East Grand Rapids is proud to partner with i understand for the 2023 Hearts of Gold Campaign. Since 2009, Hearts of Gold has become a community tradition raising awareness and funds of over $1 million for local nonprofit organizations.
Vonnie Woodrick, i understand founder, shared, "We are honored to be the Hearts of Gold campaign partner for 2023, not only to raise funds for our organization but to spread awareness about our mission providing compassionate comfort to those affected by suicide or mental/brain health illness and pain. September is also National Suicide Prevention Awareness month and a time to shine a light on how we can change the conversation and better understand those impacted by mental/brain health".
Vonnie's life forever changed with the loss of her husband, Rob, in 2003. Feeling as if no one understood suicide, mental illness's effects, and the attached judgment, Vonnie set out to change attitudes and the conversation. These efforts led to the formation of i understand in 2014, and after almost 20 years, they are making strides to normalize discussions around mental/brain health and erase the stigma associated with suicide and mental/brain health.
One of i understand's first initiatives was to create a petition to change the definition of suicide – updating the stigmatizing definition about intentionally taking one's life to one about suicide's role as a terminal side effect of mental illness. Vonnie shared, "Words matter. When you say someone "committed suicide" it implies complicity, and the definition of suicide includes intention. After our loss, people would ask how and not why, but by shifting the conversation to "he died of depression" opens up a more meaningful dialogue."
i understand supports our local communities in a multitude of ways, and their resources and online support groups have reached people globally. Vonnie exudes much warmth, love, and passion, and, it is evident from their "Pink House" offices and pink-laden resource materials, that pink is an important color. Vonnie shared that "pink is the color of unconditional love represented in the heart dotting the "i" in our logo. This unconditional love is both for ourselves that we are enough to seek support when needed and showing unconditional love to others by accepting them for who they are and the struggles they live with".
This unconditional love is taught and spread through the Pink Heart Project and Be the One campaign. The Pink Heart Project shares squishy pink hearts to spread the message of unconditional love and 'be the one' for someone. Recognizing that It is often hard to know what to say to a friend who has lost a loved one to suicide, your support can be key to helping your friend through this difficult loss.
A grieving person often needs a willing friend who can be present. For a friend, this sometimes means being able to sit with the grieving person and listen to their feelings nonjudgmentally, without trying to problem-solve. Though it can be awkward or uncomfortable when words don’t come easy, in most cases, just a pair of ears willing to hear a friend's story is enough.
"When we do things out of love, it heals" – Vonnie Woodrick
Support groups and support walks are cornerstone programs at i understand. Working with Mosaic Counseling and NAMI of West Michigan, i understand offers several licensed counselor-led support groups to connect people navigating and understanding loss or living with a loved one impacted by mental/brain health illness. These groups are tailored for men, women, teens, families, and those facing their own mental/brain health illnesses.
i understand also hosts "Get Up, Get Out and Walk for the Health of it" walks recognizing how physical health, community, and being in nature are important to healing after loss and one's own self-care. These walking groups meet weekly at walking trails around the greater Grand Rapids area. One walk this summer was "on the water" where the group connected paddle boarding and announced the "Butterfly Award" recipient.
i understand works in collaboration with the Michigan Sheriff Association Victim Service Units (VSUs), who are volunteers that accompany an officer into the family home of someone who has died by suicide. These officers show courage and compassion as they support those devastated and confused after this type of loss and the stigma surrounding it.
i understand proudly supports the VSU's understanding these volunteers have a very difficult job. i understand provides the VSU's with updated, accurate, and much-needed resources, including Courage and Compassion Recognition Certificates to all 574 Advocates within the Michigan Sheriffs' Association 52 units throughout the state. Each Advocate also receives a 'tool kit' that includes Vonnie's book, "i understand pain, love and healing after suicide", an info card, help card, and a bookmark.
In July 2017, i understand made history by funding the creation of a full-time clinical nurse specialist position at Helen Devos Children's Hospital, the first of its kind in the country. This groundbreaking role is dedicated to educating hospital staff on mental health matters and providing patients and their families with valuable educational resources, emotional support, and care packages, especially following a mental health crisis.
Another remarkable achievement by i understand is the establishment of a Sensory Playroom at Helen Devos Children's Hospital in March 2021. This unique space serves as a tranquil retreat specifically designed for children on the Autism Spectrum. The Sensory Playroom aims to create a calm, secure, and respectful environment for children facing fear, anxiety, and depression. It is equipped with sensory supplies and engaging activities that can help a child relax and prevent potential crises. Offering these resources shifts the focus from staff intervention to empowering personal responsibility and self-regulation.
Through these initiatives, i understand continues to break new ground and make a tangible difference in the lives of individuals facing mental/brain health challenges. Their unwavering dedication to providing support, education, and therapeutic spaces exemplifies their commitment to enhancing mental well-being and fostering a more compassionate society.
Dr. Heidi Kattula, EGRPS Superintendent, shared, "Over these past years, we have seen a significant increase in the number of mental health challenges and suicidal ideations among students across our state and our country. Now, more than ever, we need to partner with our students to help them understand that they are not alone in their feelings or struggles and that regardless of what they are going through, they have a support system here at school that truly cares about their well-being.
Hearts of Gold is an incredible staple of the East Grand Rapids community that highlights nonprofits who do critical work to support the children in our community. i understand was chosen as our Hearts of Gold partner this year to highlight a community resource that supports mental well-being and reinforces that nobody - students, staff, parents, or community members - is alone in their struggle with mental illness. We are thrilled to partner with i understand this year to bring more awareness to mental health resources and to walk alongside i understand in working to reduce the stigma surrounding suicide and mental health."
The community is invited to join in supporting the 2023 Hearts of Gold partner, i understand, through creating awareness by sharing i understand's mission and available resources but also raising funds through t-shirt sales, sponsorships and initiatives at each school building. One of the main initiatives at the elementary level is “Kids Helping Kids'' with the idea that anyone, at any age, can make an impact.
“Hearts of Gold has helped teach my kids the importance of thinking about others and giving back. This community fundraiser makes the giving process enjoyable for children, helping them associate giving with fun and positivity from an early age,” shared Katie Stein, long serving Hearts of Gold committee member and yearly sponsor. She added, “every year, kids and adults in our community are introduced to different local organizations. It's amazing how this exposure can make a difference in someone's life or even show them new ways to contribute and get involved. I love to watch the East community partner with another community and both grow from the experience.”
October 2 kicks off Hearts of Gold week which is filled with activities, business and restaurant givebacks, and sporting events culminating at the Hearts of Gold home football game on Friday October 6 at 7p vs. Grand Rapids Christian at Memorial Field.
This year's Hearts of Gold t-shirt, designed by Jemma Doublestein, a junior at EGR, beautifully embodies the mission of Hearts of Gold, which revolves around "playing for health and happiness." Her design incorporates the i understand pink heart and serves as a visual representation of the collective effort to promote mental well-being and stand together.
T-shirt sale dates will be announced at each school building and we encourage the community to fill the stands with gold to show our Hearts of Gold and support for i understand and those impacted by suicide and mental/brain illnesses. Sponsorships are available on the Hearts of Gold website.
Details for t-shirt sales and Hearts of Gold week events will be updated on the Hearts of
Gold website (egrps.org/Partners/Hearts-of-Gold) and Facebook and Instagram
Questions? Please reach out to Hearts of Gold co-chairs Kerry Hegele at