Employees of Henry and Ellen Rykes often get special one-on-one mentoring. Their bakery has been hiring some of Michigans neediest citizens since 1968.
Marvin Olasky, author of The Tragedy of American Compassion, has pointed out
that the original definition of "compassion" as noted in The Oxford English
Dictionary is "suffering together with another, participation in suffering." The
word "compassion," is a Latin construction taken from "com," which
means with and "pati," which means passion. Together they mean "suffer
with." Frequently, government welfare programs are spoken of as being
"compassionate," but the sad truth is that government, however well-intentioned,
has neither the physical resources nor the information to be truly compassionate with
millions of adults with varying needs. Only private citizens can truly "suffer
with" one another in a way that will effect positiveand permanentchange
in the lives of those whom they help.
Michigan has a long history of such private citizens seeking creative solutions to
welfare problems, all without guidance from government. The rise of the welfare
stateprescribed and funded at all levels of governmenthas been crowding out
these Good Samaritans for years. The results have been a tragic violation of a lesson from
Economics 101; namely, that one gets more of what one subsidizes. If the government
subsidizes wheat, it gets more wheat. If government subsidizes poverty, it gets more
But despite governments dominance of the poverty business, some Michigan
entrepreneurs have quietly been helping people who want to get off welfare.
On their own, people like Henry and Ellen Rykes of Rykes Bakery in Muskegon and Larry
Wiersma, owner of Wiersma Foods in Holland, are able to move people off welfare and into
the workforce. They choose to engage in truenot government-forcedcompassion by
rolling up their sleeves and giving needy people the type of opportunity, guidance, and
care that is impossible to deliver with a check from a distant bureaucracy.
Henry and Ellen Rykes, for example, have hired and mentored the needy one person at a
time since 1968. Their bakery employs 35 individuals and is the largest nonchain bakery in
Michigan. If someone wants to work, the Rykeses will train that person and give him a job.
After six months, new workers receive medical, dental, and life insurance benefits. If
they want a raise in pay instead of benefits, the Rykeses will do that, too.
Hard work among Henry and Ellens staff always comes with positive reinforcement
of one type or another. Thirty poor, learning-disabled, or otherwise challenged people
have been taught skills suited to their individual abilities. This flexibility is the type
of personalized help that government simply cannot provide.
Sometimes things do not work out. For example, in September 1994 the Rykeses hired a
learning-disabled woman to work part-time. Unfortunately, she made little effort to learn
and improve on the job so the Rykeses chose not to expand her work schedule, despite her
desire for more hours and greater pay.
Critics may complain that it would be unfair not to give this woman more work if she
wants it. However, the money that would be spent expanding the work schedule of the
unappreciative can instead be directed toward those who are willing to improve the quality
of their work.
"We have to teach [our employees] to become dependable and responsible. That takes
time, and when they dont stay, we have to train someone else," said Mrs. Rykes.
"But [Henry and I] both grew up during the Depression, and if people who know how to
work dont teach those who do not, who will?"
Another example of private compassion in action is Larry Wiersma.
In 1991, when unemployment was high in Holland, Wiersma began holding an informal class
for three families he knew who needed improved skills to get back into the workforce.
One evening a week, Wiersma or another businessman he had recruited would provide
practical exercises in résumé writing, interviewing, and interpersonal skills. After
just six years, Wiersma has expanded his operation to help, among others, welfare
recipients, recent jail and prison parolees, and halfway house work-release clients. He
has directly helped about 400 to 500 people in their quest for independent living.
Wiersma has always been concerned about participants quickly getting a job and becoming
independent shortly thereafter. That takes skills beyond résumé writing and job
interviewingso Wiersma expanded his program.
Today, Wiersma recruits community professionals including salesmen, retired executives,
entrepreneurs, and computer software experts as volunteers. They not only have the skills
and business perspective required to teach success, but because they volunteer their time
the message of personal commitment and caring is often communicated to participants. In
fact, the participants often note that it is the personal attention that motivates them to
A personal touch sometimes means "tough love." Class participants must
undergo a rigorous initial interview designed to eliminate people who are not serious
about learning and changing their lives. A volunteer tests and interviews to determine the
persons interests and abilities, résumés are then written, and potential employers
are targeted in the hope of finding a job match. Since this is often the first time that
the participants seriously consider what they want to do with their working lives, all
aspects of the class are designed to increase their personal and professional self-esteem
both as workers and people.
The federal governments War on Poverty has taken thirty years and cost upwards of
$5.4 trillion. During the same time the poverty rate has stayed about the same.
Policymakers are just beginning to recognize that taxing workers, sending their money to a
centralized bureaucracy, and giving some of it to people considered "needy" has
failed to reduce poverty, and may have increased it.
Michigan citizens like Henry and Ellen Rykes and Larry Wiersma have known this for
years. Instead of just assuming it was someone elses job to help the poor, they have
worked toward privatizing welfareone person at a time.