My Story Started at GRCC: KSSN’s Sonia Riley connects families with support services to overcome obstacles

GRCC alumna Sonia Riley is always finding – and learning – new ways to serve her community, taking on roles in education, politics and health care.

Riley is a community school coordinator for Kent School Services Network, a nonprofit organization that collaborates with K-12 schools to connect families with support services. She works with Dickinson Academy in the Grand Rapids school district.

Start at GRCC and go anywhere. Every former student has a story to tell about how GRCC gave them the education and opportunity to be successful.

“The majority of my career has been working for nonprofit organizations that work with underserved communities reducing health disparities, removing barriers to academic success and providing a voice for those who have been intentionally marginalized,” said Riley, who earned an associate degree in Criminal Justice in 2010.

Working with one agency or organization frequently points her to others that need her help.

Her jobs as a community health care worker with Strong Beginnings, a federal program that works to improve the well-being of African American and Latino families during pregnancy and early childhood, and as an administrative aide for the city of Grand Rapids led to her entering the civic sphere.

“Although I was doing great work for some amazing organizations such as Strong Beginnings, I felt obligated to do more,” she said.

That led to her roles on Wyoming’s Community Enrichment Commission and as 2nd vice chair of the Kent County Democratic Party.

Every step of the way, Riley has taken advantage of opportunities to learn more. She earned a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from Ferris State University and is looking at programs to earn a master’s in education leadership. 

She also completed FSU’s Latino Talent Initiative (now known as the Leaders Program), a Fellows Program at affordable housing advocate LINC Up, and New American Leaders training.

Riley credits her time at GRCC for giving her a strong foundation for her work.

“I value the connectivity and the real-life experiences that were shared with us,” she said. “GRCC gives a lot to the students. It’s not just the textbooks, but also the internships. It was the whole college experience.”

She has maintained her GRCC connections, serving on the Juvenile Services Advisory Board and collaborating with the Criminal Justice Club.

“They have been a great partnership to our school, providing winter gear for all our students during the pandemic,” she said. “Anytime I presented to the club and staff, they have answered the call to action.”

Riley, who was a single mother of three during her time as a GRCC student, said her journey hasn’t been easy, but it’s been fulfilling.

“I have a lot of people who provided a lot of support on my journey, and the GRCC staff is one of them, because, as an alumna, I know I can count on them to steer me in the right direction,” she said.

“They believed I could do it, and I did.”

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