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A series of POWERFUL PODCASTS by WOMEN, about WOMEN. Women’s strength has shaped the world in which we live in all possible aspects, the likes of government, education, health, science, business, spirituality, arts, culture and MORE. NPR-WGVU Public Media’s POWERFUL WOMEN: LET’S TALK podcast is a series of interviews with diverse women who are trailblazers who have helped shape our community and transform who we are and how we live. Hear them tell their stories in their own words.This podcast will be released in the summer of 2020 which corresponds to the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment, guaranteeing and protecting women’s constitutional right to vote in the United States. This release will also parallel PBS national programming celebrating this historic event.POWERFUL WOMEN: LET’S TALK is hosted and produced by NPR-WGVU Public Media’s own team of powerful women, Shelley Irwin and Jennifer Moss.

016: Marge Palmerlee

Marge Palmerlee

Marge Palmerlee leads with love.  Truly dedicated to serve those who come in the doors of Degage Ministries, Marge has served as the Executive Director for more than 20 years.  She’s grown the organization which now serves 400-500 people daily.  They’ve had to change things a bit during the Pandemic but they are still offering help and hope to those in need.  She’s this week’s Powerful Woman.

Powerful Women: Let’s Talk is created by WGVU NPR and made possible by WGVU NPR sustaining monthly donors. Become a sustaining monthly donor now at wgvu.org/donate to support WGVU NPR’s local programs, including Powerful Women: Let’s Talk.

Full Transcript:

Produced by women about women, Powerful Women: Let's Talk is a series of interviews with women who have helped shape our community and transform who we are and how we live.

Well, greetings, everyone, this is Jennifer Moss and we're here again. We're ready for another edition of powerful women, let's talk and today, I'm happy to introduce our powerful woman Marge Palmerlee. Welcome Marge, it’s so good to have you here today.

Thank you pleasure to be here.

Now we before we start our conversation I do want to give you a little background about Marge. For more than 20 years she’s served as the Executive Director of Degage Ministries in downtown Grand Rapids of course, and it's no small task. So if you're not familiar with the work of Degage Ministries Marge is going to fill us in with specifics on that but I will say this: that Degage is a community Center for the poor and the marginalized population of Grand Rapids and during her tenure Marge has grown the agency from a small coffee house to an organization providing vital services to 400 to 500 people every day- it's amazing and so Marge also was recently named one of the 50 most influential women in West Michigan by the Grand Rapids business Journal. So again, Marge we welcome you to Powerful Women, Let's Talk.

Thank you pleasure to be here.

So, to start an amazing growth has happened there at Degage, it used to be a lot smaller, I mean I’ve been covering it for a while and it didn't have the footprint that it has today which is good news.

Exactly and we have been very responsive to needs you know, we're so thankful for those Calvin college students who had the foresight to start the ministry 53 years ago and out of that has grown a ministry that has dealt with complex issues over the years, but what remains the same is everyone's desire to be treated with dignity and respect and that knows no social economic boundaries. We all have that desire and how can we walk that journey together? You know often times my favorite definition in eyes of Christianity. I say, is one beggar showing another beggar where to find bread. We're all on this journey together.

We certainly are and so you know, I recently talked with you and interviewed you about the current fundraising campaign that's going on at Degage Ministries and this is quite an exciting time.

Well it is and the first time in our history that we've really done a major capital campaign and at 6.7 million, we bought the building behind us and there's an old carriage house, we're going to tear that down and build a new 3 story building but, it will just allow us to really meet the needs in a unique way in our community, we're going to be able to have housing for women and children and we all know there's a severe housing shortage in our community and there is a real need to be able to provide safe housing for children so we're excited for that. We're also having a day wellness center-- people coming out of the hospital if you're homeless, you have no place to go and recuperate so to be able to work with the hospitals providing that vital service is going to be so exciting. We know that oftentimes a doctor will delay doing a surgery because the person doesn't have a place recuperate and now they can be assured the person will have a safe environment to recuperate so it's awesome. We’re expanding the dining room, we’re having classrooms for workforce development, lots of exciting things.

It is exciting and again when we look at this and from where you've come and where you're going 400 to 500 people every day- that's a lot of people in how are you managing that and, and what’s the response from the community, the people that you serve?

When you say how are we managing do you mean the numbers?

The numbers. Four to five hundred.

Yes, that's a lot.

That is a lot.

And with Covid we've needed to really restrict the number of people that are allowed in our facility at any one time. So, we used to be able to serve 100-150 for breakfast in the morning. Now we're doing it in shifts. We’ve expanded the time that we serve the meals for breakfast and, and so more people can come and then they leave and others then will be able to come in.

So, allowing that social distancing that’s necessary.

Social distancing exactly. Same thing with the women. We used to have all the women on one floor now we've expanded it to three floors so we can have social distancing. We're managing to still see as many people it’s just we've adapted and adjusted.

I want to backtrack just a bit. You've been there for 20 years now? How did you end up at Degage? part of your calling? How did you end up there?

Certainly well for me faith plays a big part in my life and I had really been praying for an avenue that I felt I could use my gifts and talents and I had been volunteering there and then an opening came on staff and it was an agency that I knew- I love the mission and I knew I loved the people and I definitely felt called to become a part of that thriving ministry. 

And so with that history, and you look at it, you know it all looks good but, we all know a lot of us face barriers along the way. Whether it's climbing the ladder of success or just trying to meet the needs of those that you serve what kind of barriers did you face or have you faced over the last 20 years as you continue in this position?

That’s a that’s a good question- there’s always those subtle barriers, you know the the men at the table, you know I think back you know, I started 23 years ago there and I think back of the changes that I've seen in in accepting all voices at the table. I think we’ve made great strides in our community to be more inclusive and to strive to invite people to the table not just tolerate them.


And I think that has been a real plus in our community.

What do you think about finding your own voice?  Have you been able, I'm sure at this juncture you've been able to find your own voice because amidst those barriers and other things going on and getting the seat at the table and those types of things you had to own it. You had to be able to be to walk in that confidence to get to where you are today.

Exactly and that comes from feeling confident about the role I have you know? There's a saying where God calls and enables and I think okay I've been put in this role and I have a duty and an obligation to represent the people who come through our doors and oftentimes they're not invited at that table and so I always tried to say if somebody was sitting here who was experiencing homelessness how would they feel? And now I'm thrilled that oftentimes we do have people who were experiencing homelessness at those tables so that has come a long way, but, but just feeling confident in my belief that all people have the desire to be treated with dignity and respect it doesn't matter if you're suffering from mental illness or struggling with addictions. Your voice is still important and and feeling the joy and the privilege of representing the people we serve.

Absolutely and that dignity and respect is a huge part and parcel of what all you do so as we look at your leadership Degage, Degage Ministries also received the Epic Nonprofit of the Year Award and so speaking of that leadership, what traits do you like to see in those that you work with or perhaps those you mentor, as you look at leadership qualities?

I most certainly you know for me, I'm collaborative you know I like to get lots of voices, lots of input before I'll make a decision and I know sometimes it can seem laborious but, I am not impulsive I want to hear from, from people who don't agree with me and people who have a different perspective. So my model of leadership is let's talk this through and somebody play devil's advocate here. What am I not seeing? How can we make this stronger and, and, and representing the people we serve often times we do focus groups we just did a focus group about breakfast in the dining room. You know that's why we went to expanding the time saying would you like breakfast earlier? Would you like it later? Would you like to go meals with you know etc. so always going back to the people we serve. To me it means nothing that we sit around a table and make decisions it has to be with their voice and because of their needs not just us perceiving their needs so, so yeah it's very collaborative.

I was going to say that collective voice and that also goes back to the respect and dignity


That you want to have for those who come into Degage Ministries so all of those who are working and are doing different things you know how is it that you found time to balance your work life with your personal and family life because I know I mean you've got a lot of people to take care of so to speak at Degage but, you clearly have to have your own personal life. So how do you manage all of that time?

Well and that is a challenge and I don't do it well. I’m the first one to say I fail miserably at that but, you know my friends and family are very important. I’m very involved in my church so I make priorities and you know I have 2 kids and both of them are out of town and I have grandkids are out of town so, so making time to, to go away and step back. I recently just took 2 weeks off and that was the best thing I ever did.


It’s not something I often do but, it's taking that time and being intentional. 

So, it kind of leads into my next question because I think a lot of working women as we talk about powerful women want to kind of pick up a few ideas from their counterparts and what not and so you're busy you talked about you took your 2 weeks, what is it that you do for fun? What are the things that you like to do that give you that me time so to speak?

Oh, certainly, I love to travel and that's why it's been challenging my, my son lives in Austin Texas that that is such a fun city so I would always go there every year and my other son and his family live in Chicago, another really fun city so, and I love going to New York and Washington DC and I have friends that I travel with so, so it's that time to get out and I love the Yosemite and I love the Grand Canyon and you know, so, so it's taking that time to be intentional, you know.

And, and really being intentional now with Covid how are you handling because that between work and even home.


It's, it's that's a huge difference that we're all facing.

It is and just you know the thing is with my son in Texas we used to connect occasionally now we connect every week we've been very intentional and out of Covid has come a new rhythm.


And the same thing with my, my kids in in Chicago, you know. Get up and we’ll  face time with them and it's being more intentional and the same thing with friends like yesterday, I used to always sit with my 2 friends in in church Lisa and Diane and, and we’re texting during the sermon yesterday “It's nice worshiping with you” you know? That sort of thing. So, so just trying to retain those friendships and build on them and say you know over the weekend I was over at a friend's house and we were social distancing, you know, so you be safe, but you be intentional.

A lot of people are making ways out of no way you know looking at Covid in this light and it's I think a lot of people will tell you that things have changed for the better in the sense because we had the privilege of being able to go out and about at will.


I like to travel to many the same places you mentioned and we can't really do that now and I think we've become so purposed in talking with our loved ones or friends or that you actually have more time or conversation of sorts, face time or whatever it is with them than you did before Covid.

Yes, I agree, totally.

Yes, so there's some good that comes out of that so the bigger question too is what makes you laugh how do you have a good time what, what makes you smile?

You know to tell you the truth you know, I love my work and I love the people we serve so, so I intentionally pick up some shifts in the open door so I can be with the women and I was just there Friday night and you know, as I got ready to leave one of the women said “I was hoping you'd spend the night I want you to sleep right here next to me” I said “oh you know” and, and she's well let me sing you a song so she's sang me a song and it just blessed my heart and

I just find great joy just being with people you know so, so what brings me jo, just journeying together with people and learning from them. I mean we don't just learn from people you know up above we learn from people at every stage of life I learned gratitude every day you know I walk into work and I’ll say you know good morning, how are you? blessed, you know how many of us who are sleeping under bridges say they're blessed, you know how many people sleeping on the floor at Degage,  would say I am so thankful for everything you do for me? Just the gratitude and the humility that they express every day is beyond words or somebody standing in line to get a cup of coffee, pan, a quarter, someone doesn't have a quarter, someone else reaches in their pocket and buys them a cup of coffee when that’s probably their last quarter, you know that brings me joy beyond belief to, to know people who are so unselfish so unselfish.

It's, it's like they're living the life of Christ right in front of you


It’s got to be a wonderful thing to witness on a daily basis and I know you're doing an excellent job there so thank you Marge Palmerlee we wish you all the best

Thank you, it's been a joy and I just want to thank the community for the support! We don't do this work alone and whether it's the staff on the board, the volunteers as a community we come alongside those in our community. So, thank you.

Absolutely what a wonderful thing that you're doing there at the Degage Ministries again we thank you so much for joining us and we thank all of you for listening today on this edition of Powerful Women, Let's Talk. I'm Jennifer Moss.

Produced by women about women. These powerful podcasts focus on powerful women and how their strength transforms who we are and how we live. Want to hear more Powerful Women, Let's Talk? Get additional interviews at WGVU.org or wherever you get your podcasts. Please rate and subscribe Powerful Women, Let's Talk is produced by WGVU at the Meijer public broadcast Center at Grand Valley State University, the views and opinions expressed on this program do not necessarily reflect those of WGVU its underwriters are Grand Valley State University.

Jennifer is an award winning broadcast news journalist with more than two decades of professional television news experience including the nation's fifth largest news market. She's worked as both news reporter and news anchor for television and radio in markets from Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo all the way to San Francisco, California.
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