In Muskegon Heights, family-run nonprofit finds new ways to serve neighbors

When MiMi Rankin began working for the Health Project in 1997, she asked why one of their programs, Making Men of Character, couldn’t also serve women. Soon, the program was renamed Men & Women of Character and MiMi was tasked with recruiting girls for the program through the Muskegon Heights school district.

“It took off from there,” she said. “Our goal was to get kids to college and into good jobs. We know not every kid will go to college, so let’s find out what you want to do and work with you to succeed.”

Men & Women of Character’s programs have varied over the years, but center on ensuring kids have the tools and resources they need to thrive. This looks like hosting music, kickboxing and creative dancing classes, taking kids on trips outside Muskegon County, and providing scholarships and basic needs once youth have entered college.

Meatloaf and greenbeans are scooped onto a plate at a food bank agency partner.

Food is one aspect that has remained constant. No matter what class is going on, kids are served home-cooked meals made by MiMi’s son, Edriese, who also teaches a cooking class.

“The kids love him. They get walking tacos, sub sandwiches, grilled chicken sandwiches — they eat very well,” MiMi said. “We always feed the kids because we think it’s really important. We don’t know what’s going on at home so we just feed them anyway.”

Over the last few years, the nonprofit’s programming has gotten smaller and more grassroots due to a lack of funds. The pandemic caused them to cut back even more on in-person classes. But today, Edriese still runs his cooking class and, since MiMi is embedded in the community through her job, she is able to identify needs families have and secure resources for them.

Recently she sourced toilet paper and detergent from Feeding America West Michigan after learning some kids needed those items. The food bank has been partnering with them to meet their community’s needs since the nonprofit’s infancy. This year, support from Farm Bureau and Chick-fil-A have helped the food bank support this program and others like it across Muskegon County.

“The benefit of Feeding America West Michigan is being able to get the kids fresh food, fresh meals,” explained Marquis, MiMi’s grandson.

Marquis, his son Cameron and MiMi.

Marquis grew up attending Men & Women of Character in part because of the family connection. He went off to college but returned to his community a few years ago and became a seventh-grade basketball coach. Last year, he took an additional job working for Neighborhood Associations of Michigan. In both positions, he sees firsthand the needs of the community. As a basketball coach, he hears kids’ dreams (e.g. wanting to do a science project) and wanted to start an extracurricular program for them. MiMi suggested he not reinvent the wheel but become Men & Women of Character’s program director as a way to serve the kids he coaches.

He’s already begun mentoring these kids and is hoping to expand the program to involve classes on African American history, mentors with specific skillsets and, of course, food.

“I’ve been around kids, but putting a program together is something different. MiMi was there for me and I said, ‘I already have a platform so let’s take advantage of that.’”

Like Marquis, many others who went to Men & Women of Character have gone on to have successful careers. MiMi is always encouraged when she sees one of these grads out in the community. A number of cooking class grads have even returned to Muskegon Heights to start restaurants.

MiMi, Marquis and Edriese’s work for the program is all unpaid and done from the heart as an extension of their daily lives and day jobs. For MiMi, work doesn’t end at 5 p.m.; at times, she answers calls in the middle of the night from families in need. Marquis connects and mentors kids where they are at, often on the basketball court.

Although Men & Women of Character’s programming has shrunk over the years, the number of lives the family has influenced has only grown. Marquis’s goal for the future of the program is to “make sure kids in Muskegon County are being met, loved and given opportunity across race, gender and age.” Feeding America West Michigan is honored to be part of making this goal possible.