Family living

Grand Rapids dads share how their families enjoy the city.

We spoke with some Grand Rapids dads about how their families enjoy the city and take advantage of the many unique things it has to offer.

The Ernst family (left to right): Jordyn, Becky, Todd and Gavin. Courtesy Todd Ernst

Dad: Todd Ernst
Spouse: Becky Ernst
Kids: Gavin, 18, Jordyn, 17
Pets: Skylar, 4-year-old black Lab; Meadow,
2-year-old golden retriever mix
Neighborhood: Ada

Todd and Becky Ernst both grew up in the Grand Rapids area, attending East Kentwood High School. The pair dated for three years during high school and then parted ways, reconnecting 12 years later, and marrying in 2001.

Todd attended Grand Rapids Community College and Grand Valley State University, and Becky attended GRCC before the pair started their careers. Today, Todd is a broker/owner of River Grand Properties, a boutique real estate brokerage, and he owns a small events production company and the DJ collective Soundscape Design. Becky has been a pre-construction administrator at Rockford Construction for over 20 years.

Though the couple thought about relocating to Chicago, when Becky discovered she was pregnant with their son, they made the decision to stay in Grand Rapids.

Q: What is one of your family’s favorite activities?
I guess it’s hard to say we have a singular favorite activity in GR, but we have always enjoyed urban exploration and roaming what some might consider the grittier parts of downtown. Since I am such an event-minded person, we always enjoy new ideas and attending events born out of the creative community.

Q: What’s a typical weekend like for your family?
I feel like much of parenthood on weekends has been attending our kids’ activities. Our son has always been on travel baseball teams, and our daughter on competitive dance teams. It’s been pretty intense at times with all of the travel, but the structure and discipline provided by each has paid dividends for itself. When baseball or dance is not happening, I hate to admit we often just enjoy a quiet weekend at home knowing that the busyness will be upon us before too long.

Q: How does Grand Rapids meet your family’s needs?
At heart both Becky and I are big city people. So much so we got married on the beach in South Beach, Miami, and really crave the electricity of places like Chicago, Las Vegas and even the grittiness of Detroit. That said, something you hear often about Grand Rapids is that it is the largest small city you will ever experience. Grand Rapids really can and does provide almost everything a person could want, and with organizations like DGRI leading
the charge, there are always new and interesting activities coming forth.

Q: As your kids grow up, what do you love about Grand Rapids serving as the backdrop to their growth?
As our kids have grown what we love about Grand Rapids is the diverse nature of experiences, whether that is minor league sporting events, global touring acts coming through Van Andel Arena or the proximity of outdoor activities like Lake Michigan or ski resorts. Fun fact: Our son is the football player on the side of Kendall College. That came about via Rich App in the early ArtPrize years.

Q: What improvements does GR still need?
Grand Rapids still has a lot of work to do on things like racial, gender and LGBTQ equality, but there are a handful of people doing great work and sometimes it just takes time to put points on the board, so to speak.

Q: What’s your family’s favorite takeout restaurant?
Vitale’s Ada.

The Fisher family (left to right): Faten, Ruby, Jordan and Lara. Courtesy Kelly Sweet

Dad: Jordan Fisher
Spouse: Faten Fisher
Kids: Lara, 3½ and Ruby, three months
Neighborhood: Ada/Cascade

Jordan Fisher was born in one of Chicago’s northern suburbs, while his wife Faten was born in Beirut, Lebanon, but both of them grew up in Grand Rapids. A great job opportunity led the couple to Seattle, but they relocated a couple of years ago and are excited to be back in Grand Rapids.

“We decided to move back to Grand Rapids after the sale of our home and a news article featuring the renovation of a desired building in the Wealthy Street corridor,” Jordan said. He turned one of the units in that “desired building” into Thelma’s Flowers, a flower shop serving the West Michigan community and named after his grandmother.

Q: What is one of your family’s favorite activities in GR?
One of our favorite activities is going to Griffins hockey games.

Q: How does your family typically spend a weekend?
Our family typically spends a weekend opening Thelma’s Flowers early Saturday morning with help from Lara Bear. We celebrate with sidewalk chalk, bubbles, massive coloring projects and puzzles that are celebrated with taco-time at Donkey. Sundays we relax, take care of home projects while visiting our local Ace Hardware and enjoying a clean car at Mister Car Wash before making forts and watching movies.

Q: Where is your family’s favorite takeout place?
First Wok, Jet’s Pizza, Tacos El Cuñado and Le Kabob.

Q: What’s your favorite restaurant to go to as a family?
Some of our favorite restaurants are Nonna’s, Matchbox Diner, Donkey and The Chop House.

Q: What do you enjoy about the neighborhood you live in?
We truly enjoy the absolute convenience of our neighborhood and close proximity to nearly everything. From the airport, to grocery stores, gas stations, restaurants, you name it, we got it.

Q: As your kids grow up, what do you love about Grand Rapids serving as the backdrop to their growth?
We look forward to our children’s development in a diverse society that allows them the opportunity for growth with equality and respect for different cultures and beliefs.

Q: What would you like to see improve within the city/what does the city need more of for your family?
The city of Grand Rapids has a plethora of activities for families just not enough time in the day to enjoy them all. Note to the mayor: Scientifically find a way to add more time to each day for the citizens of Grand Rapids!

The DePolo Family (left to right) Steven, Caroline and Lourdie. Courtesy Kelly Sweet

Dad: Steven DePolo
Spouse: Caroline Clark
Kids: Lourdie, 14, Qiqi, 18, Tiffany Sullivan, 36
Pets: Kai, a Havanese rescue; K2, a terrier mix
Neighborhood: East Hills

Steven DePolo grew up in the Detroit area. He attended graduate school in Philadelphia followed by a 10-year stint in New York City. “I moved to Grand Rapids after getting laid off in 2001 to be closer to my mother and sister who had moved to the area,” he said. Meanwhile, his wife Caroline grew up in Santiago, Chile. She did a high school exchange program in Zeeland, eventually moving to the area with her sister and attending Grand Valley State University, where she received her LMSW.

Today, Caroline is enjoying her retirement, while Steven serves as the director of development for Covenant House Michigan in Grand Rapids. The couple’s kids attend Grand Rapids Public Schools and are involved in several activities.

Q: What made you decide to stay in Grand Rapids?
I wanted to stay in the area to be closer to my family, which included my nephews. But I also found it to be a friendly community that makes it easy to make a difference. The ability to enjoy an urban lifestyle while having hiking trails and Lake Michigan beaches within an hour is amazing. The generosity of the community is amazing, which helps my career in nonprofit development.

Q: What do you enjoy about the neighborhood you live in?
It is very walkable. Nearly everything we need is within walking distance. Groceries at Wealthy Market, good food at the Green Well Gastro Pub, coffee at The Sparrows and wine and kitchen staples at Art of the Table.

Q: What is one of your family’s favorite activities in GR?
Three or four times a week, my wife and I like to walk our dogs along Wealthy Street to Eastown and then back down Lake Drive. It’s a great time to catch up, get healthy and see how the neighborhood is evolving. I also try to take my camera if there is some light to practice my photography skills.

Q: How does your family typically spend a weekend?
We really enjoy all of the trails surrounding Grand Rapids. Some of our favorites are in Seidman Park, Plaster Creek and Provin Trails. My wife calls it forest bathing. We hike them in the warmer months and cross country ski them in the winter — at least my wife does; I
fall mostly.

Q: Have any of your kids participated in any sports, clubs, etc.?
Lourdie has played soccer through Grand Rapids Parks and Rec since she was 5 years old. She has played basketball, volleyball and baseball through school, and she has sung with Girls Choral Academy for five years. She has also performed in several productions with Stage GR. Theater is lots of work and I’m a proud stage dad. My daughter Qiqi took karate at a dojo in Eastown and practiced aerial gymnastics for several years in addition to playing soccer in school.

Q: What’s your favorite restaurant to go to as a family?
I have taken Lourdie, who we adopted from Haiti, to Chez Olga for Haitian food nearly every week for 10 years. Olga is like an aunt for Lourdie.

Q: What would you like to see improve within the city/what does the city need more of for your family?
There needs to be more low-income housing so families can be safe and secure in their own homes. We can’t push people out of Grand Rapids through gentrification, but integrate the city with low-, medium- and high-income people living together.

Q: As your kids grow up, what do you love about Grand Rapids serving as the backdrop to their growth?
I love that there are many resources for my children to complement their education and grow in their interests, from sports to an excellent library system. The streets are safe, the parks are convenient (and) having City Middle High School as an option for children with the drive and ability to excel academically.

15 activities for you and your family

Get out and enjoy the city this summer.
By Robin Gould

Just as you welcome the first official month of summer with open arms, so do your kids. When the weather warms up, kids crave play. Fortunately, this top 15 family-fun activity guide is your new lifesaver. From water skiing to bottle-feeding calves, West Michigan has some of the best places for adventure.

1. Critter Barn, 9275 Adams St. in Zeeland, has friendly critters for all ages. Children can hold baby chicks, milk a dairy goat, bottle-feed calves and learn about Michigan’s agriculture through numerous classes. For the general public, visiting the farm is donation based. Critter Barn is fun and educational, making this an easy decision for parents.

Action Wake Park Courtesy Action Wake Park

2. The fresh lakes that surround the area are truly one of a kind. At Action Wake Park, 3320 Hudson Trails Drive, experience the water like never before with Michigan’s first and only cable park. Instead of boat towing, the rider is pulled around the lake with an overhead cable system. Learn to wake board, water ski and knee board in a controlled environment. The park is for all skill levels. It offers experienced coaches for first time riders and summer kids camps. Parents can watch their kids from the picnic area, which has patio seating and on-site food. For a state with so much water, take advantage and learn to ride.

TreeRunner Adventure Park Courtesy TreeRunner Adventure Park

3. TreeRunner Adventure Park, 2121 Celebration Drive NE, lets you travel through the trees and climb high with the various climbing courses, seven aerial trails and a 365-foot Mega Zip Line. With over 30 obstacles and three difficulty levels, even Tarzan can’t keep up. It also has a Junior Park for kids ages 4 to 7. There are two special events that happen each month. The most popular is Glow Nights. Once a month the park glows with colored LED lights and music. The colored forest will light your path. Make sure to buy your tickets in advance because they sell out quickly.

4. Cannonsburg Ski Area, 6800 Cannonsburg Road, does not close its doors when summer arrives. In fact, the snow globe turns into a summer fun land, offering a zipline adventure tour and 11 miles of free and safe woodland trails.

Deer Tracks Junction Courtesy Deer Tracks Junction

5. Deer Tracks Junction, 7850 14 Mile Road, is all about ice cream and animals. You’ll find an ice cream shop, animal park and a chance to feed animals when you visit. You can race rubber ducklings in the duck race tank or pet animals such as camels, alpacas, deer, elk, donkeys, bunnies and more. The creature list is endless. There are different play areas that involve tunnels and giant slides, as well.

6. There are many camps and classes available at John Ball Zoo, 1300 W. Fulton St. Kids ages 3 to 15 can join the zoo’s summer camp. With educational classes, including keeper for half a day, scout programs and overnight adventures, John Ball Zoo offers so many opportunities. You also can spend a day at the zoo and experience animal species from all over the world.

Blandford Nature Center Courtesy Blandford Nature Center

7. Blandford Nature Center, 1715 Hillburn Ave. NW, gives back to nature. For a $3 entry fee, you can experience trails, wildlife and farmland. If you have middle school girls, sign them up for STREAM Girls. The week of June 15, Blandford partners with Trout Unlimited and Lower Grand River Organization of Watersheds to offer young women a STEM-based watershed educational experience. According to Blandford’s website, “Girls assess a community stream, sample macroinvertebrates, journal and sketch their experiences, tie a fishing fly, and learn to cast a fly rod.” It is $160 per participant. Scholarships are available.

8. If sculpture and garden parks intrigue you, hop over to Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park, 1000 East Beltline Ave. NE. You can enjoy various concerts at the Fifth Third Bank pavilion throughout the summer, too. Don’t miss out on your favorite musician. There also are many activities for kids such as Grandparent and Me and Silly Sculpture.

9. One of the best indoor playgrounds is Catch Air, 2978 28th St. SE. Featuring ball pits, slides, bubble dance parties, a three-story soft play castle and many interactive toys, Catch Air is an enhanced playground. It is best known for throwing the most memorable birthday parties, too. So, grab your socks and catch some air!

10. Higher Ground Rock Climbing, 851 Bond Ave. NW, is one of just a few rock climbing places in Grand Rapids. From group climbing, youth climbing, rentals and day passes, rock climbing has never been this easy to access. Trust the belayers and watch your kids climb to the top.

11. You don’t have to drive 30 minutes or more to the beach when Millennium Park, 1415 Maynard Ave. SW, is so close. Tucked within Johnson Park, this city beach has campgrounds, a splash pad, boat rentals and long, paved trails. There are daily admission and season pass options.

12. If drama and art are more your thing, Grand Rapids Civic Theatre, 30 N. Division Ave., has multiple kids’ productions with open auditions such as “The Wiz,” “High School Musical” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” There also are camps available for learning acting skills and more about the aspects of all things theater. So, see a show as a family or encourage your kid to be in the spotlight.

13. Teach your kids the importance of fitness. MVP Sportsplex, 4035 Burton St. SE, has supervised kids’ zones for members. There are day camps and summer camps, too. There also are swimming clubs and lessons, not to mention the many sport lesson opportunities including tennis and volleyball.

14. The Grand Rapids Public Museum, 272 Pearl St. NW, offers three floors of history and excitement, featuring a 1928 carousel and a variety of new exhibits including Grand River Fish and Design Zone. The museum always is changing and offering new activities, especially for kids. Check out Camp Curious on its website to find a camp that fits your child’s interests and age group. This is a great place for educational challenges and learning something new. It also has something for everyone in the family to enjoy.

15. Launch Family Entertainment Park is a trampoline park located at 3681 28th St. SE. Some attractions include trampoline courts, dodgeball, cliffhanger, krave, battle pit and fury laser tag. Pricing ranges from $22-$119 depending on group size and package. If you have smaller children, check out Toddler Time.

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