More than shovels and headstones: How Lincoln Township found its long-serving cemetarian

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Kevin Gebhard stands near a columbarium in Hickory Bluff Cemetery on Wednesday. Gebhard has been tending to Lincoln Townships cemeteries for 37 years. (Tony Wittkowski / HP staff)

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

STEVENSVILLE — Kevin Gebhard really digs his job.

Through the last 37 years, he’s become well accustomed to the Lincoln Charter Township Cemetery and Hickory Bluff Cemetery – which are a combined 25 acres – as the township’s cemetarian.

His responsibilities as public works director stretch beyond maintaining the two cemeteries, but the headstones keep him busy year round.

At 21 years old, Gebhard found himself between jobs when he was roped into digging his first grave.

“I was walking down St. Joe Avenue when a guy I knew from school, who was out working in the cemetery, called me over and asked ‘you wanna help me dig a grave?’” Gebhard recalled.

Work at both cemeteries can be cyclical, but Gebhard said he gets a lot of help during the summer when it comes to mowing and pulling weeds.

“By the time you’re done weeding the last row at one cemetery, it’s time to start to doing that at the other one because everything’s grown back by then,” he said with a laugh. “This is done all by hand since you can’t get around some of the headstones with a mower.”

In his early years, Gebhard said the township had a sexton whose only job was to dig graves. Going back three decades, the township only had two mowers and no maintenance building.

When it comes to digging graves, Gebhard guesses they average about 50 a year. At this rate over the course of his time with the township, Gebhard has dug nearly 2,000 graves.

But Gebhard said the township can go as long as two weeks without breaking ground before there’s a string of funerals that seem to come all at once.

Each grave is 3.5 feet wide and about 56 inches deep. The depth is equivalent to shoulder length for most people standing up.

“Digging someone’s grave six feet deep is a myth,” Gebhard said.

With one foot in

About five years ago, the township added granite columbarium units to its cemeteries at Gebhard’s request. A columbarium is a structure – either indoors or outside – that has niches for funeral urns to be stored.

They’ve grown in popularity since the township installed its first one, and Gebhard can see why.

“They pay for themselves. They are a good investment and it saves space in the cemetery,” he said. “Everybody is going that way. You get so many preferences out there when it comes to death. Some people do not want to go in the ground.”

In addition to the columbarium, Gebhard installed a “scatter garden” at Hickory Bluff Cemetery. The garden is an area for mourners to throw their loved one’s ashes into nature. Nearby the scatter garden is a wall with engraved names of those whose ashes have been spread in the native scenery.

For funeral proceedings, Gebhard said they usually stay back from the crowd. Watching people stand still in silence, saying goodbye to family and friends tends to be a difficult thing to watch.

Afterward, Gebhard and his crew breaks everything down and covers the casket.

Although some funeral homes prefer to handle some of these tasks.

“There are times when people like to stick around and watch the top go on,” Gebhard said. “Some like to throw a shovel-full of dirt (over the casket). Then they leave and we pull our cribbing boards out and fill it with dirt.”

Winter times can be tough because the ground is still frozen. However, Lincoln Township buries all year long.

Using a steel blade on an edger, crew members peel back the tough top layer of sod before digging farther down. Gebhard said he remembers how they used to dig graves by hand when he started – especially in the older part of the township’s first cemetery where it was hard to maneuver a tractor.

“I just like it when everything is green and growing well and there are no complaints,” he said. “Making everybody happy is hard to do, but it’s what drives you. I take a lot of pride in that.”

The hardest part of the job is digging graves meant for children.

“We’ve buried too many kids out here,” Gebhard said Wednesday while on site at Hickory Bluff. “It’s hard to see so many of your friends out here, too.”

On watch for thievery

Not everything that comes with Gebhard’s job is morbid.

One of the funnier memories he has at the cemetery came during the first year on the job. One day while walking through an old section of the cemetery, he fell through a grave.

“It was an old sectional vault and I went through the casket and was standing on the bottom (of the grave),” Gebhard said, shaking his head. “I was pretty new back then. My eyes were real big while I climbed out of there.”

Another memorable moment was when Gebhard was working at Hickory Bluff a few years back. There were several reports of stolen items from graves at various cemeteries in Southwest Michigan.

“I was down there working and I see this van coming around. A lady jumps out and grabs something really quick,” Gebhard said. “She went around the corner and did the same thing. This happened a few more times, so I went to the truck.”

Gebhard grabbed his radio from inside the maintenance truck and reached out to police.

By that point, she was gone and heading down Glenlord Road. Police cars went chasing after her but lost the van. About two minutes later, Gebhard’s old supervisor called him because he had been listening to all the commotion over the radio.

He radioed Gebhard and asked him to describe the van for him. As it turned out, the van was in front him on M-139.

“The cops followed her to her house,” Gebhard said. “Her whole yard was nothing but stolen cast-iron pots, flowers, decorations – the whole nine yards. That was fun prosecuting her.”

Ten years after the incident, Gebhard thought he saw the same thing happen when another woman got out of her vehicle and began grabbing a few shepherd hooks near graves that are used to support flowers.

Doing his due diligence, Gebhard called the police. The hooks turned out to belong to her family.

“I felt so low, but it looked exactly like the first time,” Gebhard said. “She was upset and we straightened it out. That was terrible. I learned a lesson there.”

A final headstone

Clerk Stacy Loar-Porter met Gebhard when she became clerk 16 years ago.

Oddly enough, Loar-Porter said her husband’s family has known Gebhard since they were kids where the two would go camping together. Born in Dowagiac, Gebhard’s family moved to the Stevensville area when he was in kindergarten.

“I think it’s amazing that he started here by mowing lawns and has worked his way up to where he is now,” Loar-Porter said. “We get lots of compliments from residents about him.”

He’s a member of the Michigan Association of Municipal Cemeteries and has been on its Board of Directors from time to time.

In 2015, he was named Cemetarian of the Year. The award is based on a person’s longevity in the field as well as their dedication to the craft.

Loar-Porter said other cemeteries in the state nominated him for his knowledge of the profession.

“Whenever they called him with questions about something, he would always know the answer,” Loar-Porter said. “He helps us with a lot of history. People who go to our cemeteries on a regular basis to check on their families know him by his first name.”

There’s a lot of love and history that comes with cemeteries, Loar-Porter said. And she believes Gebhard is the reason the township has some of the best cemeteries in Southwest Michigan.

“When Kevin decides to leave I don’t know what we’re going to do,” she said. “I’ve told him not to even think about it. He’s a big asset to the township.”

As for when he eventually kicks the bucket, Gebhard already knows what he wants on his headstone.

“Mine will read, ‘I told you I was sick,’” he said without pausing. “I thought my wife would get a kick out of that.”

Contact Tony Wittkowski at twittkowski@TheHP.com or (269) 932-0358. Follow him on Twitter: @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on April 7, 2017)

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A changing industry: Parable Christian Store adapts better than most

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Parable Christian Store at 2913 Niles Ave. in St. Joseph offers a wide selection of Christian books, Bibles, and DVDs. (Don Campbell | HP Staff)

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

ST. JOSEPH — Lorraine Valk has seen the changes over time.

As owner of the Parable Christian Store in St. Joseph, she has seen her industry ceding ground to new competitors. However, her store is still running and doing well.

Valk was introduced to the industry when she was 6 years old. Her parents took over the Parable bookstore in 1971 when it was still in downtown Benton Harbor. They would move it to its current St. Joseph location in 1976.

Valk and her husband, who works as an accountant in Kalamazoo, would then buy the business from her parents 10 years ago.

“I have a real passion for it. Ten years ago, I never expected where we’re at now,” Valk said. “The industry has just changed by leaps and bounds in the last decade.”

The changes began with music. Christian music was a large part of their business, but the introduction of iPods and digital downloads soon took over. That was the first hit to the industry.

Valk said the peak of Christian retail was at the turn of the century. Enough so, that a lot of Christian stores had expanded into grocery stores in an attempt to become enormous.

In a town with St. Joseph’s population, Valk said this was not common.

Next came the shift to eBooks and audiobooks, which gave the Christian bookstores another blow.

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Lorraine Valk, owner of Parable Christian Store St. Joseph, talks about the store’s history during an interview with The Herald-Palladium on Thursday afternoon. (Don Campbell | HP Staff)

“The stores that are successful are the ones that are adopting and changing,” Valk said. “Right now we have an awful lot of gifts and a laser engraver. We’ve had people engrave a baby’s name and birth date on a frame.”

Signs of the struggle in Valk’s industry came to the forefront in 2015.

Family Christian Stores, the nation’s largest chain of Christian book and merchandise stores, declared bankruptcy two years ago. In the end, FCS was able to wipe away more than $120 million in debt and bought $20 million in consignment inventory at 70-90 percent off the wholesale costs.

This reorganization allowed FCS to start over with “free” inventory in their stores and without debt. Getting the consignment inventory for cheap left several publishers – which the St. Joseph store works with – empty handed. Many couldn’t absorb the loss and went out of business.

Last week, Family Christian Stores announced they would close all 240 locations in 36 states, liquidating their inventory, and laying off more than 3,000 employees.

It marked as a sad day for Christian retail as FCS’s foreclosure came so soon after its previous bankruptcy reorganization.

The one in Holland closed, and the South Bend and Kalamazoo stores are in the process of liquidating.

Changing with the times

The collapse of a national Christian retailer brought forth the question of whether the business model was structurally broken.

When Valk took over the store 10 years ago, there were about 100 Parable stores. To this day, Valk said they have one of the 17 such stores left.

“I think one of the reasons that I’m still in business is because I am very proactive,” she said. “I’m quick to reordering the things that sell quickly, or returning and marking down the things that don’t sell well.”

The stores still in operation that don’t rely on web sales are going against the grain because of their independence.

“It’s crucial being an independent store,” Valk said. “I can make tiny adjustments every day. Making a change for 250 stores becomes harder to do.”

In addition to the laser engraver, Parable has gone to a digital system for various songs and hymns, which can be burned into a CD for a custom album.

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Marylea Mitchell of St. Joseph checks out an engraved plaque Thursday at Parable Christian Store St. Joseph. The store owner says the shop is in a strong position despite online challengers. (Don Campbell | HP Staff)

There is a Catholic section in the store, cards for different occasions, church supplies, Sunday school material along with robes for pastors and priests. The store can custom order what they don’t have as well, Valk said.

But the books are the biggest draw.

St. Joseph resident Marylea Mitchell said she’s been shopping at Parable for 20 years.

She said she keeps coming back because there’s that personal touch that comes with the store.

“We always find other things when we’re in here,” Mitchell said. “I just like having a nice Christian store in my hometown. If there is something we are looking for that they don’t have, they help us find it.”

While Valk is thankful for customers like Mitchell, she said it’s on the owners to keep their Christian retail stores thriving.

“We’re hanging tight, but I’m not shy about telling people to shop local,” Valk said. “We need to support the ones that are left.”

Contact Tony Wittkowski at twittkowski@TheHP.com or (269) 932-0358. Follow him on Twitter: @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on March 5, 2017)

An eye for farming: Coloma vineyard incorporates drone technology

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Joe Herman is owner of Karma Vista Vineyards in Coloma. Herman decided to enlist the help of a drone company in Southwest Michigan to help keep an eye on his crops. (Don Campbell | HP Staff)

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

COLOMA — Joe Herman has looked into new ways of getting the most out of his crops, which included collecting soil data and adding micronutrients to his land.

Now he’s embracing a technological approach for his wine grapes.

As owner of Karma Vista Vineyards in Coloma, Herman is enlisting Great Lakes Drone Company to provide aerial data management and consultation for this year’s growing season.

Using an unmanned aerial vehicle, more commonly known as a drone, Herman is hoping to redefine how to manage his fields this year.

“It gives us one more tool in making the perfect fruit,” Herman said. “The quality of the fruit determines the quality of the wine. It gives you perspective on what you can get from the ground.”

Herman learned of the use of drones in agriculture through several news outlets in the western part of the U.S. Then he met the owners of the Great Lakes Drone Company during the agriculture fair hosted by the Michigan State University Extension in early February.

Coupled with his interest in the subject and the happenstance meeting with the Watervliet company, Herman wanted to know more.

Reyna Price, sales and marketing director for Great Lakes Drone Company, said Herman signed up after further discussions on how they could save him time and money.

“We got a lot out of that agriculture fair,” Price said. “We were there to try and educate people on how technology could go hand-in-hand with farming.”

The timing worked for Herman, who opens Karma Vista Vineyards for the season on Friday.

Herman said he realized this form of technology with vineyards is still in it’s infancy, but wishes to be ahead of the curve.

“You find as you get older, you only have so many vintages left,” Herman said. “We sell grapes to other wineries across the state because we use only about a quarter of what we grow.”

The buzz on grapes

Herman’s family has been farming in Coloma for 170 years. He’s a sixth-generation grower and his son makes it seven generations as the vineyard’s winemaker.

In addition to their cherries and peaches, Herman said they grow 10 variations of wine grapes.

The Karma Vista site in Coloma makes up 90 acres, while Herman Farms in Bainbridge Township is 360 acres. The 450 acres together proves to be a lot of ground to cover for Herman and his family, which is where drone oversight comes into play.

The drone overflights are expected to provide them with real-time data to make cost-effective decisions in vineyard health, disease and nutrient management.

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A photo of a drone that the Great Lakes Drone Company uses to take video and pictures. Drones like this one will be used to oversee rain and soil levels on Joe Herman’s farm. (Photo provided)

These flyovers will take photos to show various stages of water accumulation, measure growth and use thermal imaging to give insurance companies an idea of what’s lost in the event of a flood or drought.

“The main goal is to give him a better yield at the end of the season,” Price said.

Herman said he and his workers normally had to watch for changes in water and growth from the seat of a tractor, whenever they would drive up and down every row.

“You get good at trying to spot a difference in your crops,” Herman said. “But sometimes that’s not enough. We’ve gone into soil testing and applying micronutrients into the soil. There are a lot of things out there that you can feed into the soil. The soil feeds the vine.”

Mapping the fruit belt

Because of the weather in Southwest Michigan, Price said Great Lakes Drone Company wants more growers to know they offer this service.

“We cant wait to see how it works,” Price said. “Not only can we collect data on the health of crops, but we can find crop damage for crops that succumb to that strange Michigan weather.”

They started planting grapes about 15 years ago. However, he introduced juice grapes at first, before adding wine grapes.

As time went on, Herman said they decided to open a winery of their own instead of just selling grapes to other businesses.

So, being the first at using drones to keep an eye on his crops should come as no surprise.

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Pilot Kyle Dorosz and operator Brea McGaffey manage a drone through a remote tablet for Great Lakes Drone Company. (Photo provided)

To start out, Herman said he wants the drone to survey 80 acres at the Coloma site every other week. The idea is to get a baseline and a different view as his crops get different foliage and sprout in late May. The drone’s data and mapping will come into play as the season progresses and dryer spots begin to develop.

“We are focusing on soil and the vineyard’s health at our operation,” Herman said. “Everything is about the air and water drainage. This gives us a look of the contour of the land – from the air we can spot those pockets in the vineyard that are struggling more than others.”

When asked if he’s worried the new strategy won’t make a difference, Herman references a common motto among growers.

“If you’re not making some mistakes, you’re not doing enough,” he said. “It’s great to have a job where you can pour yourself into your work and pour your work into a glass. I’m 61 years old and excited about the new things to come.”

Contact Tony Wittkowski at twittkowski@TheHP.com or (269) 932-0358. Follow him on Twitter: @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on March 2, 2017)

Education on the GO: SJ schools program offers students intervention, enrichment

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Students had an opportunity to work on knife skills in the foods room with Lauri Berry during a GO Time session last semester. The program began this school year. (Provided photo | SJPS)

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

ST. JOSEPH — With several extracurricular activities after school and a loaded schedule that includes advance placement classes for calculus and art, Haley Rich has a lot on her plate.

Students, like Rich, are being asked more of these days – whether it’s finishing weekly projects or preparing a portfolio that could someday operate as the tipping point in their favor on a college application.

But a new program at St. Joseph High School called Growth Opportunity Time is giving Rich some time to address anything she feels she wants more time on, as well as some opportunities to have fun.

The program, commonly referred to as GO Time, was introduced to the high school and Upton Middle School in the fall semester this school year. The program has two objectives: Intervention and enrichment.

First, GO Time allows teachers to summon or invite students who are struggling with a subject to get catch up with others while becoming more acquainted with the class. Secondly, GO Time allows students who are doing well in class a chance to try something new or learn something they wouldn’t normally get in a regular classroom setting.

Rich, a junior, is earnest in her schoolwork and admitted she was a bit apprehensive about GO Time.

When she heard students would have to choose something to do once a week for 45 minutes, Rich took that as time lost from her other classes.

Broken down, that was nearly 10 minutes a day that could be spent balancing equations in chemistry or memorizing daunting formulas in calculus. However, when it began last semester and teachers got creative with what was offered, Rich found merit in GO Time.

Last semester, Rich chose to sit in on review sessions while taking in a few of the more fun sessions.

“They are extremely helpful because they’re my hard classes that I might need extra time with anyway,” Rich said. “GO Time actually gave me more time after school to do other things. After two sessions, it totally changed my idea of what it was going to be.”

Curbing proficiency

The roots of the program can be traced back four or five years when the school district’s administration and employees began attending conferences on professional learning communities – or PLCs.

High school Principal Greg Blomgren and other school officials learned of the new concept through meetings at Berrien RESA and by visiting other schools that have sustained success at the top of the state’s public schools.

In fact, GO Time is based on a program made famous by an Illinois high school. Blomgren said the school his staff emulated is years beyond development, having perfected its version over more than three decades.

“We’ve done a lot of research and copied ideas from other schools,” Blomgren said. “A lot of work was done proactively with the roll out with the staff. We didn’t want this tobe a punitive system. We wanted (students) to have more time to work with teachers in an area they needed more help with.”

Blomgren and company began to collaborate with other departments within the school district to make sure they were heading in the right direction toward what the state refers to as “essential standards.”

One of the recurring problems facing education came to the forefront in January during Betsy DeVos’ confirmation hearing as President Donald Trump’s nominee to be education secretary in January.

In relation to the debate about student accountability, Sen. Al Franken, D-Minnesota, asked DeVos about whether she favored using test scores to measure student proficiency or student growth. Much to the surprise of Democrats, DeVos couldn’t identify the difference.

Many teachers and legislators have argued the problem with proficiency – which is measuring student success by an arbitrary standard – is it neglects students at the top of their class because they’re already ahead of the standard. In the same sense, students at the bottom who don’t have a chance at meeting the curve might also get ignored in the process of keeping that standard.

With GO Time, no one seems to be left out.

“We’re trying to make sure the staff has time to collaborate and ensure all the content is being covered,” Blomgren said. “We look at how we’re assessing the content and the pace of the content. If the kids aren’t processing it, that’s the intervention part. But the kids who are already excelling, are given that chance to get even better.”

Enriching vs. intervening

With GO Time, students either get an opportunity to do something they haven’t done before or get the extra help.

The students who are identified for intervention get an invite by a requesting teacher.

“I think the intervention part is the most important,” Blomgren said. “So many times we have kids, who for transportation reasons, can’t come to spend the extra time with teachers after school. But GO Time builds in that time during school to receive that help. We found that to be a huge benefit.”

Joe Haydon, who predominantly serves as a high school science teacher, was tagged as the GO Time coordinator. He works behind the scenes and was responsible for how the program was introduced last semester.

For intervention purposes, Haydon said things don’t have to be fancy to have an immediate impact.

“Working in smaller groups with 10 or 12 kids seems to be effective,” Haydon said. “Having that smaller group is an easier way of reteaching the subject or pulling out a different teaching method. This gives teachers even more one-on-one time with the students who need additional help.”

But don’t refer to a GO Time intervention session as a form of study hall, Blomgren said. Study hall implies students are working on their own. GO Time is about getting help to understand a subject.

Half the staff offers intervention sessions, while the other half offers enrichment.

Out of the more than 1,000 students at the high school, about 200 normally require intervention, Haydon said. The other 800 go to enrichment sessions that require larger groups.

“It’s great that we have a staff that’s willing to buy in on this,” Haydon said. “They know why we’re doing this and that’s been integral. It really has been a team of people, even from just bouncing ideas off one another.”

Each week comes with a new menu with opportunities for GO Time.

Students visit their portal to view the different sessions on the GO Time menu. They vary from the media center being left open for silent reading to SAT preparations for underclassmen. Some of the more popular GO Time sessions included a mock presidential debate and a visit from state Sen. John Proos.

Former students would come in to talk about their experience at the college level. Counselors also began adding workshops on applying for colleges.

“Is it more work for the teachers? Yes. But it does work with the students,” Blomgren said. “As we get better at this, our goal is to see some improvement in those kids who are struggling. Two or three years down the road, we hope to see an increase in standardized test scores.”

Growing with time

The next GO Time session isn’t until Feb. 23, but that doesn’t mean work isn’t being done to the program.

Minor changes have been occurring since it was introduced in the fall. GO Time began as a 30-minute period, but was changed to 45 minutes. Blomgren said they also moved GO Time to different times of the day, testing when they could get the most out of students.

Because there are so many moving pieces and a surprisingly large amount of students are gone at the beginning and end of a school day, GO Time was moved to early afternoon. Next came the challenge of finding a way to move all 1,050 students at once to their preferred sessions.

That’s where Haydon comes along.

He handles the logistics by lining up speakers/outside presenters, adjusting the GO Time menu, and helping teachers get the spreadsheets and attendance set. The last three weeks of school have been without GO Time so that staff can take a breath and evaluate, Haydon said.

“We’re only six or seven sessions into this, but since the initial GO Time, we have continued to ask for feedback to make adjustments,” Haydon said. “We’re providing some intervention. But is it enough? You are only getting that intervention every few weeks. The solution would be to have multiple GO Times, but that would mean more time needed in planning it.”

Nadia Judge, a sophomore, said she thought GO Time would be similar to having a free period.

The first thing she went to was a chemistry session her teacher held for people who wanted extra help. Students and tutors were there helping them learn to use a specific equation. However, Judge’s favorite GO Time sessions were the interactive ones.

Because she’s part of the Student Foundation, Judge and a few others were able to set up a mock presidential debate a few days before the November general election. They tapped teachers Nita Nicholie and Phillip Cole to play the roles of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, respectively.

It proved to be comedic, while both teachers were able to still make legitimate points about the candidates’ proposed policies.

“They were really enthusiastic about it,” Judge recalled. “The students loved it and we covered a lot of topics.”

Sometimes, the results GO Time produces are more unique than getting a better score on a test.

Haley Rich’s younger brother plays the trumpet and formed a band with a few classmates through a GO Time session in the band room.

With the majority of her classes being AP or college prep courses, Haley Rich said she hopes GO Time sticks around. Not just for the one-on-one time with teachers, but for the reprieve as well.

“It’s not too often, but when we do have it, you can tell it helps,” Rich said. “I think GO Time benefits students because we can continue to learn or have fun for 45 minutes.”

Contact Tony Wittkowski at twittkowski@TheHP.com or (269) 932-0358. Follow him on Twitter: @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on Feb. 12, 2017)

The life of a debt collector: Upset callers, fake deaths are all in a day’s work

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Myrna Hamilton has been working as a collector with Creditors’ Service Bureau of Niles for 36 years. (Don Campbell | HP Staff)

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

NILES — On average, Myrna Hamilton makes between 175 to 200 phone calls a day.

The high volume of calls comes naturally to Hamilton, who has served as a debt collector for 36 years. That’s about 25 calls an hour – or one every 2.5 minutes.

Hamilton works at Creditors’ Service Bureau of Niles Inc., which is the only debt collection agency in Berrien County.

As a collector, Hamilton is tasked with doing the improbable. Call the people who have shied away from paying a bill – and get them to pay the overdue payment.

Accounts are turned into the agency from clients – who mostly come from the medical field, along with the occasional apartment complex – which are then passed along to the collectors who must regularly call people who owe the money.

It’s not the most rewarding job when accounting for a few angry callers mixed in with some avoidance.

“Sometimes it’s an insurance issue, but a lot of times, people just don’t have the money,” Hamilton said. “After so long, if people don’t pay the hospital it gets turned over to us and we have to collect the money.”

The Creditors’ Service Bureau of Niles fields Michigan and Indiana clients, but have made calls to those dodging bills as far away as Hawaii and Mexico.

Vicki Papczynski became the agency’s manager two years ago after spending 35 years in the legal field. She knows of the common misconceptions often attributed to collectors. But she said the public has the wrong idea.

“We’re pretty easy to work with. We’re not here to hurt anybody or cause anybody grief,” Papczynski said. “There are debt collectors out there like that, which gives people like us a bad name.”

After a client signs with the collection agency, special software is used to send messages to those who owe a bill. If that call is not returned, Papczynski said “her girls start calling.”

Often times, if individuals cannot be found or don’t respond, the debt will be moved to their credit report by the agency after 120 days.

Papczynski said more have been trying to dispute these claims in the hope it buys more time. However, one of the common excuses is identity theft.

“It gets hard for them to use that as an excuse when we have their physical signature and picture in the records,” Papczynski said.

The most extreme cases are labeled AEE, or All Efforts are Exhausted. This occurs when the person in question seems to have disappeared from the face of the Earth.

At that point, an automatic dialer is set up to leave messages. If the agency’s workers get caught up on other cases, they circle back around to the ones marked AEE.

Bills and dial telephones

Hamilton, a Niles native, began working at the collections agency after the boss’ daughter reached out to her.

“I’d never bill collected before. It was interesting to say the least,” Hamilton said, trying to recall her first year. “I don’t remember my first (collection), but the first couple I know were scary. You have somebody on the other line that is upset. I was so quiet and shy back then. That took some getting used to, but you learn quickly.”

At times, Hamilton said she and her coworkers feel more like peoples’ financial counselor or advisor, as opposed to a collector.

Each case varies, as some have gone on for years.

Hamilton said she gets to know these people well, especially if they are working toward paying off a $20,000 bill.

“You might not ever meet them, but it seems like they are your friends because you’ve been working with them so long,” she said.

When she started working at the collection agency more than three decades ago, Hamilton said they went to work on dial telephones. Back then she had to type her own lawsuits and complete all the legal material related to each case.

Now the agency is big enough to have its own legal department.

With all the changes over the years, there is one thing that remains constant.

Whenever she’s asked what she does for a living, Hamilton said the reaction is always the same.

“Everybody says, ‘I don’t know how you can do it,’” Hamilton said. “I’ve just done it for so long. I sympathize with everybody’s case individually. You have the occasional person who is very rude. Really rude, because since you are a bill collector, they hate you immediately before they even start talking to you. But most of the time people are understanding.”

No calls please

Not every conversation is white and black. Some fit in between the emotional spectrum. Hamilton recalled a particularly embarrassing exchange between a man who said he had no hospital bill.

The man told Hamilton he didn’t remember his service statement, so she put him on hold and printed off his statement to tell him why he was being charged.

“I looked at (the hospital bill) and saw it was about STDs,” Hamilton said. “When I called him, he must have remembered what it was for because right away he said, ‘I’m just going to pay that bill.’ I was already embarrassed, so I was glad he spared me that conversation. That’s actually happened a couple of times.”

Hamilton said it can get pretty tough talking with people she’s supposed to be tracking down, including some of the more elderly people who aren’t able to pay.

“Those can be really sad sometimes,” she said. “Years ago, I can remember this old man who always paid me $5 a month, every single month. He was from way out of town. He always paid it faithfully.”

When he didn’t pay it one month, Hamilton reached out to him expecting the worst. She discovered the old man was on his last can of spam, trying to feed himself.

However, there have been times when she’s also felt duped.

“One time a guy did tell me his father passed away, but he didn’t,” Hamilton said, shaking her head. “I had been so sad for this guy because I had been working with them for years.”

She said one letter sent to her has stuck with her for quite some time.

It encompassed a warped reputation that is attributed to collectors, which Hamilton and her coworkers have continuously denounced.

“This letter went on about how ‘you guys are eating steaks and drinking your champagne, and we’re over here eating our Hamburger Helper and drinking Kool-Aid,’” Hamilton said. “The person who wrote that believes we’re hoity-toity here, but I probably had that to eat last night.”

More often than not, Hamilton and her fellow collectors take those calls home with them.

Hamilton said in many instances, she just wants to shut down her brain for a while after work. Ironically, that includes avoiding phone calls at home.

“It’s not just sitting at the desk. It’s not just calling and asking for money. It’s exhausting,” Hamilton said. “You work through people’s finances and family deaths. We’re nice to work with, but it can be a mental strain on our end too.”

Contact Tony Wittkowski at twittkowski@TheHP.com or (269) 932-0358. Follow him on Twitter: @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on Feb. 1, 2017)

Turning a corner: How two economic organizations coexist in Benton Harbor

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

BENTON HARBOR — The building at 38 W. Main Street, along the outskirts of the Benton Harbor Arts District, is home to two organizations that have become household names among Southwest Michigan businesses.

While Cornerstone Alliance and Cornerstone Chamber of Commerce have similar names and the same mailing address, their differences are unknown to many in the community.

“I can’t tell you how many times we’re asked that,” said Cornerstone Alliance President Rob Cleveland. “Even after this story comes out, I guarantee we’ll still have people asking that question.”

In fact, Cleveland and Chris Heugel, president of the Cornerstone Chamber of Commerce, have been asked about their organizations’ differences so much, they had a flier printed for those new to the area.

Cornerstone Alliance was created in the hopes of drawing new businesses to the region, while the Chamber of Commerce focuses its efforts on keeping those businesses in the community.

Cornerstone Alliance is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that gets a charitable deduction. The Chamber of Commerce is a 501(c)(6) nonprofit that has the ability to lobby at the state capitol. A slight difference, but a key one due to the federal government’s oversight on nonprofits.

One is funded through investors, while the other is a membership-driven organization.

“We support our business community through advocacy, networking events, providing member benefits –and watching legislation is a key thing,” Heugel said. “There’s always something to keep track of in Lansing. It’s our job to notify our members – which is about 700 businesses that have 36,000 employees. We always have to have our finger on the pulse.”

As Berrien County’s lead economic development agency, Cleveland and his contingent are tasked with new business attraction, entrepreneurship and business expansion.

“We tend to be the intermediary between the businesses and the municipalities,” Cleveland said. “Whether that’s working through a tax abatement or other potential incentives.”

While the heads of both organizations share a building and work, literally, feet apart, both Cornerstones rarely work together on the same projects. But that doesn’t mean they don’t collaborate in some way or another on a daily basis.

There have been a few instances where businesses reach out to one organization, who are then referred to the other.

Other times, when Cornerstone Alliance finishes its efforts in bringing a business to the region, the Chamber of Commerce picks up where the other left off.

How they began

The Chamber was established in 1954. The Alliance, which on paper started in December 1987, officially came to be in January 1988 – through its filing as a nonprofit.

Both were also created under different names.

The Chamber was originally known as the Twin Cities Area Chamber of Commerce. Cornerstone Alliance’s forerunner was the Community Economic Development Corp, also known as the CEDC.

According to Pat Moody, who spent nearly 20 years as executive vice president at the Chamber, the CEDC was born out of a need from Whirlpool Corp.

At the time of the CEDC’s inception, Whirlpool Corp. was in the process of recruiting “top-flight talent” from various schools and saw a need for more attractions to draw these fabled workers to the area.

“Whirlpool essentially came to the community and said, ‘we will give you $1 million a year for the next five years if the community will match it,’” Moody said. “That funding was used to create an economic development device to kickstart the effort.”

Still known as the CEDC, the economic development organization soon needed office space and got in touch with the Twin Cities Area Chamber of Commerce.

From there, the two organizations shared floor space at the Vincent Place until the lease expired. By that point, both Cornerstones made a short move to its current location at 38 W. Main St., which had been empty for 15 or 20 years.

Two or three years after initially moving in together at the Vincent Place, the two entities decided they didn’t need two receptionists or two chief financial officers. By the time WSJM’s radio personality joined the Chamber, Moody said both organizations worked more in line with one another, rather than separately.

“Of course we had a separate set of books, but when I first got there, the Chamber didn’t even have its own Board of Directors,” Moody said. That was soon changed, as they were separate nonprofits.

Somewhere along the way, the Chamber of Commerce name faded and they were essentially referred to as Cornerstone Alliance as well. However, Moody said that became a problem for some who were confused when the organizations’ reception desk only answered the phone for Cornerstone Alliance.

Through that confusion, Moody said, the Chamber eventually retained its formal name.

Familiar faces

In addition to Moody’s involvement, both organizations produced some well-known names over the years. This included the likes of Jeff Noel, Al Pscholka, Jaime Balkin and Wendy Dant Chesser.

Balkin, a former spokeswoman for Cornerstone Alliance, began working there in 1995. She would stay there for almost 18 years before leaving. She is now the director of marketing for Wightman & Associates Inc.

“In the beginning there were a lot of physical development projects that had to take place to pave the way for true economic development such as new business recruitment,” Balkin said.

These projects ran from updating City Center Park in downtown Benton Harbor to jumpstarting the Edgewater development project, which ultimately made way for Harbor Shores.

Balkin said there were also times when the organization took on roles that were not economic development related at all, such as work force development, business education partnerships and addressing housing needs.

“Having said that, every step of the way, there were always efforts to recruit new business into the area and create jobs for the residents of the community,” Balkin said.

Noel played a big part in both organizations, as he served as Cornerstone Alliance’s longest-running president in its 25-year history. From 1993 to 2004, Noel was the one who brought Moody and Pscholka into the mix. During his reign, those who worked for both organizations had to answer to him.

A search firm brought Noel to the Twin Cities, where he and his wife were then convinced to make the move after spending time with the main pitchman – Merlin Hanson.

“When I came to Cornerstone it was a marketing and planning organization,” Noel said in a phone interview. “I was a believer in developing, putting sticks in the ground and working with the community. But when we brought Pat Moody and Al Pscholka into the organizations, there was an interdependency between the Chamber and the economic development group. Yes, there are distinct differences, but in the end there was a lot of overlap.

“You need them both. One can’t do it without the other.”

A unique trend

It didn’t take long for either Heugel or Cleveland to discover their respective organizations.

Heugel served on the Chamber’s Board of Directors for a number of years before taking over permanently. When he moved to St. Joseph in 2000 – where he would go on to open a few hotels – Heugel sought out the Chamber in an effort to network with a community he was unfamiliar with.

Cleveland first heard of Cornerstone Alliance through his time with Indiana Michigan Power, which is one of the major investors of the economic development organization.

Both men agree their organizations are in a unique situation.

However, Cleveland said he believes it could become a common trend for a Chamber of Commerce and its visitor’s bureau or economic development organization to split off independently. He said one of the values that comes with keeping things separate is the lobbying aspect the Chamber possesses.

Regardless the similarities and differences, both are there for the community.

“I’m indifferent to whether you know the differences,” Cleveland said. “What’s important is if you’ve got a question or a business concern and you can call this office. No matter who you get a hold of when you call here, we’re going to steer you in the right direction.”

Contact Tony Wittkowski at twittkowski@TheHP.com or (269) 932-0358. Follow him on Twitter: @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on Jan. 28, 2017)

A reprieve from grief: Therapy dog joins Brown Funeral Home in Niles

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Brown Funeral Home director Tim Brown plays with Sir Winston Bailey Brown, the home’s therapy dog, on Monday in Niles. Sir Winston can regularly be seen beside Brown. (Tony Wittkowski | HP Staff)

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

NILES — Brown Funeral Home’s newest employee is furrier than most.

That’s because the Niles funeral home has a 4-month-old English retriever to help families cope with the loss of a loved one.

Known to many as Sir Winston Bailey Brown, the 50-pound pup is half grown and can regularly be seen walking side by side funeral home director Tim Brown.

Since joining Brown at the funeral home in late October, Sir Winston has met with at least three dozen families in their time of need during arrangement conferences, visitations and funerals.

In one of Sir Winston’s first visits, Brown recalled a child sitting on some steps inside the funeral home. Brown knew the grief-relieving dog would fit in well after Sir Winston came downstairs, sat next to the lone kid and gave him a lick on the face.

“The kid just grinned from ear to ear. Really, I think it made his day here at the funeral home much easier,” Brown said. “For a lot of kids, it’s an uncertain experience to be in a place like this. This is true even for adults. It’s not the most comfortable place to come. There’s something about having the dog around that makes it easier.”

Sir Winston can generally sense things well. During visitations, Sir Winston knows it’s time to work. This is especially true when Brown puts the blue and white bow tie around the dog’s neck.

Sir Winston is available at no additional cost to offer comfort to families and those who attend services at the funeral home. Therapy dogs have been used extensively in hospitals and nursing homes. Brown said several families took note of how therapy dogs helped their loved ones along the journey, which encouraged him to find one of his own.

Brown contacted a well-known breeder out of Fenton, whose dogs are generally bred for show. However, Brown was able to convince her to give them one for therapy.

Choosing a name for the helpful pup ended up going public, when Brown opened it up to the community. A committee, put together by Brown, took more than 400 responses and suggestions.

The dog’s first name would be inspired by the late British prime minister Sir Winston Churchill.

Sir Winston Bailey Brown gets his middle name from Bailey Bennett, who died of cancer this year at the young age of 10. Given Bailey Bennett’s reputation in the community during his battle with cancer, the boy’s mother and others suggested Bailey as a name for Brown’s dog.

“His mother had suggested using his name,” Brown said. “The comfort dogs were a huge help for him while he was fighting cancer. It just felt like an honor to have his name and let his legacy live on.”

Sir Winston has been alongside Brown every hour of the day since he got him in October.

He sleeps next to Brown’s bed, comes to work with him everyday. He travels to and from home, with a kennel beside Brown’s office.

Brown said Sir Winston has acclimated quite well to his position after the first two months.

“Most times during visitations and funerals, he does come down and spends time with families,” Brown said. “He’s been a big hit. We thought the kids would love him, but we think the older crowd loves him just as much.”

Sensing emotions

The Niles funeral home is not the first one to introduce a therapy dog to its clients.

Duffield & Pastrick Family Funeral Home in Coloma still has its own therapy dog named Seger. The chocolate lab that presides in Coloma is now 8 years old.

Brown had been considering adding a therapy dog to its services for about a year before doing so. One of the local gentleman who helped Brown find the right dog was a man who runs the Basilica of the Sacred Heart at Notre Dame.

It was there that he introduced a dog to the Basilica. That dog would go on to become a sort of unofficial mascot for Notre Dame for many years, Brown said.

Going through puppy training now, Brown said Sir Winston’s therapy training hasn’t officially started yet. In addition to learning all things puppies need to know in their first few months, Sir Winston is being conditioned to people and how they react when in grief.

The rest of his training will help him sense emotions and how to respond to specific ones. For example, Brown said if a kid pokes him in the eye, he’ll learn how to respond to that in a positive way.

What’s surprised Brown the most since introducing Sir Winston to the community is how popular he’s become.

In addition to the nonstop visits from those familiar with the puppy, the funeral home has received an overwhelming amount of toys.

Initially, Brown and Sir Winston were getting so many toys and gifts that they donated a large portion of those to Pet Refuge in South Bend.

“The acknowledgement and support Sir Winston has gotten has been a welcome surprise,” Brown said. “I’m also surprised by the families’ response to him. We work very hard to make sure this is a very smooth and easy part of a journey for a family. We spend countless hours getting their loved ones ready and making videos. But what comes back in our ‘thank you’ notes are how fantastic it was that Winston was around.”

Once his training is finalized, Brown said they are hoping to use Sir Winston in the capacity of a service dog for shut-ins, hospitals and any place where he could be useful.

That includes being on scene to offer comfort if there is a large traumatic experience involving a mass fatality.

Until then, Sir Winston will continue to be a comfort to the funeral home’s guests and staff.

“He’s been as much a blessing to our staff as well as families,” Brown said. “Sometimes we forget that we carry a lot with us It’s not just another day at the office for us. There are a lot of emotions tied to this job. He’s acted as a relief valve to us.”

Contact Tony Wittkowski at twittkowski@TheHP.com or (269) 932-0358. Follow him on Twitter: @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on Jan. 3, 2017)