future. “The Network will become a way of life with the LGBT community in the West Michigan area within the next few years. The board is growing not only from a numbers standpoint, but our focus on putting together a strong strategic plan that will allow for more programs, increased awareness of LGBT issues, and last but not least the return of Pride to the Network. Execution of that plan has already begun,” Hemmingsen said.
For more information on the Network, visit their website at http://www.grlgbt.org/.