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  • Great Lakes Urban

Home, Hope, and Community in Holland: The Story of Paul Bowles

After struggling to feel at home for many years, Paul Bowles decided to take a chance and relocate to Holland, MI. Since moving to his current neighborhood in Westcore, Paul’s life has improved in ways that he never would have imagined. Not only did he find himself in a beautiful area, but he found a community and forged connections that transformed his mental, emotional, and physical health. We were fortunate enough to chat with Paul and learn more about how community involvement has led him to a life of meaning and possibility. Now, he hopes that his story can encourage others to take a chance and get involved.

I spent the first 8 or so years of my life in New York, and then my mom passed away when I was 9 and my dad moved our family to Detroit, Michigan, where I would spend the next 39 years of my life. My dad and stepmom were hard workers and even though we weren’t rich, we had everything that we needed.

At 18 years old, I went through things that most youngsters go through when they are testing the waters of life. At times, I was testing the wrong waters and ending up in the wrong places. But eventually, I started moving towards western Michigan in the Muskegon area. A friend told me to come to the Holland area because there were a lot of community service opportunities, and the area was clean and peaceful. Without making any plans, I moved and have been here ever since.

How did you get involved in the Holland community after moving?

Shortly after moving I joined a life skills program that allowed me to ease back into working. I was working in a thrift store, and I loved what I was doing. I graduated the program and was working at McDonalds when a couple came in one day and told me about an organization called Circles USA, an organization that helps people in poverty to prosper. I got involved as a leader and this program inspired me to stay accountable for the goals I had while connecting me to others who also wanted to stay on track with their goals.

Through my involvement with Circles USA, I was able to form concrete relationships with people in the community which have been really impactful on my life. I’m now involved with the organization Westcore Neighbors as a block connector and my job is to be available for members of this block and help them find solutions for problems that arise. I also have the privilege to develop block parties and ultimately try to get people to come out of their shell and become neighbors.

How has being involved in the community impacted your life?

When I first moved to Holland, I was really broken emotionally, spiritually, and physically. Through graduating from the Life Skills program at Holland Rescue Mission and the Circles USA program, being involved with the Optimist Club, and volunteering to feed the community with Maple Avenue Reformed Church, my life transformed. These services gave a lot to me and then I ended up giving back to them as well.

I also have major depressive disorder and, after moving here, I got affiliated with community mental health services and they found a medicine that works well for me. Through my involvement with different community services and organizations, I was able to become a productive member of this community. They also helped me to prosper through the knowledge and camaraderie I received from the services that I had the privilege to take part in.

How did you get involved with Westcore neighbors? And what does that involvement look like?

My friend Jay Van Groningen told me about the organization, and I started going to their monthly meetings and joined in. I believe it was through the grace of God that I got the privilege to help. We have done different work and events such as Dumpster Day, which happens once a year when the city brings dumpsters to the church property, and everybody can get rid of what they don’t need anymore. Habitat for Humanity also comes to take things that still have some life in them. Ultimately, our purpose at Westcore Neighbors is to bring people out to get to know one another through different projects to create togetherness.

Are there any other community events that stand out to you?

Every year we have West Fest, and it is a great time for the residents to get outside and meet each other. Anyone who wants to participate can set up something on their property and they can have games or food or whatever they want. We have a map that shows each house that is participating and then neighbors can go walk around the blocks and get to know each other. Neighbors that have never even seen each other get to meet and connect for the first time. I dream of seeing even more of this in the future.

Can you talk about the relationships you have formed in this community?

My friendship with Jay has been really important. He has helped me to prosper in life in so many ways. He’s the one that pushed to me get to know others in the area by saying, “Paul, be a neighbor. Go knock on the door and introduce yourself and say hi.” So, I did, and now I have a great friendship with my next-door neighbor, and they have become just like family.

How does having a stronger sense of community improve your life?

I know I’m not alone. Growing up, I came from a family that wasn’t very sociable and didn’t have any community or relationships with extended family. When I got to Holland, I started developing significant and loving relationships with people that I had never had before. I’ve planted roots and found myself at home.

If someone was struggling to connect to their neighbors and community, what advice would you give them?

I would tell them my story and how I most times, when I reached out of my comfort zone, I found myself welcomed into a new group of people. Fear is just you imagining that something bad is going to happen, when in fact, it isn’t. I have relationships with all different people in the community of all ages and from all different cultures and background and it has enriched my life. I hope my story inspires them to say, “Hey, you know what, I am afraid of living in fear. Let me give this a try.”

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