Rebekah and Gerald TenBrink uplift local teenagers

By F. Josephine Arrowood

Sun contributor

Rebekah and Gerald TenBrink are the kind of neighbors that anyone in Leelanau County would be proud to know. This young couple not only talk about community, they also live it on a daily basis—and make it seem fun into the bargain. To spend time with them is to feel uplifted and hopeful, particularly in these troubling times of social unrest and the coronavirus pandemic.

Gerald is a cardiac care Registered Nurse at Munson Medical Center, while Bekah is a mother, social worker, and grassroots organizer. She founded Leelanau Investing for Teens, or LIFT, an organization that welcomes, nurtures, and mentors Leelanau County youth ages 12 to 17. It reflects the TenBrinks’ strongly held belief that children—whether individually ours or not—are important, even central to a community’s future.

LIFT formed in 2017, but its roots were planted in the community several years earlier. The high school sweethearts, originally from downstate Holland, had just moved to northern Michigan after Gerald accepted a position at Munson.

“We didn’t know a soul,” he said. “We happened to find a rental in Suttons Bay, actually just up the road from where the Center is located now [on Broadway St].”

Bekah was pursuing her degree in social work from Spring Arbor University, and Gerald started skating at the nearby village ice rink in his free time. “He was playing hockey with local teens, and asked, ‘What is there to do around here?’ and they said, ‘Nothing, man, everything closes at eight’.”

He promptly invited them over to the TenBrink home. Bekah said, “We did an NHL draft party, and four or five teens came over. I fed them pizza, and the next week, they asked, ‘Do you want to do pizza and games?’ We said, ‘Yeah, for sure, come on over,’ and this continued for the better part of two years. We opened our home: having fun, doing bonfires and other gatherings with them. Teens told other teens; every week we were meeting more and more new students. So there was certainly a need.”

Bekah’s Master’s in Social Work in Family Life Education turned out to be a perfect fit for the circle of community the couple was creating, week by week. “It covers all the different experiences that we as people go through within family systems— how that affects our world, and why we do what we do. It’s fascinating how external things can play such a huge role in your development.

“I never would have known eight years ago that this is what I would be doing!” Bekah said. “When I got pregnant with our son Zev (age four), I thought, ‘I’m going to want a place for him to go.’ We had this extension of our family with these teenagers, and realized we need to fill this need in our community. That’s where it started: organically, if you will.”

Bekah, now 31, credits her own upbringing for instilling a strong sense of connection. “We lived in Holland and didn’t have any family in the area. My dad was a homicide detective. He and my mom were all about making community with those in our community, because that was what we had. So it’s interesting that Gerald and I have created the same thing for ourselves here.”

Since those early days with the hockey players, the TenBrinks had moved to a tiny former hunting cabin in Lake Leelanau—an impractical place for large weekly teen gatherings, many of whom do not yet drive.

“That’s when I approached the Friendship Community Center, and asked if they’d be open to having a teen center in their basement, and they said, ‘Absolutely; the space is not being used’.”

The Friendship Center has operated a gathering place for senior citizens and offered community events at 201 W. Broadway since 1988. Before that time, the building, dating from 1853, had been a grange hall, a furniture store, and was the original location for the-then Martinson-Kroupa Funeral Home. Like good neighbors, the Friendship Center gave LIFT a warm welcome.

“We get on average about 30 students each day, and for special events, as many as 80. We’re for all of Leelanau, of course, but because of where we’re situated in Suttons Bay, within walking distance of the school, that’s the population we’re getting. We’ve had a core group of about 30 students with us for the past four years. We’re now doing a high school and a middle school group separately, since we’ve grown to our capacity, specifically in middle school.”

In addition to fun activities, LIFT offers mentoring and job shadowing, teaching skills that teens can carry with them as adults. Last year, they initiated a Student Service Learning program.

“The student would apply to work under LIFT auspices, and we had contacted several local businesses that are right there in our neighborhood. Each business took on one student and mentored them throughout the year. The student would come every Monday after school and work for about two hours, getting on-the-job training. Prior to them being set free in the workforce, we’d do some more job training with them, such as work ethic; how they should arrive; and customer service skills.

“Truly, these things weren’t known by students. We’re living in a culture that is so online and tech-oriented, that even some social interactions can be difficult. Equipping [students with] some of those skills is really important. I think it’s almost become a dying skill, and that’s really scary. What better way to learn in a setting where they’re already engaged and know the adults teaching the skills to them? Whereas if they enter the workforce on their first day and are inundated with all of this, it could be a very different experience for them.”

Are there other specific challenges for today’s teens? 

“[Lack of] purpose and passion are things we see. With technology, hobbies are dwindling. We’ll ask, ‘What types of things do you like to do?’ which helps us to gauge some of our areas of focus for the year. Often there’s a lot of, ‘TikTok, Instagram, Netflix, gaming.’

“I can think of at least 20 things I liked to do in my youth—actual things—so we need to expose the kids to some of these activities. We have speakers come in once a month. A homesteader came to teach about the anatomy of an egg, and how to boil an egg. We had a dog trainer come in and tell how she got into that. She did an exercise where the dog had to find a key hidden in the room. So, we open them up to jobs and people right here in our community—that world of possibilities. We have so much talent here in the county.”

Bekah knows whereof she speaks. She owns a thriving photography business that evolved from a teen hobby. “When I was 15, my mom bought me a film camera. In Holland, they have a really cool arts council, so I took a photography class and learned all the basic concepts. From then on, I was hooked. Obviously my photography looks a lot different now, but I’ve journeyed with it. I always took friends’ and families’ pictures, but then was told, ‘You really need to start a business with this. And you need to start charging people.’”

As she photographed, she began to notice elements of visual narrative: “I would see things as snapshots. I’d watch someone talk, and in my mind, I’d be thinking, ‘There’s a picture in that person’s expression, or the way they’re sitting’. My creative process is all about interaction with the people I’m taking pictures with. I try not to pose people very often. As we’re talking and walking around somewhere—outside, for instance—it’s all about the interaction and the experience for them.” 

These days, she does less wedding photography, and more of families, school seniors, and kids. With her full-time work planning and running the LIFT program, and Gerald’s work with critically ill patients, the TenBrinks’ own family takes priority on occasional precious weekends.

When cases of COVID-19 appeared in the region in March, Bekah says, “There was so much unknown at the time. His unit was shut down, and he was floated down to … the COVID unit at the time. It was really scary. We had a pretty strict protocol as far as him coming home. He had to strip down outside, come in and take a shower. We didn’t have the luxury to [have him] quarantine; our house is 900 square feet on one level. We were like, ‘Well, if we get it, we get it; this is part of being a nurse family.’ We didn’t have any control—it was either he worked or he was out of work.”

“You know, Gerald is so good at what he does, Bekah continues. “We thought about it, prayed about it. This [pandemic] is really scary for everyone. So best to have a nurse who really, truly cares, and is going to work as hard as he can to provide the best service for people who are scared and alone.”

Now that the region has established some sort of routine, and COVID-19 cases have not overwhelmed Munson’s capacity to treat patients (so far), Gerald has returned to the cardiac unit. 

“A little more is known,” Bekah says, “We know that people who are ill or immunocompromised have a pretty high chance of contracting it, and may not recover as well as others.”

With the school shutdowns, the teens at LIFT experienced abrupt changes as well. “We generally do a last day-of-school party before we start summer programming, but this year we didn’t get a chance to say goodbye. It’s been a weird year, for sure.”

To compensate, LIFT will hold an event on Thursday, September 11 at the skating rink site in Suttons Bay. “There will be games and an outdoor movie, Back to the Future. It’s just by donation. It’s truly for kids and families alike; we’re opening it up to the community, so more people can learn about our mission, register for LIFT, and have fun.

“We also usually have a Trivia Night fundraiser the third weekend in October, hosted at the VFW Hall in Lake Leelanau. Last year we had 185 participants! Obviously, this year we cannot do that, so we’re going to do a virtual Trivia Night, with teams, which will be pretty cool. The date will be announced on our Facebook page with details and links.”

What lies ahead for LIFT? 

“I was just named executive director of the Friendship Community Center,” Bekah shares. “We are partners with the FCC, and we’re really going to be homing in on building a really strong, resilient community—and what better time than now?

“We would have been doing our Student Service Learning right now, but we can’t, due to COVID. So we are implementing Youth Empowered Solutions, which teaches teens how to be leaders, and to think of community and how to better serve those around us. Gerald and I attended YES training at the University of Michigan, so we can know how to implement this program.

“We’re also planning on having virtual services for teens, because not all are comfortable coming in person due to COVID, so we’re going to have a teen-led podcast. Because, you know, I’m not busy at all,” she laughs.

In Bekah and Gerald TenBrink’s upLIFTing, neighborly world, “We are going to learn together. That’s the beauty of it all; we all get to teach each other.”

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