Making a difference on a Sunday afternoon stroll

Former executive director of Access of West Michigan celebrates the 40th Annual Hunger Walk by noting how change can happen in the context of a community.


Marsha DeHollander is looking forward to joining with her community and being a part of Access 40th Annual Hunger Walk, for the 33rd time.

But the Hunger Walk is just one of the many ways Grand Rapids native DeHollander has been involved in promoting a thriving food system.

In fact, she was on staff at Access for 25 years.

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Prior, she helped start the food pantry at her church, Olivet Reformed Church in Grand Rapids. Yet food distribution for her felt like something was lacking.

“I was looking for a way to connect and distribute the food. I always wanted to do more than just drop off the groceries,” she said. “I was wondering what else I could do, how to make it more relational.”

She connected with a caseworker at Access of West Michigan and learned not only how to provide food for those in her community, but also how to develop relationships at the same time.

When a caseworker position opened up at Access, DeHollander was encouraged to apply. From there, DeHollander served on staff at Access for 25 years, moving from caseworker to executive director for 10 years and then program director for 5 years. Currently, she helps coordinate Poverty Simulations, is on the Access board and frequently meets with staff members.

The first year she walked the Hunger Walk was in the 1980s, when the walk was coordinated by GRACE and much longer than five kilometers. “At that time, it was a 12 mile walk,” she said. “That represented the amount of time and distance that many people have to walk to get water everyday. It really struck me that they spent that much time to get water.”

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That first walk experience helped fuel her passion for social justice. “There was something really special about that first walk,” she said. “That’s always made me a strong proponent of clean water initiatives. It’s a key that unlocks a better life for people.”

In 1989, DeHollander went with a group from GRACE to Nicaragua and Honduras to learn about how the funds from the Hunger Walk were being used. “What we found is that they used it for development,” she said. They visited farms, women’s sewing shops and micro-finance businesses that all worked together as a community.

She returned from the trip with frustration of why things in her community were still on an emergency-need basis. “Let’s try to do something different,” she said.

Today, the walk focuses more on local development work like community gardening projects, food system policy work, nutrition programs, food pantries, gleaning programs, food justice and community development initiatives. DeHollander said it’s all about supporting others, especially the poor.


Her personal experience and faith help further her passion for empowering communities, especially through the Hunger Walk. “I love how the walk goes through different neighborhoods that you don’t normally get to see,” she said. “Quite often, they walk through neighborhoods where people will be recipients of the funds, so I really like that.”

During the event, DeHollander uses the conversational pace to educate. As she walks with her friends from church or her grandkids, she can describe the impact that beneficiary organizations in the walk have. She advocates for people to get involved.

“I always try to encourage people to do the one thing,” she said. “You don’t need to solve the whole thing. It can be so overwhelming to think about everything of poverty.”

HW-BannerFor DeHollander, community empowerment happens within a community.The Hunger Walk is for everyone. “Everyone has something to contribute, even though it can look very different,” she said. From donating, to volunteering, to cheering and to walking that 5K, everyone can get involved.

It’s through people getting involved in these small yet monumental events that communities are changed. “In your corner of the world, what is the one thing that you can do?” DeHollander asked. “Taking a walk on a Sunday makes a difference when you do it with everyone else. When the community gets together toward a common goal, I just love that we can accomplish so much.”

As the community celebrates the 40th Annual Hunger Walk on May 7, 2017, DeHollander calls it an “accomplishment.” And she added, “A phrase I’ve used throughout my career at Access is that the community can accomplish so much if they’re willing to work together and not care who gets the credit but work toward a common goal.

“Praise God, it’s amazing.”

“Taking a walk on a Sunday makes a difference when you do it with everyone else. When the community gets together toward a common goal, I just love that we can accomplish so much.”

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