WMCAT Celebrates a Decade of Empowerment at Upcoming iBall

Julie Bitely

| 6 min read

Full classroom
When Melinda DeVries was widowed, she was left with no way to provide for her three children.
“It was difficult to find jobs to support my family,” she said. “It was very discouraging. I knew I needed to make a big change in my life.”
Enter the West Michigan Center for Arts and Technology, or WMCAT for short. DeVries learned about the center’s medical coding program and is currently enrolled, working her way toward a certification that will help her earn a good job.
In addition to medical coding, WMCAT offers pharmacy technician and medical billing programs as part of their adult career training. Located in downtown Grand Rapids, the center also hosts a diverse offering of after-school teen arts and technology programs, which draw students exclusively from Grand Rapids Public Schools.
Entering its tenth year, WMCAT is hosting its annual iBall, with the theme “A Decade of Opportunity”. The event takes place on Saturday, Feb. 21 at 6 p.m. at the J.W. Marriott in Grand Rapids. Tickets are $150 and support WMCAT programming. Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan is a sponsor of iBall.
Amy Knape, WMCAT Development and Communications Manager, said the center’s adult and teen programming may seem different on the surface, but they share a common goal. The mission of both is to create a culture of opportunity for people to make economic and social progress in their lives and community, she explained. It’s about empowerment and helping people change their life’s path for the better.
Making Meaningful Employment a Reality for Adult Learners
Members of the 2015 WMCAT Pharmacy Tech class.
Members of the 2015 WMCAT Pharmacy Tech class.
The pace of the adult programming is intense and accelerated. Students complete the coding certification program in nine months, including a six-week externship with a local employer. Three career training cohorts of 12 students each attend four days a week, six hours per day. DeVries is working through the third quarter of her program and expects to graduate in June. She’s struck by not only the quality of the education she’s receiving, but the general life support she’s received from WMCAT as well.
“You know whatever you do, they’ll be here to support you,” DeVries said.
Adult programs train students for careers that actually exist in the community, careers that pay a living wage, provide health benefits, and present opportunity for advancement. Tuition is free and all adults entering the program receive public assistance. The WMCAT staff works to address barriers students might face in trying to complete the program, such as transportation, housing, and child care. Through a partnership with the State of Michigan, a Department of Human Services case worker is on-site working exclusively with WMCAT students and their families.
Faculty and staff work closely with local employers to make sure their curriculum is truly preparing students for the working world. Knape said she’s heard anecdotally that many employers look to their graduates first when hiring. She thinks the small class sizes and caring atmosphere help students feel a sense of belonging and spur a desire to finish the program.
If students are willing to work hard, their outlook is bright. In 2014, 92 percent of enrolled adults completed their respective programs and of those, 79 percent were employed in six months or less.
Katie Johnson and June Riley are also medical coding students, a close-knit group of classmates known for their penchant for potlucks. They both gush about the program and the opportunity they feel it will provide in terms of employment, as well as how supported they feel.
“Everyone here is just fantastic,” Johnson said. “This place has been so supportive.”
Riley has worked previously in the medical field. Time out of the workforce made it difficult for her to find employment again and she decided to go for the certification. She said the program is tough, but ultimately worth it.
“I have pulled a couple all-nighters, okay, maybe more than a couple,” Riley quipped.
Knape nodded knowingly.
“It’s tuition free, but it’s not investment free,” she stressed.
Helping High School Students Dream Big
Photography students work mostly in digital, but also have access to a working darkroom.
Photography students work mostly in digital, but also have access to a working darkroom.
The teen arts and technology program lets high school students explore photography, video game design, ceramics, fashion, sculpture, comic and street art, as well as audio and video production. Knape said the aim with the teen program is to prepare students for college and to get them thinking about what they have to offer the world.
Students elect to join one of the artistic disciplines for the entire school year and attend twice a week. The YMCA provides dinner and students can even earn high school credit for taking part in the program. The center puts on workshops to help students navigate college financial aid forms and organizes college tours they can attend.
WMCAT teen students have a track record of success. In 2014, 100 percent of high school seniors enrolled in WMCAT programming graduated high school, compared to an 80 percent U.S. high school graduation rate and a 74 percent Michigan high school graduation rate.
Brandon Campbell
Brandon Campbell
Senior Brandon Campbell, 18, attends Union High School and takes dual enrollment classes through Grand Rapids Community College. He’s taking part in the comic arts program this year and has been coming to WMCAT since he was a freshman.
He said WMCAT gives him the freedom to pursue his creative passions, whatever he’s gravitating toward at the moment.
“It’s a really chill and free environment,” he said. “We have more control over what we do here.”
Working with real artists has provided Campbell with mentors, a role he sometimes plays to younger students at the center. He isn’t sure what he wants to focus on in terms of a career, but said he’d welcome the opportunity to come back and teach or mentor at the center when he’s older.
“It’s kind of sad and scary,” Campbell said, when asked how he would feel about no longer attending WMCAT after this school year.
Building On a Decade of Growth
Transitioning those high school seniors to successful college students and working adults will get a big boost in March.
That’s when WMCAT will launch a new social enterprise in the form of an acquired screen printing business. Knape said the business will provide a means to employ recent graduates who remain in the area. Employing former students will give center staff another opportunity to stay connected in their lives and encourage them to pursue their education and dreams. She said many of the teens are first-generation college students and might require additional support to succeed at a college or university. The screen printing operation will provide financial support in addition to further educational and life mentorship.
The center as a whole is constantly evolving and adding programs. A new ceramics studio opened in the fall and adult classes will be offered starting Feb. 26. WMCAT faculty members teach a daily course in digital media and project-based learning at Ottawa Hills High School, a partnership that could someday be replicated in other schools, furthering the organization’s reach and impact.
WMCAT has been changing lives for almost a decade. Support their inspiring mission by purchasing tickets to the upcoming iBall or by donating to the center.
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Photo credit: Lead Beyond via Flickr (feature), WMCAT (insets)

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