FHC alumna Karen Custer is honored in the Hall of Fame for her work in developing the FHC community

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FHC alumni Karen Custer can be considered an FHC legend. Without her tireless efforts to create a community within FHC, we wouldn’t have many of the programs and traditions that we have come to love and appreciate today. Karen Custer helped FHC create a strong sense of community by installing programs that have been beneficial to our school.

“East Grand Rapids was our big competitor back then,” Custer said. “Everybody always said, ‘FHC will never be like EGR.’ And I said, ‘don’t say that, because we can be like East Grand Rapids, we just need a sense of community.’”

Custer used her competitive edge against EGR to start one of the largest and most loved traditions within the FHC community: the FHC Community Tailgate. The FHC Tailgate brings many of FHC’s sports teams, local businesses, and patrons of the community together to create a carnival-like atmosphere. The sports teams all set up booths with a game or demonstration, and local businesses offer food and drinks at affordable prices.

“I thought, ‘we need to get together before football games to start a community, start tailgating, start getting together, eating together, and gathering together like they do in East Grand Rapids,'” Custer said.

“I think we cooked at the very first [tailgate] 2,000 hot dogs, and everything was donated,” Custer said. “We wanted to make it more. Instead of a fundraiser, we wanted to thank people for all of their donations and hard work towards the athletic boosters.”

Custer also made an impact on FHC in the athletic department. She was the first female president of the FHC Athletic Boosters. She used her kids’ involvement in FHC sports, and the involvement she wished she could have had, as an opportunity to rise up and become involved in the programs.

“I thought, ‘I can do this,’ and we just had fun,” Custer said. “I was always up there, our kids always played sports, and I was really into athletics. There were no sports for women back then. I was a golfer. There was not a women’s golf team, and the boys wouldn’t let me on the golf team.”

She is also one of the co-founders of the swim team at the middle school. At the time, there wasn’t even a pool in Forest Hills for the kids to use, so parents drove their kids to EGR to practice.

“Our kids all swam competitively when they were younger, and there wasn’t anything for them to do in middle school. So, I started with some other moms from FHN to combine a middle school swim team at the pool,” Custer said. “It was very successful. So we had a good time and started out, and that’s when the pool was built.”

In addition to starting the tailgate and the middle school swim team, Custer also started the school store at FHC in order to keep up with and compete with East Grand Rapids and continue to build up the community feeling that she wanted to start at FHC.

“The school store was another product of an East Grand Rapids parent that did a school store, and I thought the same thing, that we could do it too,” Custer said.

Custer felt very strongly about wanting to prove to EGR and the Forest Hills community that we can do anything that EGR, or anyone else, can do. She wanted to ensure that no one looked at FHC as a district with no connection.

“[I did it to] prove to people that we could do it too,” Custer said, “[and] that we could have the same community spirit [as EGR] and bring people together with respect and pride.”

She also thought that it was important for the parent of the FHC community to be able to come together and have discussions on things that are going on in the district. And thus, the Parent Advisory Council was created.

“I love to do stuff like this, I just have always loved Forest Hills a lot and the education that our children received, that I received. I am just proud of the excellence in education and I felt strongly about the community.””

— Karen Custer

“[The Parent Advisory Council] was when I was president of the PTO at Thornapple Elementary, and we got all the presidents together and started meeting with the superintendent on a monthly basis,” Custer said. “Then we decided to add the parents to make it an actual working council, where parents from different schools would be represented and had everyone working together on a monthly basis, bringing concerns to him and meeting as a group. It was very effective.”

Custer is no longer working with the athletic boosters or the Parent Advisory Council, but she is still involved in working with the school to help raise funds that benefit the schools within the district.

“We still do a lot of work with the FH Educational Foundation,” Custer said. “I started the very first gala, [which is] the fundraiser with that group that raises funds for the extra stuff that you get at high school. They have a whole new, huge budget that they work with, and people give to the foundation from the school system for those extra things that your budget at your elementary and high school doesn’t cover.”

Custer is also the recipient of the Ben Emdin Guiding Principles in Action Award for her work and dedication within the Forest Hills community.

“[The award] is given to someone heavily involved in the community stuff,” Custer said. “I love to do stuff like this. I just have always loved Forest Hills a lot and the education that our children received– that I received. I am just proud of the excellence in education, and I felt strongly about the community.”

Between the tailgate, the middle school swim team, the school store, the Parent Advisory Council, and the FH Educational Foundation, Custer has brought so much to the Forest Hills community. She focused on creating something that proves FHC can do anything and she succeeded.

“I just enjoy people coming together, and if EGR can do it, FHC can do it [too],” Custer said. “That’s my philosophy. And we can make it better by having that sense of community.”

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