Located in a small storefront in quaint downtown Fremont, the Empowerment Network invites anyone facing mental illness to visit on their journey toward self-acceptance and sufficiency.
Six days a week, you’ll find neighbors (known as members) gathering to socialize with others who face similar challenges. At the EmpowermentNetwork, they can attend nutrition classes, access laundry machines and get connected to housing and financial resources. Additionally, the nonprofit has a few small closets, freezers and refrigerators stocked with food sourced from Feeding America West Michigan and available to members as needed.
“It’s an amazing program,” said Stacey, an Empowerment Network member of 10 years. “We usually have a puzzle or a movie going. We have crafts, a computer. You can sit and do nothing or sit and socialize. It’s a good way to get out of the house.”
Recently, Stacey became the nonprofit’s tech intern, joining a staff of seven and an intern team of five. She helps with anything that needs a computer, such as posting on social media or writing grants.
“My favorite part is just being able to be part of the community and actually having somewhere I can put my talents to use,” she said. “Part of my mental illness is self-confidence. The Empowerment Network definitely helps.”
Filling grocery bags with help from the food bank
Although the Empowerment Network stores a variety of food, unlike a traditional pantry, members don’t “shop” through all its shelves — the building is not set up for that. Instead, two shelves located in the nonprofit’s community room are stocked and restocked with the most needed items. Members are encouraged to choose from the shelves at each visit. But if they need additional help with groceries, they are welcome to ask.
“If I needed anything, I would be able to come here on one of my work days and get a bag of cheese or a brick of butter when I need it,” Stacey explained.
Before the pandemic, the Empowerment Network provided a meal’s worth of food to members five days a week. Prior to their partnership with the food bank, which began around 15 years ago, they provided just one meal each week.
A barrier to food access for many of the Empowerment Network’s members is a lack of transportation to grocery stores. That’s why many who visit live within walking distance or are driven by the nonprofit’s staff.
During the height of the pandemic, when even transportation nonprofits shut down, many members were isolated with no way to access food. In response, the Empowerment Network delivered bags full of two weeks’ worth of food twice a month. They continue to deliver small bags of staples to their members in need each week.
“Because we had the food bank, we were able to be helpful,” recalled Gabrielle, the Empowerment Network’s director.
Members find confidence to be themselves
Called the “Empowerment” Network for a reason, the nonprofit aims to strengthen members’ skill sets and confidence so that they can help themselves. This philosophy informed their decision to allow clients to choose what they need when it comes to food, although the pandemic grocery deliveries had to be standardized.
“We offer them help, but not in a way that feels like a handout,” Gabrielle said. “We have food that’s just available so they don’t have to ask for it.”
The internship program is a big part of the Empowerment Network’s model. Members with internships receive stipends each month, which helps add a little extra on top of the social security or disability income most receive.
Many members say they are different people because of their time spent at the Empowerment Network.
“I’ve become so close to everybody,” Stacey said. “They’re all like family to me. Empowerment has definitely helped me.”
Her proudest accomplishment so far in her internship was writing — and ultimately being awarded — a grant in time to meet a sudden deadline.
Serving from the heart
Gabrielle has served as the Empowerment Network’s director for 20 years and has done a lot to change the Empowerment Network for the better.
In its early days, they just offered members a cup of coffee and the newspaper. Now, they offer a wide range of resources.
“I think part of it is because we learned what they needed,” she said. “We want to make them feel comfortable in the community.”