Berrien Community Foundation Announces Winners of Coveted Grants, Awards

Berrien Community Foundation awarded $229,000 in grants at their 71st Annual Meeting & Celebration September 20 at The Mendel Center’s Grand Upton Hall at Lake Michigan College.

The theme: “All You Need Is Love.”

“So much of what nonprofits do in Berrien County starts with a love for the people they serve,” said Berrien Community Foundation President Lisa Cripps-Downey. “Our Annual Meeting & Celebration is a time to look back on what has been done and what is yet to be.”

At the event, BCF gave five major awards: Alamar Nonprofit Sustainability Grant, Carolyn’s Kids, The Stephen E. Upton Love Your Community Grant, Golden Acorn Volunteer Award and Golden Acorn Excellence Award.

Alamar Nonprofit Sustainability Grant

Benton Harbor Community Development Corporation Executive Director Ashley Hines and board member James Gunter hold up a $75,000 check after being announced as the winner of the Alamar Nonprofit Sustainability Grant September 20 at Berrien Community Foundation's Annual Meeting & Celebration.The $75,000 Alamar Nonprofit Sustainability Grant supports nonprofits as they seek creative ways to take care of their employees and find organizational sustainability. The grant is paid out over three years.

The 2023 Alamar Nonprofit Sustainability Grant was awarded to Benton Harbor Community Development Corporation to hire a fundraising professional to help the nonprofit scale in size and impact, and for salary support and health benefits for the small staff. 

Their mission is to strengthen the community of Benton Harbor socioeconomically, mentally and physically by supporting and empowering residents through community development projects and programming. Their current activities include home buying education and pre-purchase counseling, the 400 B.L.A.C.K Mentoring Program (Building Leaders and Cultivating Kinship), and the Flourish Community Garden.

“As a nonprofit, we know that love takes work,” said Ashley Hines, executive director of Benton Harbor Community Development Corporation. “Love is hard. Love takes commitment and, in our space, love takes money to do the work.”

Carolyn Hanson (right) creator of Carolyn’s Kids grant, presents a $50,000 check to Michiana Public Broadcasting’s Heather Frey (left) and Amanda Miller Kelley (center) September 20 at Berrien Community Foundation's Annual Meeting & Celebration. was selected as a Michiana Public Broadcasting Carolyn’s Kids grant winner.Carolyn’s Kids

The Carolyn’s Kids grant program awarded two $50,000 grants Wednesday night. One grant went to Michiana Public Broadcasting for PBS KIDS television channel and education outreach, and one went to ZoY! Expeditions for startup costs as a nonprofit that seeks to get kids into the great outdoors. 

Michiana Public Broadcasting sought funds to better reach kids and have more interaction with their educational television programming and learning materials. 

“I just want to say thank you so much for helping us bring quality education, materials and curriculum to children all over our area,” said Michiana Public Broadcasting Director of Development Amanda Miller Kelley.

Carolyn Hanson (left) creator of Carolyn’s Kids grant, presents a $50,000 check to ZoY! Expeditions founder Al Mussman (right) September 20 at Berrien Community Foundation's Annual Meeting & Celebration. ZoY! Expeditions was selected as a $50,000 Carolyn’s Kids winner.

ZoY! Expeditions wants to get kids outside. 

“I am really humbled,” said ZoY! Expeditions founder Al Mussman.

ZoY! Expeditions focuses on providing outdoor activities to communities who may lack opportunities or knowledge of how to take advantage of what’s available such as swimming, rafting, paddleboarding, skiing, hiking, cycling, camping and time around campfires.

The Stephen E. Upton Love Your Community Grant

Danielle Grandholm poses with William Marohn and a $50,000 check after being announced as the winner of the Stephen E. Upton Love Your Community Grant September 20 at Berrien Community Foundation's Annual Meeting & Celebration.The $50,000 Stephen E. Upton Love Your Community Grant was presented to Rising Kites to support launching a coffee shop that employs people with disabilities and to send informational bags home with families who are new to the Down Syndrome community. 

“I really did not expect this,” said Danielle Grandholm, founder of Rising Kites. “I am just so grateful to the Upton family and Berrien Community Foundation. It’s been our mission to care for the families new to this community. We are just really thankful for the opportunity to care for the families and individuals with disabilities within Berrien County.”

 The Love Your Community Grant is presented each year to a Berrien County nonprofit organization that addresses a crucial community need and makes a positive impact in the lives of Berrien County residents.

Danielle and Matt Grandholm established Rising Kites in 2021 after the birth of their daughter, Sammie, who was diagnosed with Down Syndrome at birth. The parents received very little information on caring for a special needs baby when they left the hospital. Part of the Love Your Community Grant will go toward bags full of educational pamphlets, resources and encouragement and will also provide ways to build community for families who receive a Down Syndrome diagnosis. 

Golden Acorn Volunteer Award

Rochelle Ulleg

Berrien Community Foundation honored two community members with the Golden Acorn Volunteer Award this year for the work they have done with Backpacks For Good, a school readiness event that gives away 3,000 backpacks annually.  

First to receive the award was Rochelle Ulleg. Called the “OG” of backpack event volunteers, Ulleg led the charge in connecting BCF staff with donors and community members when the event launched a handful of years ago for the Coloma/Watervliet area. And every year, she volunteers in some capacity. 

“I cannot believe this,” said Ulleg Wednesday night. “Yes, I do a lot and I didn’t realize I do a lot. Thank you for this.”

Berrien County Sheriff Paul Bailey

Berrien County Sheriff Paul Bailey received the other Golden Acorn Volunteer Award. 

After an Eau Claire teacher reached out to BCF requesting a Backpacks For Good event to come to their school, BCF President Lisa Cripps-Downey contacted Bailey to make connections in the Eau Claire community. But instead, Bailey did the heavy lifting and went to businesses and individuals to secure the rest of the funding needed to bring backpacks to Eau Claire. He also rounded up volunteers to work at the event. 

“We are very blessed to live in such a beautiful county with so many gracious people who do things to make our county better as we love one another as the theme is tonight,” Bailey said. “We can always make things better with love and dedication and determination. Thank you for recognizing me, but it’s just what I do. Eau Claire does take care of its own people. The businesses gave graciously to make sure the kids were taken care of, and Eau Claire backpacks were available.”

Both Ulleg and Bailey will receive a $1,000 grant to be directed to a nonprofit of their choice. 

Golden Acorn Excellence Award 


Southwest Michigan Community Action Agency (SMCAA) was selected as the 2023 Golden Acorn Award for Excellence. SMCAA stepped up to the plate when BCF had an unexpected need for a food provider for all four Backpacks For Good events.

They went above and beyond in providing food boxes to all 442 families who attended Backpacks For Good. They provided a standard food box and baking bag complete with flour, sugar and other baking items, as well as bringing a giant chest freezer so each family could go home with a frozen chicken. 

“Thank you so much and thank you for inviting us to be a partner,” said Yvonne Vidt, community services manager at SMCAA. “We had so much fun, and it was so great to see the kids.”

Along with the recognition, SMCAA received a $3,000 grant. 

An Amazing Year for Berrien Community Foundation

BCF Program Director Susan Matheny announced $6.9 million in grants and $368,000 in scholarships had been awarded over the last year. 

The scholarship application process was streamlined this year, so students only had to fill out one application for more than 50 opportunities. The number of applications went from 300 to 1,200. 

The Foundation was also awarded $290,000 over three years from the National Network to Innovate for COVID-19 and Adult Vaccine Equity grant to help address COVID vaccine hesitancy in black and brown populations. Through the grant, BCF has been able to partner with local nonprofits to have honest conversations about health care to help people make informed decisions. 

Berrien Community Foundation launched Food For Good in 2023 to meet the projected $40,000 funding gap Feeding America West Michigan was facing for their mobile food pantries. BCF issued a $20,000 community challenge, which was met last week. The community challenge arose following conversations with local food pantries and FAWM. Over the last couple of years, BCF staff noticed a significant rise in For Good Grant requests from area food pantries and Feeding America West Michigan. In addition to the challenge, grants totaling $36,000 from the Food For Good Fund were awarded to eight traditional food pantries.

Senior Care Kits reached more senior citizens than ever before over the holiday season. More than 900 boxes were sent to low-income, home-bound seniors in Berrien County. These kits are full of basic hygiene products, but also some treats like candy, crossword puzzles and cozy socks.

The year also saw the launch of Gotcha Doin’ Good, a spotlight feature on people doing good things in the local community. BCF has featured someone who builds dog houses, someone who takes her neighbor’s trash out to the curb every week and someone who teaches knitting and crocheting. Nominations are welcome and can be made at  

“An evening like the Annual Meeting is a great reminder of how we can change lives here in Berrien County when we all work together,” said BCF Program Director Susan Matheny. “We have been doing that for 71 years and are now looking forward to 71 more!”