Early last fall, the Open Door Ministry welcomed a new volunteer who stayed to help out for the entire day. She watched as Lansing’s homeless and working poor relaxed in a mishmash of donated recliners lining part of the Central United Methodist Church’s basement. Her quick smile, infectious personality and big brown eyes helped comfort people who want little more than a friendly face to chat with them. When lunch rolled around, she rolled up her sleeves and helped dole out 85 meals.
But there was something different about the new volunteer that set her apart from the rest of helping hands keeping track of the washer and dryer schedule, watching the shower facilities and making sure the locked storage space stayed secure.
She was being paid.
No, the Open Door Ministry didn’t win the lottery; nor did Bill Gates take a sudden interest in the six-year-old charity. She was there on assignment. It’s Robin Miner-Swartz’s job to make sure little-known charities and foundations receiving grants from the Capital Region Community Foundation aren’t so little-known anymore.
“The first thing that struck me was that there are a lot of great story ideas on their list of grant recipients,” says Robin, who began the gig just last year after a long stint at the Lansing State Journal. “We give out more than three million dollars a year and I want to people to hear about the cool stuff that it is helping make happen. The job has allowed me to love this community even more, which I really didn’t think was possible.”
Robin isn’t just one of the Lansing area’s biggest cheerleaders; she’s a parallel of the region itself, having reinvented herself after an economic downturn forced her to make some difficult decisions.
Born and raised in East Lansing, she knew from an early age exactly what course she wanted her career to take. After watching the Oscars, Robin was thrilled to see Chariots of Fire win Best Picture. The infallible logic of an 11-year-old immediately came to the conclusion that because she also loved the movie, she should combine her impeccable movie taste with her love of writing and become a movie critic for the local paper.
So she did.
Robin started small by writing movie reviews for her 8th grade paper. And when college rolled around, she spent her first two years at Lansing Community College as editor of the student newspaper rather than enrolling in Michigan State’s program. There, she would have had to wait for seniority status to gain the same sort of experience.
“I was going to have to work my way up and I’m kind of an impatient person,” explains Robin of her decision to enroll at LCC. “I wanted to be able to jump in and do the things that I wanted to do right away.”
Two years later, she decided to jump over to MSU’s program. But rather than working through the ranks at the MSU paper, she instead began freelancing for the Lansing State Journal. The experience helped her land a job there as an assistant copy editor in the features department a year after graduation. She held about every job in that department, including reviewing movies and covering events like the Toronto Film Festival, until she left the paper in 2009.
Long before the auto industry’s jobs began drying up, the newspaper business began taking a nose-dive as more and more people began turning to the internet for their news and classifieds. It wasn’t long before the State Journal saw three rounds of layoffs in just one year, losing 10 people from the newsroom in the first alone, including Robin’s mentor and close friend.
“It caught me off guard both personally and professionally,” recalls Miner-Swartz. “And I thought, ‘You know what? I don’t want to be shown the door on somebody else’s terms. I want to be able to make a choice. And if I’m going to make a change, I’d better do it now.’”
Though she had never considered any sort of career outside of a newsroom, Robin took the economic tumble and turned it into an opportunity to reinvent herself, much like Lansing and the state of Michigan have done in the past few years. She found strength from her partner Betsy who also had left the paper after more than a decade in order to help care for her ailing parents, but was able to find a new role as a communications specialist for Gift of Life Michigan.
Throughout the job-hunting process, Robin stayed positive and worked to expand her social network to find new opportunities. Michigan State University’s Alumni Career Services helped her see how her skill set could be applied outside of the mass media. And despite the slumping economy, she never considered leaving Lansing, which is great for the city. It would have been a shame to lose one of its biggest cheerleaders.
“There was a long stretch when I felt like I spent a lot of time justifying to other people why I was still in Lansing,” says Miner-Swartz. “Part of my excitement came from the fact that I was working in the features department and I knew all the stuff that was going on around town – essentially the entertainment calendar for the community. When people would say there’s nothing to do here, I’d be like, ‘Are you kidding me?! I can give you a hundred things that are going on here!’ So I felt like it was almost my duty to stick around and give people this information and say, “Look, this is a cool place. Would you guys just get out and experience some of this stuff?’
“When I started doing the job hunt back in ’09, I started to find more people as excited as me about the town. I was like, ‘Wait a minute, you mean there are other people who are as excited about this community as I am? Why have I not known where these people are? And isn’t this great that we can all start staying this in a louder voice together?’ I felt really proud of the fact at that point that I had never left, that I had never given up on the city.
“That’s not to say that people who leave are giving up because I think it’s very valuable to go and have another experience somewhere else and then to come back with that experience to put to use. But I really feel strongly that I am here to be a cheerleader for this region, I’m going to take that job seriously, and that’s what I’m committing to.
“There are two things about the region that I love more than anything. First, I can go see top ten sports programs and be home 15 minutes after the game is over. I’m seeing them in world class facilities. We are season ticket holders for MSU women’s basketball and it is a fantastic environment to go see a basketball game. You go see the men play there and you’re in one of the top five venues in the country for college basketball. Secondly, we can go to the Wharton Center and see national Broadway tours and be home ten minutes later. I love going to Detroit, there’s a lot that I love there and they have a lot to offer. But I’m not a fan of driving an hour-and-a-half, waiting an hour to park, and then waiting another hour-and-a -half to get out of what I parked in to then drive an hour-and-a-half home. I think we have so much to offer right here and I love that it’s easy to take advantage of all of it.
“What I hope for Lansing is something that’s already starting to happen; it’s that that the self-esteem of this region would grow. That was always my biggest complaint was that people seemed to have such a low self-esteem about Lansing. I remember when they built what was originally called Oldsmobile Park where the Lugnuts play. People would say, “Why is Lansing getting a baseball stadium? We don’t deserve to have that here.’ And I thought, ‘Why don’t we deserve that? This is cool. This is a great opportunity.’ And again, I love going to Tigers games but I also love that I can drive five minutes to go to a Lugnuts game, pay eight bucks for a ticket, see a fun game and be home very quickly afterward.
“So I would hope that self-esteem is rising – and it is – and that we would sort of increase our national visibility – which we are doing too – as a destination for people who are looking for a small city that is vibrant, where you can come and make a change and make a difference, and feel like you’re making an impact on the people and the place around you.
“It’s just a fun place to be and I’m glad that so many other people are starting to have that enthusiasm for it too.”
Learn more about the Capital Region Community Foundation at http://crcfoundation.org/.
You can follow Robin on Twitter: @RobinMSwartz