According to the 2010 U.S. Census, Kalamazoo County has almost 50,000 people living below the poverty line.  Within the city limits, Kalamazoo has a higher percentage of people living in poverty than Detroit. 

Jeff Brown, Executive Director of Kalamazoo County Poverty Reduction Initiative, says poverty means an individual making less than $10,000 annually; for a family of three, poverty is making less than $18,000.   He adds that more than 50% of low-income people in Kalamazoo County are currently working. 

“They work part time jobs, or minimum wage jobs,” Brown explains, “and in order to make ends meet, it’s very challenging.”

So, twice a year, the group organizes PROJECT CONNECT, a community service center event at the Kalamazoo County Expo Center.   On Wednesday, more than 100 volunteers and 50 vendors came together to help low income or homeless people – not just today, but in the future. 

“(We have) basic needs: food, shelter, haircuts,” says Brown.   “(but) there are many services … that will help build capacity for people; (they're) able to register to finish their G.E.D., go to the community college, or to get some job skill training.”

"There’s exposure to a lot of services in the Kalamazoo area that people wouldn’t otherwise know about,” adds vendor Angela Anderson with Healthy Babies, Healthy Start. 

The event is free; shuttle transportation is free; and it’s even free for the vendors reaching out to those in need. 

“Being able to just walk from (table to table), just to get what you really need is helpful,” says Adriana Robinson.  

In many ways, Robinson and her friend, Myrrecal Bailey, are normal teenagers.  They’re working hard in school and hanging out in their free time, but not too long ago, they were both homeless.

“(You’re) wondering where you’re going to sleep at, wondering where your next meal is going to come from,” says Bailey. 

The two are getting back on their feet with the help of The Ark services for youth.  Robinson is in transitional housing, and Bailey just got of it and recently moved into her first apartment. 

"It was all free!" smiles Bailey, "I thank God for them."

Now, they’re volunteers for The Ark, hoping to help the more than 15,000 children and teens below the poverty line in Kalamazoo County.   

“(Some teens) don’t have good relationships, they don’t have good guidance from their parents so they choose to leave home instead of staying there with drama,” explains Bailey. 

“I feel like there’s actually people here for me now,” adds Robinson who says her mother kicked her out of the house last winter. 

PROJECT CONNECT says more than 1,000 people will walk the aisles at the event, taking advantage of free clothes, hygiene products, mending/sewing services, health screenings, and vaccinations.

As dozens of children left the vaccine table with tears and a sucker, father Andre Wilkerson was brave enough to get a couple shots himself, just like his daughter.   He says no one should have to choose between health care and basic needs for their families. 

“It’s wonderful,” Wilkerson says.  “I think it gives everyone the opportunity to get the health services that they need, especially for the underprivileged people out here that can’t get (health) insurance.”

This is PROJECT CONNECT’S fourth year.  Click here for more information.