GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Even free money isn’t necessarily easy money which organizers with Seeds of Promise in Grand Rapids understand well.

Ron Jimmerson is the executive director with the non-profit group which currently covers the southeast side of the city. It’s a place-based urban community improvement initiative that functions from the bottom up, putting the power into the hands of the people it helps.

“A top-down generally comes with an idea outside of the community and says we know what you people need. Here you listen to the people and then develop programs based around what they need and allow them to run it,” he said.

That structure is what led to major changes in how many residents are taking advantage of a federal program that makes homes more livable.

The Serve, Share, Improve program gives $7,500 to eligible homeowners who need to make certain repairs to their homes like functional windows and doors, roofs, etc. It has been around for nearly 15 years but no one in the “seeds” area knew about or how to apply because it was presented in a manner that wasn’t easily understandable.

“Because of the lack of knowledge and resources, they weren’t familiar with it. When they marketed in this area, they used college language with four and five pages. The residents didn’t understand this, so it went into the trash,” Jimmerson said.

He listened to their ideas for how to make it better and they suggested a one-page brochure, which North Point Bank, a Seeds of Promise partner, now produces. It helped get more people interested but there were still the barriers of time and paperwork.

The federal program works on a first-come, first-serve basis but it takes about five hours to get the paperwork done for just one applicant. A solution for this also came from the residents in the Seeds neighborhoods. They suggested that the organization hold an orientation for 15-20 people at once, rather than working with one person at a time.

“For the last three years we have been the leaders not only in the state but in the nation for processing the most applications,” Jimmerson said.

When they first started submitting applications in 2004, they were able to make improvements to one home. Last year, they helped 32 homeowners make improvements.

Carol Swan is one of those homeowners who recently took advantage of the program. She lives in the “seeds” area and needed several new windows and doors but didn’t have the money to replace them herself.

“This window didn’t even open, so I could never get any air through here,” she said, pointing out her front window in her living room.

The program also covered the cost to replace her failing air conditioning unit before the heatwave earlier this summer.

Seeds of Promise keeps track of every home in the area with a map which includes more than 5,000 parcels of land, color-coded for the condition of the property. It highlights homes in good condition in green, homes that need minor improvements in yellow, more serious improvements in orange and homes that aren’t livable in red.

Each year that more residents go through the Serve, Share, Impove program means more of the yellow, orange and red properties on the map turn green.

“That in itself allows these residents to remain in their homes and not lose them because they can’t afford to get new roofs. They can’t afford to get furnaces and windows and doors,” Jimmerson said.

Swan agreed, saying “that’s a pull on your pocket as it is with the teenagers and whatnot and the house alone. I could have done it eventually, but it’s always a blessing when someone helps you.”

Seeds of Promise leaders are working on many more projects and programs to help the people in the “seeds” area overcome systems of racism and will continue to listen to the residents for future ideas on how to improve land and lives in southeast Grand Rapids and beyond.