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Santa sighting!

Above: Ethan Gerhardt, 7, tells Santa what he wants for Christmas. Post photo by J. Reed.

Above: Ethan Gerhardt, 7, tells Santa what he wants for Christmas. Post photo by J. Reed.

With only a few days left until Christmas Eve, Santa Claus made a special stop at the Cedar Springs Library on Tuesday, December 20, to hear what kids in Cedar Springs want for Christmas. In the photos, Ethan Gerhardt, 7, and his brother, Zach, 10, tell him what they want for Christmas this year.

Right: Zach Gerhardt, 10, thinks about what he wants from Santa. Photo by J. Reed.

Right: Zach Gerhardt, 10, thinks about what he wants from Santa. Photo by J. Reed.

And don’t forget that you can track where Santa is on Christmas Eve by visiting www.noradsanta.org. Watch as he delivers toys around the world! You can also visit the North Pole and explore Santa’s Village on the website. Have fun!

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Michigan legal self-help celebrates 4th anniversary


Adds new toolkits to website, sees spike in number of visitors 

LANSING, MI, September 6, 2016 – The Michigan Legal Help Website at http://michiganlegalhelp.org, created to help people handle simple civil legal problems without an attorney, provides information and assistance to individuals representing themselves. Information and accompanying forms about family law, taxes, housing, employment, estates, and more, plus videos and 59 toolkits are among the subject matter available online to help individuals navigate Michigan’s court system.

Between the launch of the site in August 2012 and August 2016, the website has had 8.4 million page views, 2.58 million visitor sessions, and 1.8 million users. In July 2016, visit rates averaged 21,000 per week.

“With the addition of new resources, Michigan Legal Help is providing a helping hand to residents who need assistance with many different legal questions,” said Supreme Court Justice Bridget McCormack. “With this service, Michigan is a national leader in helping all residents access our legal system.”

New resources added to the Website include:

  • Food Stamp Calculator Toolkit
  • I Wasn’t Paid for My Work: Wage Claims Toolkit
  • I Need to Make a Will Toolkit
  • Small Estates: Transferring Property When Someone Dies Toolkit
  • Two new articles about Child Protective Services: “CPS and Your Family” and “Child Abuse and Neglect Central Registry.”

Many existing toolkits have been updated or modified. Forms previously known as “Automated Online Interviews” have been renamed “Do-It-Yourself” tools.

LiveHelp, a chat-based feature where visitors can get assistance navigating the website (but no legal advice), is available weekdays from 11 a.m. until 3 p.m. In July 2016 alone, LiveHelp agents conducted 427 chats and replied to 237 after-hours emails. In the first two quarters of 2016, users started 77,851 Michigan interviews, and from these interviews, 38,594 sets of forms were completed—an average of 214 per day.

Information and assistance to individuals is also available through local self-help centers in the following counties: Alcona, Allegan, Calhoun, Macomb, Marquette, Monroe, Muskegon, Oakland, Oscoda, and two centers in Wayne. Livingston County will have a new center this fall.

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Break Through

Digital marketing basics for businesses

Photo courtesy of Getty Images

Photo courtesy of Getty Images

(Family Features) Consumers today increasingly rely on connected devices to research products and services before making purchases – so it’s no secret that small businesses need to focus more of their marketing resources than ever before on online strategies.

As the journey from consumer query to purchase becomes more complex – incorporating multiple devices, websites, apps and offline activities – so too do the options for tracking consumer behavior and leveraging online media for targeted advertising.

There are companies today specializing in almost every aspect of online marketing, leaving business owners with a dizzying array of options. For many the question is not the value of online marketing, but rather where to start and how much they need to do to accomplish their marketing objectives.

Fortunately, there are some foundational activities that are effective, manageable and comprise an important starting point for leveraging digital media to grow your business.

Here are four basics you can focus on right now to promote your business and grow your customer base online:

Mobile mindset

Mobile is quickly becoming the device of choice for consumers to search the web. According to research by International Data Corporation on behalf of YP, nearly one in three consumers uses two or more devices when looking for information about products and services; and in 2015, Google announced that it receives more searches from smartphones and tablets than from computers. Yet many businesses are slow to adapt.

If your website is difficult to navigate from a mobile device, you can lose business to your competitors – especially since mobile searches are often about more than finding information. Consumers are using their mobile phones to take action after visiting a site, including calling a business, checking store hours and mapping directions. Make sure your site is mobile-friendly and easy to use from a variety of devices so you don’t miss out on potential customers.

Simple search

Search marketing is a powerful tool to drive quality leads. At minimum, you need to optimize your web presence to make sure people who are looking for the types of products and services you sell can find you through the major search engines. After that, you can supplement your organic search engine traffic with paid search ads during peak seasons, special promotions or when you have budget to invest. In any case, the first step is to form a clear vision of your target consumers and the keywords that drive searches in your industry. For additional ideas, consult others, such as customers, relatives, competitor websites and industry news.

The time and money you invest in search marketing can be undermined if you neglect the basics such as making sure your company contact information is accurate, consistent and easy to find on your website, in online directories and anywhere else your business appears on the web. Think about what makes your life easier when you’re searching for a product or service that you need and then strive to provide that same experience on your own website.

Social graces

Social media is a great platform to connect and engage with potential customers. The key to making it work for your business is to listen first. Look for social media groups related to your industry, the services or products you provide, or the interests of your target consumers, and observe conversations to find out what’s important to the people you need to reach. Avoid promoting your business in these settings, but look for opportunities to add value and expertise to the discussion. In time, this will help to build a community of followers.

Keep in mind that each social media channel has its own rules and user base, and not all may be a fit for your business. Find the channel(s) that makes the most sense for you and your business, and be sure to incorporate social links in all of your marketing efforts to further grow your network.

Content and character

In the age of information, every small business needs to be a content publisher. Good content serves many purposes, from attracting higher search engine rankings to helping prospects choose your products or services, and reinforcing your brand. A good start is to look for opportunities to educate and share your expertise. How-to videos, FAQs or links to informative resources about your industry are great ways to add value and encourage people to come back to your website. Other content, such as seasonal greeting videos or stories about work you’re doing in the community, may serve to humanize your brand and build authentic connections with your customers.

Photo courtesy of Getty Images

Photo courtesy of Getty Images

Does a local business really need a website?

When your business is primarily focused on local clients and you don’t sell products online, you may wonder whether your business even needs a website. The answer is unequivocally yes.

Websites are how local businesses get found via directories and search engines. It’s the “home base” for pertinent information about your business, including hours, location, products, services and more.

Remember that keeping your website information current and correct is extremely important. Inaccurate information can get picked up by other sites and directories, which, in turn, makes it harder for your potential customers to find and engage with your business.

Summit fuels growth

For business owners looking to grow their businesses, the Local Breakthrough Summit organized by YP may deliver the knowledge and tools they need. The series of nationwide events brings together leaders in digital marketing, including Bing, Google, Verve and Yahoo, while also giving small business owners the opportunity to share best practices and gain insights about their communities.

For more information on YP’s Local Breakthrough Summit, visit adsolutions.yp.com/breakthroughsummit.


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No more errands; stay home for the holidays

Vonda VanTil

Vonda VanTil

By: Vonda VanTil, Social Security Public Affairs Specialist


Let’s face it, the last thing you’re going to want to do during this holiday season is another errand. You’ve hung the lights, plugged them in, and were frustrated when you realized you needed to replace one little bulb to make the entire string work. That’s a trip to the store. You thought this holiday season would be easy. When it comes to taking care of Social Security business, it is easy. You’ll find that www.socialsecurity.gov makes it easy to stay home and get that one last thing done. You can check off much of your Social Security business quickly and securely from your home using your computer or tablet (which you might have unwrapped early). At the Social Security website you can—

* Create a my Social Security account, which enables you to:

• obtain an instant, personalized estimate of your future Social Security benefits;

•verify the accuracy of your earnings record—your future benefit amounts are based on your earnings record, so it is important to make sure your earnings are recorded properly;

• change your address and phone number, if you receive monthly Social Security benefits;

• sign up for or change direct deposit of your Social Security benefits; and

• obtain estimates of the Social Security and Medicare taxes you’ve paid;

* Apply for retirement, disability, spouses, and Medicare benefits;

* Check the status of your benefit application;

* Request a replacement Medicare card; and

* Apply for Extra Help with your Medicare prescription drug plan costs.

Keep in mind that during the holiday season, your wait time may be longer if you call or visit a local Social Security office. If you need to reach us by phone, you can call us toll-free at

1-800-772-1213. We can answer specific questions from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., Monday through Friday.

Vonda VanTil is the public affairs specialist for West Michigan.  You can write her c/o Social Security Administration, 3045 Knapp St NE, Grand Rapids MI 49525 or via email at vonda.vantil@ssa.gov  


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MDCH launches website to address prescription drug abuse


The Michigan Department of Community Health (MDCH) has developed a website to increase public awareness of the risks and potential harm associated with misuse of prescription and over-the-counter drugs, and to provide everyday steps individuals can take to address the issue in their families and communities. Do Your Part: Be the Solution is a multifaceted approach to addressing prescription drug misuse and abuse across Michigan.

“Everyone has a role to play in the solution as we address prescription drug misuse and abuse in Michigan. This website offers practical steps that everyone can take right now,” said Lyon. “We can all do our part by monitoring the medications in our homes, understanding the risks of sharing prescription medications, and properly disposing of medications when they are no longer needed.”

The non-medical use or abuse of prescription drugs is the fastest growing drug problem in the United States, and prescription medication is the second most commonly abused category of drugs. Opiate overdoses, once almost always due to heroin use, are now increasingly due to the abuse of prescription painkillers. In 2012, 941 Michigan residents died due to unintentional drug poisoning.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, every day an average of 2,000 teenagers nationwide use a prescription drug for the first time without a doctor’s guidance. Oftentimes, teens are accessing these drugs in their own homes. It can be as easy as opening a cupboard, drawer or medicine cabinet.

In addition, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) sites prescription opioid abuse may be “the first step” to heroin use. Recent research by NIDA indicated that almost half of the young heroin users who injected heroin reported they used opioid pain relievers before the started using heroin.

Do Your Part: Be the Solution addresses the issue of prescription drug misuse and abuse using a multi-pronged approach including educating communities and the general public, providing guidance and resources to the medical community and other professionals, and linking to information on proper disposal to reduce the impact on the environment.

For more information on the Do Your Part: Be the Solution campaign visit the website at www.michigan.gov/doyourpart.

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New eye health website

From the American Academy of Ophthalmology

Keeping your eye on an eye-oriented website can help you see your way clear to better eye health.

(NAPS)—Ever wonder how smoking affects your eyesight? How to care for your eyes during pregnancy? How often you should get your eyes examined? Answers to these questions can be found at a new website www.GetEyeSmart.org.

The new site is the most trusted online resource for reliable, unbiased eye care information. There, you will find volumes of important eye health content written and reviewed by ophthalmologists (Eye M.D.s). The American Academy of Ophthalmology has launched www.GetEyeSmart.org in order to help educate consumers about eye diseases and conditions, vision correction and the preservation of healthy vision across a lifetime.

EyeSmart delivers information on the symptoms, causes, diagnosis and treatment of common eye diseases and conditions—illustrated with photos and interactive elements, including animations, diagrams and dozens of informative videos. Much of the site is translated into Spanish as well. In addition, the website also provides:

•    Recommendations for “Living EyeSmart” in a new section devoted to healthy vision tips and what consumers need to know about their eye health based on their age and other lifestyle factors;

•    Online vision simulators to show how certain eye diseases and conditions can impact sight;

•    “Ask an Eye M.D.”: a searchable database of commonly asked eye health questions, plus the ability for visitors to submit new questions to an Academy panel of experts;

•    A free electronic newsletter focusing on healthy vision.

The Academy’s Eye M.D.s will continue to add new eye care topics to the GetEyeSmart.org website, plus the site will feature up-to-date news on the latest research developments that can impact people’s eye health. Articles from EyeSmart can also be easily shared to social networking sites.

“I will be letting all my patients know about the Eye Smart website, because I know what they read there is accurate, timely and reliable,” said Andrew G. Iwach, M.D., a glaucoma specialist. “With EyeSmart, the public can trust that experienced eye physicians and surgeons stand behind the information, and that making sure people get the best possible care for their eyes is our goal.”

To learn more about taking care of your eyes or to submit a question to “Ask an Eye M.D.” go to www.GetEyeSmart.org.

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Ray Winnie
Intandem Credit Union


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