Benzie Area Christian Neighbors fills community need
By Kelly Ottinger
Hope Kochis—now 38, born and raised in Benzie County—became a teen statistic when she dropped out of high school without graduating. Although she obtained her GED by age 18 and then started her own successful cleaning business, by age 27, Kochis was a single mom of three who was beginning to despair. She worked long, hard hours, yet she was still struggling to provide for her children.
“The turning point for me was when I had a child who was in high school, and I could not afford to pay for her driver’s training class,” Kochis says. “It was only $250, and I had to borrow the money from my mother. I thought to myself, ‘This has got to change. I have to get a college degree.’”
A journey like hers is difficult. Statistically, women returning to school during an already busy time of life make up one of the largest slices of the non-traditional student pie. Their particular slice of pie also statistically represents the students who are least likely to complete their degrees. Scheduling, childcare, transportation, lost wages from second jobs, exhaustion, and the expense of classes and textbooks are often insurmountable barriers as women return to school.
A Program Is Born
Kay Bond was the executive director of Benzie Area Christian Neighbors (BACN) back in 2008, but she had been listening to the stories of women like Kochis for years. Historically, people had come to BACN for help with basic needs such as food, clothing, and utilities. However, Bond saw a new trend taking hold—people were also seeking ways to complete the education that was needed to help lift them out of poverty.
Bond’s heart was especially touched by the plight of women who were trying to return to school with the odds stacked so solidly against them.
While the wheels of the economic downturn were being set in motion, Bond set different wheels in motion for a new program at BACN—Women on their Way (WOW). The WOW program drew from the experience of successful area businesswomen and their willingness to help guide other women down the educational path. Participants were connected to area resources that could help with everything from the enrollment process to financial assistance and childcare. Perhaps the most important aspect of WOW was group meetings, where the women could gather and share their struggles, all the while coaching and encouraging each other.
“Going back to school can be terrifying for an older student,” says Alicia Rusch, BACN’s program coordinator. “Before they even try to begin classes, sometimes the paperwork of enrolling or trying to connect to financial assistance is simply overwhelming. Then they get to campus and feel absolutely lost. It’s so helpful to have someone who has been there to guide them through each step.”
Rusch, currently attending school to complete her own degree while working full time, knows first-hand of what she speaks—she is going for a Bachelor’s of Business Science in Organizational Management through Spring Arbor University, and she wants to follow that up with a Master’s degree from Michigan State University.
The Journey of Hope
By the fall of 2008, Kochis had registered at Northwestern Michigan College in Traverse City, and she began classes the following January. While she was grateful that her cleaning business allowed her to schedule jobs around schoolwork, she still struggled to overcome many of the barriers to her goal. After being in school for about a year, Kochis heard about a new program at BACN—the WOW program—from some of her clients, Joan and Dr. Will Wolfe, who served on BACN’s community relations board. Kochis ended up joining one of WOW’s first meeting groups, formed by eight women in various stages of educational goals (many with whom she still remains close).
WOW participants applaud that BACN is there as a resource for women, to help with all kinds of things during their years as students. Some women need help feeding their families, some cannot afford the gas to drive to classes, and some need internet access in order to complete online classwork.
“I never needed food,” Kochis says. “I have a close-knit family in the area with freezers full of meat, and no one would have let me go hungry. But there was a time when I could not pay my car registration, and I needed that car to get back and forth to classes. Later, there was a point when I could not afford that month’s car insurance. BACN stepped in both times, and I was able to continue my studies.”
WOW’s Next Chapter
In the years that followed, the WOW program experienced growth that became difficult to manage under the original framework. By the end of 2014, the leadership put the program on a brief hiatus while they determined the most effective ways to continue. They knew that they needed a new model.
Then in 2015, BACN was awarded a grant from the Seabury Foundation to prioritize WOW. A new steering committee was formed, and the decision was made to hire a part-time WOW facilitator, instead of depending on volunteer leadership. The Seabury funds covered program costs, but funds were still needed to pay for the WOW facilitator.
In March 2016, BACN’s current executive director, Gerri VanAntwerp, approached Sue Webber, founder of Webber Insurance Agency in Benzonia, to see if she would consider being the initial investor for the WOW facilitator position. VanAntwerp thought that Sue Webber would be a great mentor for the program, since Webber Insurance has enjoyed more than 30 years of successful business in the area and received the Benzie County Chamber of Commerce’s 2015 Outstanding Business Member of the Year Award.
“WOW is just right up my alley,” Webber says of why she decided to participate in the program. “Education is so important, and helping our area women to achieve these goals is very meaningful to me.”
Webber not only provided the initial gift for the WOW facilitator position, she also connected BACN to other grant opportunities. Moreover, she invited area businesswomen to a luncheon on April 26, 2016, that explained the WOW program. Between Webber Insurance, the Pierce Family Foundation, the Willoughby Rotary Foundation, and individual donors, the WOW facilitator position has been covered for the first year.
“For WOW to stabilize and grow, it needs consistent leadership,” Rusch explains. “We have a great steering committee and are excited to prioritize WOW in a way that we’ve not been able to before.”
In addition to the traditional format, WOW will also begin offering workshops that are designed to help participants gain confidence through mastery of new skills. Examples of these workshops include self-defense, kayaking, and basic car maintenance.
And what ever became of Hope Kochis?
Not only is she now a college graduate with a Bachelor’s degree in Family Life Education from Spring Arbor University, but she is also BACN’s first paid WOW facilitator. After a short break, Kochis will be returning to school for her Master’s degree, with the goal of a career in Marriage and Family Counseling.
BACN could not have found a more perfect person to help guide other women through their college efforts, and as WOW facilitator, this person could not have a more perfect name: Hope.
Kelly Ottinger is fundraising coordinator for BACN. For more information on the WOW Program—to enroll, volunteer, or donate—contact Hope Kochis at 231-822-9544.
Photo caption: Hope Kochis is the first ever WOW facilitator. Photo courtesy of BACN.