Paul and Patty laughing

Caring for Michigan Tourism

Professor's volunteer project reaches 10th anniversary, $1 million in volunteer value

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Over the last nine summers, hundreds of volunteers in the Michigan tourism industry have spent a day or two at attractions, ready to grab a paint brush, clear debris or repair facilities, restoring a piece of state history or a local landmark to its full glory. 

In the process, the volunteers and those in the community develop a greater sense of understanding among themselves and appreciation for the landmark — whether it’s a 153-year-old lighthouse on the shores of Lake Huron or a 980-acre island park in the Detroit River. 

“I wouldn’t miss it for anything,” said Maia Turek, promotional specialist with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. “It’s a highlight of my year. It never fails that I end up crying. It’s so moving.”

And, it’s all thanks to the vision of a Grand Valley professor. 

Patty Janes, a professor of hospitality and tourism management, has been the driving force behind Michigan Cares for Tourism since she created it in 2012.

Michigan Cares for Tourism celebrates several milestones this summer. It’s the 10th anniversary for the program and Janes has scheduled a reunion on September 11 at Mill Lake in Chelsea (site of the group’s first project) and a volunteer event on September 12 at Cambridge Junction in Brooklyn. Janes said this year’s events should push Michigan Cares to the $1 million mark in volunteer value — savings in labor and supplies given to attractions across the state. 

“When you think that it’s lasted 10 years, and through two years of COVID-19 when the industry was devastated, it’s amazing,” said Janes.

Admittedly, she said she borrowed the idea after experiencing it as a faculty member at Central Michigan University and serving as a board member for Tourism Cares, a nonprofit organization based in Boston. As the only educator on the nonprofit’s board, she said she asked if she could bring students to an upcoming project. The idea reshaped her thought process toward the events.

“They let me bring four students that first time,” said Janes. “It was at Mount Vernon, and it was magical.”

In 2006, Janes and 50 students joined Tourism Cares in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast to assess and help in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Janes beamed with pride when she mentioned the student group raised $18,000 to fund its trip.

“I will never capture an educational, learning, living, giving experience like that in my life,” said Janes. “I would have ended my career right there because there’s no way I could capture anything better.”

With the trips to Mount Vernon and the Gulf Coast fresh in mind, Janes knew she wanted to bring the idea to Michigan. By 2012, she was teaching at Grand Valley and approached Paul Stansbie, then the department’s chair. Stansbie didn’t hesitate to help, and Michigan Cares for Tourism was born.

“It was an easy decision because it aligned perfectly with the mission of the unit and the college about community engagement and experiential education,” said Stansbie, now associate dean of the College of Education and Community Innovation. “Although the model was more about tourism professionals, there was always space for students to be a part of that.

“I’ve been to places in Michigan that I wouldn’t have thought of going to if it hadn’t been for Michigan Cares.”

Creating next generation of professionals

The trips organized by Michigan Cares bring enormous value to the attraction and its surrounding community, but it also gives a professor like Janes the opportunity to introduce students to their future line of work and people in the industry.

Her visit to Mount Vernon illustrated her mission. The historical site was recovering from a hurricane that demolished the surrounding countryside. At one point, she said, a student and volunteer were chatting and sharing a moment as they cleared brush together. The student had no idea who the volunteer was, but Janes later pointed out it was Arthur Tauck, CEO of Tauck Tours, a family-owned company and the largest privately held tour company in the world. 

“I said, ‘Hey great job, but do you know who that was?’” she said. 

It’s moments like those that Janes hopes to create with each visit. 

“Part of it is about the connections you make and the relationships you build,” said Stansbie. “Students are working side by side with industry professionals, and you lose all the uncomfortableness of an interview. They are on a level playing field and connecting right there.”

Janes and Stansbie aren’t the only ones to notice how beneficial the interactions are, and not just between CEOs and students, but tourism industry professionals and colleagues. These opportunities may bring together people from different backgrounds and areas of the state, but there’s one connection they share — the tourism and hospitality industry.

“It changes your perception about that person, who you feel they represent and what area you think they represent,” said Dave Lorenz, vice president of Travel Michigan. “It’s an engaging way to realize through this immersive experience that we’re all the same in the most important ways. 

“That’s what travel does, so when the travel industry can engage in this way, it provides even greater benefit because this knowledge of understanding can be amplified in our individual jobs. It makes us more receptive and welcoming in anything that we do in the industry.”

Serving the industry and community

Industry professionals and state officials have witnessed Michigan Cares for Tourism’s effect on the attraction, but also on the attraction’s surrounding area and people.

Turek recalled the group’s trip to Sturgeon Point Lighthouse outside Alpena on Lake Huron. Partnering with the lighthouse’s own group of volunteers, the Michigan Cares for Tourism group brought 225 volunteers and received a warm welcome. 

“That particular group made such a big deal out of those Michigan Cares volunteers coming,” said Turek. “They didn’t have the bodies to take care of some of the maintenance, and they were so appreciative. They got a police escort for the bus to welcome them in. They had people standing on the side of the road with signs welcoming Michigan Cares.”

Like Turek, Janes has fond memories of the Sturgeon Point Lighthouse trip. 

“We built a parking lot so they could host motor coaches, we built fencing, laid cement, put in new landscaping, and built picnic tables,” said Janes. 

“That lighthouse is 100 percent run by volunteers, but it’s seeing the impact of helping people at a different level who equally share a passion.”

And as Turek pointed out, most attractions and landmarks usually have fewer than 20 volunteers to help with maintenance and care year-round. With dozens of Michigan Cares volunteers on hand for up to two days, the change can be dramatic. 

“In the morning you look at the space you’re about to impact, and it looks a mess,” said Stansbie. “Then you have hundreds of volunteers ‘Tasmanian Devil’ their way through the thing.

And you look back at the end of the day at what you’ve done, and it’s transformational.”

As much as local communities value what Michigan Cares offers to their landmarks, industry professionals like Lorenz and Turek understand what Janes’ project has done for Grand Valley, too. 

“It has really changed my perception about Grand Valley,” said Lorenz. “It’s a university that thinks and sees the bigger picture of what education is, and it’s more than a classroom and books.

It’s about participation in the community. It’s changed the way I see Grand Valley as one of our leading education organizations in the state.”

Turek echoed Lorenz’s comments. 

“I’m so appreciative that Grand Valley has committed resources to this,” said Turek. “It has completely reframed my thought process when I think of Grand Valley as a university and as a significant player in Michigan for the tourism industry and recreation.”

Because two seasons of COVID restricted the group’s efforts, Janes believes Michigan Cares will be ready to lend a hand for an industry slowly returning to its economic strength. Tourism and hospitality professionals are eager to see the industry and Michigan Cares return to full force, too.

“The word has spread that this group of volunteers is the hardest working group of volunteers you’re ever going to see,” said Turek. “What Patty, Grand Valley and Michigan Cares have created is leaps and bounds beyond what any other state agency is blessed to have, and we’re so fortunate to have it.”

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