Pop Quiz: Danyelle Brown

Welcome back to the POP QUIZ! This is a regular, yet totally unexpected, feature where we ask students, parents, staff, our friends, and partners to answer a few questions about what they are learning, reading, and thinking about. Today we feature Danyelle Brown, a youth development worker (YDW) with Communities In Schools of Kalamazoo.

Danyelle got her start with CIS volunteering in the after school program at Northglade Montessori Magnet School. In January of 2018, Danielle was offered a position as a youth development worker. We were thrilled when she accepted!

Danyelle is from Detroit, Michigan and beginning her junior year at Western Michigan University, studying early childhood education.

“It’s amazing to get my feet wet with CIS and getting the opportunity to do what I’m going to be doing for the rest of my life!” Danyelle says.

[This interview took place during CIS Think Summer! You can find out more about Danyelle in the upcoming issue of CIS Connections.]

Alright, Danyelle: pencil out, eyes on your own paper. Good luck.

Pop Quiz

What is something interesting you’ve recently learned this summer?

I’ve learned patience. It’s definitely a process when it comes to behavior and meeting kids right where they are and working with them from that place that they are in.

Favorite word?

Reflection. I think that reflection is vital, especially working with children, it gives them an opportunity to acknowledge the things going on and, if necessary, can allow them to re-direct or correct themselves and move forward. With my kids, we do reflection every day, at the end of each day.

Reflection is an important skill to acquire, isn’t it?

Yes, it’s definitely a skill we need to teach. Sometimes, kids don’t even want to acknowledge the day that they’ve just had, but when they do, I find it modifies behavior, to say the least. Mistakes that they may have made are usually not made anymore.

What are you currently reading?

A really cool book! My kids and I just read Bigmama’s by Donald Crews. We all really enjoyed it. Just experiencing the joy they got out of reading that book got me excited in experiencing that with them!

What do you love about Kalamazoo?

Just one thing?

It can be more than one, if you’d like.

I love the environment of Kalamazoo and the people. It’s a very safe place. And a great place to raise a family, in my opinion. Though, I would prefer more shopping centers at the mall. That’s my only issue!

This city is not too big and not too small. It’s a good distance away from home. People here are so loving and friendly and I love that, since I’m a people-person. I’m accepted here, and appreciated.

What’s one of your favorite places in Kalamazoo?

My church, Mt. Zion Baptist Church. My pastor, Dr. Addis Moore, is so amazing. It’s a privilege to be able to sit under his great teaching. And everyone there is so loving.

Behind every successful student is a caring adult. Who is one of your caring adults?

I have so many loving people, and have been fortunate to have a great support system, so it’s hard to choose just one, but I’m going to say my mother, Kallee Brown. That woman is amazing! She’s showered me with so much love and wisdom. She is the reason that I’m the woman I am today. I don’t know where I’d be without her. She is my superwoman.

What makes her super?

She has so much love. And she’s a mother to everyone. To her nephews, to children that aren’t her children, and you experience that love with just one encounter with her. She is loving and kind to all.

Thank you, Danyelle, for hanging out with us at Ask Me About My 12,000 Kids.

Our kids need more Youth Development Workers, enthusiastic individuals like Danyelle, to step up and serve after school (Monday through Thursday). If you or someone you know might be right for the job, go to CISKalamazoo.org and apply today!

An interview with friends, Zamya and Areli

Welcome back to the POP QUIZ! This is a regular, yet totally unexpected, feature where we ask students, parents, staff, our friends, and partners to answer a few questions about what they are learning, reading, and thinking about. Today we feature two students who will be attending fifth grade this coming school year.

Zamya (left) and Areli at CIS Think Summer

While both go to different Kalamazoo Public Schools—Zamya attends King-Westwood Elementary School and Areli attends Arcadia Elementary School—they have become friends through CIS Think Summer!, which is designed to reduce summer learning loss and increase academic and enrichment opportunities.

[Note: CIS Think Summer! as well as CIS After School is available thanks to the support of federal dollars that are awarded through the Michigan Department of Education, the 21st Century Community Learning Centers. The considerable advocacy here and across the country for after school programs was effective for the 2018 year and funding for 21st Century Community Learning Centers was included in the budget bill passed by Congress, despite the recommendation to eliminate all funding for that purpose.]

Alright, Zamya and Areli: pencil out, eyes on your own paper. Good luck.

Pop Quiz

What is something interesting you’ve learned this summer?

Zamya: That you can have fun even though you’re doing math in school and it’s the summer.

Areli: That I really like science!

 

Favorite word?

Zamya: Fun. I’m really having fun this summer.

Areli: Tía. It means “aunt” in Spanish. I love my aunts.

 

What are you currently reading? 

Zamya and Areli: Out of My Mind!

Areli: We’re supposed to finish it by the end of summer and bring back to school.

Zamya: It’s a really good book.

 

What is one of your favorite things about being a student in KPS?

Zamya: Kids Hope [through Westwood Christian Reformed Church] is at my school. At the end of the year we had a celebration and this year we got a Rice Krispies watermelon treat.

Areli: I like that we get to do art. I love art!

 

What are your favorite subjects?

Zamya: Art. I want to be an artist and a gymnast when I grow up. I’m going to go to a multi-practice college that teaches you everything you need to know. My brother goes there. And then I’ll go to WMU and focus all on art.

Areli: I like art and want to be an artist when I grow up. I especially like to trace things. I traced a cat with wings on it and people say it looks good. I’m going to go to college where my cousin goes but I don’t know exactly where that is.

 

Okay, here’s a question I don’t think we’ve ever popped on anyone. What is the purpose of life?

Zamya: I feel like the purpose of life is worth living.

Areli: I was thinking about that too. I agree.

Zamya: You need to be living it. On the other hand, it’s hard to be living it…sometimes, you know, life might not always be fair. I first learned that from my mom. She’s told me that.

Areli: Life isn’t fair at all.

Zamya: Yes, you’re right.

Areli: Sometimes, it’s not even fair for dogs. I don’t like dog pounds. There shouldn’t be dog pounds.

 

Behind every successful student is a caring adult. Who is one of your caring adults?

Zamya: I have three moms.

Areli: My mom and dad and all my aunts and uncles. And my older cousins. They all care about me and take care of me and protect me.

 

Thank you, Zamya and Areli, for hanging out with us at Ask Me About My 12,000 Kids.

Stacy Jackson and Her Many Moms

Welcome back to the POP QUIZ! This is a regular, yet totally unexpected, feature where we ask students, parents, staff, our friends, and partners to answer a few questions about what they are learning, reading, and thinking about. Today we feature Stacy Jackson.

A graduate of the Kalamazoo Public Schools (Loy Norrix, Class of 1991), Stacy went on to graduate from Davenport University with a degree in accounting. Stacy’s CIS career began in 2011 when she gave a year of service as an AmeriCorps VISTA, working at Loy Norrix and Kalamazoo Central High School. After that, she moved into the role of CIS after school site coordinator at Edison Environmental Science Academy. Since 2013, she has also served as the elementary site coordinator for CIS Think Summer.

Alright, Stacy Jackson: pencil out, eyes on your own paper. Good luck.

Pop Quiz

Diane Lang taught you math during your middle school years and is clearly one of your favorite teachers. In your letter to her that we published several years back as part of our “Caring Adult” series, you wrote: You showed me that hard things (algebra) don’t always have to be hard. [Click here to read the entire letter.] Name another Kalamazoo Public Schools teacher who impacted you.

Mr. Bill Arney, my 9th grade Social Studies teacher at Loy Norrix High School helped me through the 9th grade career aptitude test. I took it and tested for social work. We talked about the potential outcome, and knowing my personality, said that I probably should go with my second pick, which was accounting. I’m sure he’d be pleasantly surprised that I figured out how I ended up doing both.

Favorite word?

That’s an interesting question. I say, I know, right? I say that phrase a lot. It’s a quick way to show empathy but since that’s not one word, I’ll say: smile. I like to walk past people and say, Smile! I do that with kids, too. It can give them an opportunity to tell me why they aren’t smiling. I think there is power in a smile.

Can you talk a little bit about being a CIS after school coordinator?

Stacy (left) at Edison with Principal Julie McDonald

Persistence comes to mind, because it is key. We must persist and we must help kids persist. It’s sometimes too easy for grownups to give up on kids if they have given up on themselves. I think of CIS as a vehicle through which we can help students, be there and show them we’re not giving up on them. When kids really feel that someone has their back, they stick with it and can push themselves to a place—both student and person-wise—farther than they can imagine. We just need to be there and not give up on them.

This makes me think of the time one of my after school kids was refusing to go to class. In talking with him, it quickly became clear that he wasn’t acting up just to be naughty. There’s always a reason behind behavior. Sure enough, he admitted he’d acted up the day before with a guest teacher. He knew he’d let his teacher down and that she was probably going to be disappointed with him. He didn’t want to face all that.

I told him, Ms. B is still going to love you, but you have to own your stuff. We discussed how, when you make mistakes, you need to own up to your behavior. People will still love you, Ms. B will still love you, but it’s important to own your stuff. Now get into class! And he did.
That’s another phrase I like to say. Own your stuff!

There are both good and negative consequences to behavior. If you are going to accept the good, you also have to accept the bad. In my role as after school coordinator, that is a part of what I’m always doing, with both students and CIS staff. I want to provide a safe space for kids to be after school and to have access to academic supports, and to be surrounded by people that care. I mother everyone. I’m the mother of everyone! [Stacy laughs.]

Sheldon Turner agrees! I remember last summer when we interviewed him for this blog [you can read his interview here] he described you as a mother figure.

I love Sheldon!

Any favorite places?

Studio Grill of course! I also love the greenery of Kalamazoo and all the many parks we have here. I like beach areas and really enjoy being by the water. Water is my favorite element.

What is something interesting you’ve recently learned?

I’m working on my spiritual growth. In Discerning the Voice of God, Priscilla Shirer talks about body, mind, and spirit; how God leads through our conscience to help us make decisions.

My pastor always says we have moral compass inside us, that the Holy Spirit dwells in us, yet, until recently, I’ve thought of my conscience and God as two distinct, different things. But I’m seeing that the Holy Spirit is guiding our conscience, helping us make more Christ-like decisions so we can be out there doing the work that is needed in this world.

What are you currently reading?

I just started the Second House from the Corner by Sadeqa Johnson. I joined my first book club this year and we’re reading some crazy books! Who thinks up this crazy stuff, these incredible story lines?

Behind every successful person is a caring adult. Who has been your caring adult?

My mom. She is a strong woman and as a single mom raised me and my brother—we were 17 years apart. I also was fortunate to have a family and community of support. In addition to my mom, my Aunt and three of my mother’s best friends helped raise me and I give credit to each of them for the different pieces of me. One of my mother’s best friends, Ms. Willie Mae Lee, showed me how to be sassy.

You definitely know how to rock sassy!

[Stacy laughs.] Mrs. Barbara Loftin gave me humility and gentleness. My Aunt Iris Salters taught me the power of education. Ms. Bobbie Ryan worked in the unions most of her life and taught me to fight for injustice. And within all of that, my mom-mom encouraged me to be me, to not be anybody outside of who I am.

I owe a lot to all my moms, and the many others who have provided and continue to provide influence, but especially my mom-mom, Ms. Mabel Salters. She’s no nonsense, she’s a conqueror, and she’s everything I want to be.

Thank you, Stacy, for hanging out with us at Ask Me About My 12,000+ Kids.

Chris Werme: Giving Back and Giving Grace

CIS volunteer Chris Werme

Welcome back to the POP QUIZ! This is a regular, yet totally unexpected, feature where we ask students, parents, staff, our friends, and partners to answer a few questions about what they are learning, reading, and thinking about. Today we feature CIS volunteer and 2018 Champ recipient, Chris Werme. (We popped this quiz on him at the end of the 2017/18 school year.) If you missed the post about his 2018 Champ award, you can find it here.

Chris grew up in Portage, Michigan and earned his degree in accounting and management from Nazareth College. An employee benefits advisor at Rose Street Advisors, Chris has been a CIS volunteer since 2016, when CIS senior site coordinator at Loy Norrix High School Montrell Baker connected him to two young men.

CIS senior site coordinator Montrell Baker, DeAndre, and Chris

Chris also serves on the CIS Volunteer Leadership Advisory Council (VLAC), advising CIS on such things as volunteer recruitment and retainment.  Most recently, Chris joined the CIS work group on Engaging Male Students. As part of this all male workgroup, Chris meets monthly with other CIS volunteers, partners, staff, and community members, to review data and develop initiatives and strategies for CIS to better engage our young men and support them in academics, behavior, and school attendance.

Alright, Chris Werme: pencil out, eyes on your own paper. Good luck.

Pop Quiz

You are a busy guy. Yet, you carve time out of your schedule to work with students. Why? And why CIS?

Why do I do it? You could say I felt a calling. Why CIS? A CIS newsletter ended up in my mailbox for no particular reason—I think somebody threw the newsletter in my box, probably because they know I do stuff with my church—and I happened to see a picture of O’Neal Ollie on it. We used to play basketball together. It actually had a picture of Montrell [Baker], too. At the time, I had no idea I’d eventually be working with Montrell!

Well, the newsletter turned up in my mailbox at the same time I had been giving some thinking as to, What am I going to do next? I’d done the board thing. I wanted to be boots on the ground, and work with young men.

So, I called O’Neal up and we met for lunch. I wondered aloud about volunteering and O’Neal said I should do it. So, here I am!

In addition to working directly with young men, you also serve on the CIS work group, Engaging Male Students. When it comes to working with young men, do you have a philosophy?

I believe that young men need to hear from old men how to act in certain situations. Lacking hearing from experienced, more mature men on how to handle things, they will handle things how they see fit.

To be clear, I don’t tutor or teach the young men anything. I talk with them and make sure they are achieving the goals they’ve set for themselves. I try not to make them be my goals.

…I’ve raised four children, two of them boys. I didn’t always do things right. I found I talked to my dad way more later in life than when I was a younger man. I discovered older men have real wisdom—and that wisdom is important.

What are you currently reading?

Nothing at the moment. The book that I’m looking to purchase is Emotional Intelligence 2.0 by Travis Bradberry and Jean Greaves.

What are some of your favorite Kalamazoo places?

We live in Shelbyville—my wife works in Grand Rapids—and I commute to Kalamazoo for work, so I’d say that it would be the golf course. I’m looking forward to golf season.

Favorite word?

Grace.

That’s a big word.

I’m working on giving it every day.

Behind every successful person is a caring adult. Who has been your caring adult?

My dad. He obviously taught me about growing up, and most importantly, how to deal with people.

Thank you, Chris, for hanging out with us at Ask Me About My 12,000+ Kids.

Come fall, our kids will need many more volunteers like Chris. Go here to consider one of the several ways you can become a volunteer today to help the kids of tomorrow. 

Reverend Morris “Mo” Brooks: In Schools for Kids

Welcome back to the POP QUIZ! This is a regular, yet totally unexpected, feature where we ask students, parents, staff, our friends, and partners to answer a few questions about what they are learning, reading, and thinking about. Today we feature Reverend Morris “Mo” Brooks.

A Kalamazoo native and proud graduate of Kalamazoo Public Schools, Reverend Mo attended Northeastern Elementary School, Hillside Middle School, and “the great Kalamazoo Central High School.” He went on to graduate from Western Michigan University with a bachelor’s in social psychology. A number of summers ago, he also served as a youth development worker in CIS Think Summer!

Reverend Mo is the Director of Youth Ministries at Mt. Zion Baptist Church, a position he’s held for almost three years. He’s written a book, Unmasked: The Courage to Be You, and is working on another book, also geared to youth. And still, he makes volunteering with youth in the schools a priority. For the past two years, he’s volunteered with CIS at Kalamazoo Central High School, supporting young men in a group that meets on a weekly basis. The young men have named the group, KC Men of Change.

Alright, Reverend Mo: pencil out, eyes on your own paper. Good luck.

Pop Quiz

Thinking back on your years as a student in the Kalamazoo Public Schools, who was your favorite teacher?

I’d have to say my favorites were my English teacher, Mrs. [Sandra] Daam and Mr. [Topher] Barrett. He was a forensic coach and I was also in his drama class. Mr. Barrett was patient and challenged me to be a leader. Mrs. Daam was loving and hard. Oh, she was hard! But a loving hard. She helped me out a lot.

How would you describe the volunteer work you do with CIS?

For me, the work is really meaningful, especially because when I was their age, I wish that I could have been a part of something like this, to have someone help me make wise decisions, and challenge me.

Last year, I was able to meet with them twice a week and this year, we’re meeting once a week. I’m hoping that next year I’ll be able to go back to doing the group twice a week. When we meet, I’m able to ask the hard questions of them because of my experience growing up, and we have deep conversations. I like impacting them in a positive way.

I sense a great deal of respect for our youth, whether it is here at the church, in the schools, or in the community. Kalamazoo cares about its young men and women.

CIS Site Coordinator Deborah Yarbrough said one of the most impactful sessions for the students was one that had to do with self-love.

Yes, Deb wanted to have a few sessions that combined both the males and females [Young Women with a Purpose], so we did. I had them list five or more people that they love. I then asked them to name the things they do for them because they love them. They identified things like I protect them, I’m loyal to them, I make sacrifices, and so on. I asked them to list five more people they love and then asked, Now how long does the list have to be until you’re on it? It was an eye-opener for them. Too often, our young people aren’t taking care of themselves because they’re busy worrying about others. We then talked about loving ourselves and how that involves things like trusting one’s self and protecting one’s self.

When it comes to engaging our youth, what do adults often forget?

I think they forget that they were once a youth and, along with that, they forget their mistakes.

I can remember my mistakes vividly. In 2015, I wrote a book, Unmasked: The Courage to Be You. In it, I share my own struggles of when I was in high school, my mistakes and regrets, as well as being somebody who I wasn’t. Students often struggle with that.

Sometimes, adults do too!

Yes, and while the book is geared to youth, I’ve had adults who have read it tell me: I’ve needed this!

When it comes to working with young people and connecting with them, what’s your secret?

One, recall your own youth and know your own mistakes. Also, know that their emotions and feelings are real. Too often we can cast them aside or don’t recognize them. Youth don’t always share their feelings but just because they aren’t communicating them to the world, doesn’t mean they aren’t experiencing the feelings. They may be bottling them up, so offering them a safe space to bring out and express their feelings can help. When I share my story, my path, and the wrong things I’ve done, that helps get the process going. They see this guy wearing a suit and tie, and think, well, he has baggage and pain and if he can open like that, maybe I can too. And they start sharing, because now we’ve got this trust thing going on and are connecting on a deeper level, having real conversations.

Speaking of suit and ties, Deborah Yarbrough also mentioned that you implemented a “Dress for Success” day and that that too, was a huge hit and brought the group closer together, identifying even more as a team.

Actually, it wasn’t me but the young men who came up with the idea! Each week, I come wearing a suit and tie to group. We had a tie session last year and taught the young men to tie ties. Last year, the group decided to have a dress up day and it went so well we thought, why not keep this going? And so, this year we had another tie session and then another dress up day!

What are you currently reading?

I’m always reading and listening to books. Right now, I’m listening to Meet Generation Z. It’s written by James Emery White. He takes a look at this next generation that follows the Millennials, or “Generation Z.” He explores the trends, how culture is shifting, how we can reach these young people, minister to them, and serve them.

What is one way, according to the book, that we can reach this next generation?

Answer their questions. With the age we are living in, young people have a lot of questions. We need to listen to those questions and have answers.

James Emery White points out that we are living in a post-Christian world, one in which the norm is that people are no longer connected to a religion. More often than not, as a minister I’ll hear, I don’t have any religion. I’m spiritual, but I don’t belong anywhere. This generation is asking, Is religion necessary? Is it relevant?

What are some of your favorite Kalamazoo places?

Home, here [church], and Sweetwater’s Donuts. That’s about it…I’m really a home body!

Favorite word?

Self-assessment.

I feel like a lot of people have the inability to self-assess. I want to know, how can I grow? What could I have done better? We live in a blame generation. So, when things go wrong, it’s easy to point the finger and blame anybody but ourselves. But if we stop and assess ourselves, recognize hey, I could do this or that better, well, when we do that, we can move forward. If everybody did that, we could really move forward. We need to self-assess.

What is something interesting you’ve recently learned?

The importance of habits as well as practicing those habits. By training on whatever you’re working on, you can build upon good habits. While I’m always learning, that’s the big one right now: habits.

Behind every successful person is a caring adult. Who has been your caring adult?

During my elementary years, I’d have to say it was Mr. Gary Vanstreain. He was our basketball coach at Northeastern Elementary School. He was so positive, caring, and challenging, and would give you the shirt off his back.

In middle school, there were quite a few. I’ll go with my coach at Hillside, Steve Dunning. He was a disciplinarian and made sure you were on track and what you needed to do to stay on track. Even outside of the court, outside of basketball season, he cared and was on me. He showed that tough love.

In high school, it was Pastor James Harris. I will never forget, I was in a low moment in my life and Pastor Harris came to my house, spoke with me and prayed with me. He set out on a notecard representing where I was and then set out another notecard showing me where I could be, my potential. I doubt he’d remember that, but that moment really impacted me.

Then, in my college years, it was my own pastor, Pastor Moore. He really poured into me, invested in me, mentored and disciplined me.

Thank you, Reverend Mo, for hanging out with us at Ask Me About My 12,000+ Kids.

Ms. Annie Brown: A Tree with Many Branches

Welcome back to the POP QUIZ! This is a regular, yet totally unexpected, feature where we ask students, parents, staff, our friends, and partners to answer a few questions about what they are learning, reading, and thinking about. Today we feature Ms. Annie Brown. She has been a CIS volunteer for the past three years and is the proud grandparent of Reniyah Gillam, a second grade student at Woodward School for Technology & Research.

Originally from Tennessee, Ms. Brown came to Kalamazoo in 1968 and began working at the Shakespeare Company. Most locals know this art-deco building located in downtown Kalamazoo as Shakespeare’s Pub. However, when Ms. Brown came to town, the building housed a business that manufactured and supplied fishing equipment and other sporting goods. Ms. Brown worked for the company, helping them with cars and jeeps equipment. [If you are interested in learning more about the history of this former Kalamazoo company, go here.]

Alright, Ms. Annie Brown: pencil out, eyes on your own paper. Good luck.

Pop Quiz

What do you love about Kalamazoo?

Kalamazoo is a special place, because there are people who LOVE to help others. I love doing things for people. I have a prayer group, I love going to church and doing reach out ministry. I go to the Tabernacle Church of God in Christ. My Pastor is Dr. Charles G. Charles.

Favorite word?

Praise Him! All the sickness I’ve been through and I’ve survived!

How did you come to be involved with Communities In Schools of Kalamazoo?

I thought I came to help my granddaughter out but God was wanting me to do something else!…I guess you could say Reniyah was the seed and it just grew from there!…I was doing a little walk through of Woodward and to see how my granddaughter was doing. I saw the principal, Mr. Rocco, and said, Mr. Rocco, do you need me to do anything here? And he said, Yea! Come on down to the Communities In School’s room. So ever since, that what I’ve been doing! I’m an organizer and I love to organize things! I’ve been organizing clothes for CIS Kids’ Closet, sorting and folding. I organize items in the cabinets as part of the Loaves & Fishes food pantry we have here. I just do whatever [CIS Site Coordinator] Jen [DeWaele] needs me to do.

Ms. Annie Brown with her granddaughter, Reniyah, who enjoys school, especially reading and working at math.

Your thoughts on the volunteer work you do with Communities In Schools?

This is right in the schools, and I tell people we are here for them, we are an organization that can help people. Sometimes, people don’t know we can help or maybe they don’t like to share about their situation. Even though they might need some help, they don’t like to admit it. But we can help them by providing them with information about what we have—right here at Woodward!—that they might need. We have a food pantry, a closet of clothes, backpacks, and a whole lot of other things we can help students and their families with, like help with tutoring. They don’t always know about it so I tuck a flyer, say about the Loaves & Fishes pantry, in their backpack.

So you have been serving in this role for the past three years now? Any other insights?

Yes, it has been three years…With the children, sometimes they don’t want you to pick them out as needing help. I just spread my love and the children don’t feel so bad about needing something. And they know me. Ms. Brown, she’s Reniyah’s grandma and she works with Ms. Jen, they say, so it’s okay. Everybody has gotten used to me here so it’s easier for them to accept the help. There comes Ms. Brown! they say, once they got used to me. So I come in on my good days and help out however I can, whether it’s organizing things or connecting with a student and doing one-on-one work with them.

What are you currently reading?

I love to read and pray. Right now I’m reading Romans in the Bible.

Is that your favorite book in the Bible?

I prefer James.

Behind every successful person is a caring adult. Who has been your caring adult?

My mother. She raised five children. She was the backbone of us. She was a good mother and gave us structure and balance. She instilled in us that you can be whatever you want to be. She taught us to love and also to do whatever you can do—but don’t talk about it.

Well, both CIS and the Woodward family are so grateful for all you do for kids here at the school. We can’t help but talk about what you do. You really do a lot!

I’m like a tree and I have so many branches. Hey, that’s your closing right there! That’s what we’re all supposed to be about, trees and branches, nurturing each other.

That is a good closing! Thank you, Ms. Annie, for hanging out with us at Ask Me About My 12,000+ Kids.

In the next issue of the CIS  newsletter, “CIS Connections,” you can learn more about Ms. Annie and what Woodward’s Principal Frank Rocco and CIS Site Coordinator Jen DeWaele have to say about Ms. Brown!

Jennifer Johnson: Ever Moving Towards the Possibilities

Welcome back to the POP QUIZ! This is a regular, yet totally unexpected, feature where we ask students, parents, staff, our friends, and partners to answer a few questions about what they are learning, reading, and thinking about. Today we feature Jennifer Johnson, Executive Director of Kalamazoo Loaves & Fishes.

A lifelong resident of Southwest Michigan, Jennifer grew up in northern Michigan. “People won’t like to know that I love snow,” she laughs. “But I grew up with snow! I love it!”

Jennifer attended Central Michigan University, double majored in psychology and English and then obtained her Masters in English, Language and Literature. “When people learn I have an English degree, they’ll often ask, What makes you qualified to do this? I tell them I’m annoying,” says Jennifer. “And I ask questions.”

We’d describe Jennifer not as annoying but rather, persistent, focused, and curious, always looking for possibilities and moving not just her and Kalamazoo Loaves & Fishes towards them, but the whole Kalamazoo community.

Alright, Jennifer Johnson: pencil out, eyes on your own paper. Good luck.

Pop Quiz

When we talk about hunger these days, we often hear the term, ‘food insecure.’

That is the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s measure of hunger.

What is your definition of food insecurity?

People need enough food to lead a healthy active life. They need food that counts nutritionally. A person may be eating food, but not the right food. They may be taking in calories, but not the right calories. The reality is that some people don’t have enough money to buy the right food, or perhaps they have enough money but they live in a food desert. Their only access to food is the local Family Dollar or corner store that doesn’t have fresh fruits and vegetables; the foods they need to grow health and strong.

Hunger presents itself in many different ways. Teachers see it in the form of concentration problems and behavioral issues. For kids themselves it is more of an out loud thing, literally. My stomach is growling! My daughter’s teacher, like a lot of teachers, has a snack drawer in her classroom. We see the holes and we’re all trying to fill them.

Speaking of filling a need, let’s talk Friday Food packs! We are so grateful to you and all those at Kalamazoo Loaves & Fishes for your commitment to this program. As you know, since 2005, your food packs have been one of the critical “tools” CIS site coordinators pull out of their tool box of resources to help students.

In the early days with the program, Kalamazoo Loaves & Fishes saw the food packs as merely a bridge, a bridge to more things. It was, and still is, helpful for us that CIS site coordinators, working with teachers and administrators, identify students who need that little extra help on weekends from Loaves & Fishes. Identifying the kids has been a way to help us reach the families. We want to feed the whole family as well as the child.

So the Friday Food Packs has helped bridge that end?

It has helped with that, yes… I’d add that we are limited by the number of packs we can provide. Around 6,000 kids are on free and reduced lunch. The number of food packs provided are small in proportion to the need. We know how tough it is for CIS site coordinators to prioritize what students will receive the packs.

You’ve been with KLF for eleven years, serving these last four years as executive director [and prior to that, as resource development and public relations director]. When it comes to feeding hungry people and engaging our community in the fight to end hunger, what is one of the biggest changes you’ve noticed over the years?

One of the most recent things I learned was from talking with Deb Yarbrough, the CIS site coordinator at Kalamazoo Central. She’s been there a long time and really knows the kids. So I asked her, “When it comes to hunger in the high school, what’s changed?” She said that it’s changed a lot. Kids, she said, are more responsible than they’ve ever had to be for their food, their sibling’s food, as well as accessing food for their household.

What a responsibility that puts on our children’s shoulders! Now, there are lots of reasons for this, one being that a parent may be working at night. Whatever the case, the level of responsibility that has been put on kids in the last few years has greatly increased…I grew up as a latch key kid, but it was different then. It’s not the same thing.

If you could feed us one statistic on hunger, what would it be?

In our community, there are 40,000 food insecure people. That means in Kalamazoo County there are people living right on the edge and there are also people living deeply in poverty. It’s the whole spectrum.

One of the thing people don’t realize is that just because you have a couple of jobs doesn’t mean you have all the bases covered. Imagine, you have two part time jobs, no benefits, and something happens where you have medical bills. Or maybe your car dies and you don’t have the dollars to fix it. You need groceries, but don’t have a vehicle. Life is complicated for many people. Holes and gaps hamper their success and their children’s success. At Loaves & Fishes, we live with that every day and work to create as many access points as possible to help kids and the surrounding community.

We know [from last year’s Valentine Post] that you “love the possibilities” as seen through your daughter, her friends, and this community. What possibilities have you been noticing recently?

It’s hard to see them sometimes. It’s easy to get bogged down by external things, like what’s going on in the environment, the media, the world. It’s hard to not be negative. I encourage everyone to push all these distractions out of the way to see the possibilities. They are there! We believe at Kalamazoo Loaves & Fishes—we believe to our core—that we can create a hunger free community. That is an immense task, but it is possible! And CIS is an integral part of that task.

How so?

Your CIS people are incredible connectors. We couldn’t do this work without CIS. CIS site coordinators are on the ground and in the schools. They see and can help identify a child in need and that helps us know where our food needs to be. CIS is one of many agencies that are helping us do that throughout the community.

We love partnering with Kalamazoo Loaves & Fishes in the Kalamazoo Public Schools! Your organization really has an open mind set. Back in 2003, when we came to you and sought out your expertise about kids coming to school hungry, especially on Monday mornings, KLF was quick to say, Let’s figure something out! Soon after, the Friday Food packs was born.

Sometimes, possibilities are stopped by a system. We adhere too strictly to boundaries or the way things have always been done. When we open ourselves up to looking at ways systems can be stretched, that’s when possibilities can happen and we can leverage things like breakfast, lunch and summer feeding programs to their fullest.

I’m not saying it’s easy. Systemic change is hard. Real change takes work! We’re all busy and it’s hard to stop, to take the time and figure out better and new ways to do something. But if we can stop and focus—together— and say, I know this isn’t easy work, but let’s take the time to figure this out, together, we can make things better.

Do you have a favorite condiment?

I’m anti-condiment. I don’t like condiments, and that includes salad dressing. I’m boring, I know. That will be the theme of this blog interview! I’m boring.

Far from it! So, what’s the best meal you’ve ever had? What one food item is a “must have” in your own home?

We love fruits and vegetables. Mostly fruits, if you ask my daughter.

My best meal? Probably the home-made pizza I made with my daughter. I love baking and cooking with my daughter. Growing up, I cooked with my mom and grandmother and I am trying to instill that love of cooking with my eight-year-old daughter. We recently made spaghetti and meatballs from scratch. Not the noodles, though. We don’t have a noodle maker. But my daughter helped with the meal. She squished and formed the meatballs with her hands…I know how much it meant to me to bake with my mom and knowing I can do that with my daughter, well it’s thrilling to have that experience with her. Cooking and baking together is an important part of our life.

Favorite word?

Possibilities. That’s been one of my favorite words for a very long time. I can trace my thinking on possibilities back to Zora Neale Hurston and her book, Their Eyes Were Watching God. That book taught me a lot about possibilities. It really made me think beyond my own life. When you think there is no other way to go, nowhere to turn, there is. You just need to stop, collaborate, and take a different road.

What are you currently reading?

I just finished Katharine Graham’s Personal History.

Loved that book, though it was a lot of pages.

God Bless America, that was a long book! But it was so good. I really enjoyed reading about Graham’s growth as a woman, her running the Washington Post, and working in a male-dominated industry. I found it inspirational and relatable for our times: don’t give up! Oh, and I’m just starting The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. To think about the contributions to the world both of these women made, and in completely different ways. It’s inspiring.

Did you know that the librarian [Jermaine Jackson] at the Alma Powell Branch Library is related to Henrietta Lacks?

Yes, there are several of her descendants living in our community. That is exciting.

Behind every successful person is a caring adult. Who has been your caring adult?

I’ve had several. Both my parents have been my caring adults. I lost my dad four years ago. My mom is still here. My mom was my baker, teacher, and challenger. So was my dad. I’d go to Rotary with him, we’d collect for UNICEF together. I learned to give back at a very young age.

I’d also have to say my English teacher was very influential. I didn’t like school, didn’t find it very challenging. She changed my life by showing me books I should read. In college, I even ended up going into English Language and Literature.

Without a doubt, another caring adult in my life is Anne Lipsey. She became a friend but she is also my mentor, having been my boss for years. I’ve learned so much from her, how the voice of the people we serve must be heard and how we must stand up for them, particularly during these judgemental times. I’ve learned so much and continue to learn from her. She is just amazing.

We’re so grateful to the KLF staff and board for your on-going commitment to helping hungry kids in the schools and for all you do to end hunger throughout our community. We know there are many volunteers who work behind the scenes to make your work, such as food packs and school pantries, possible. What is the size of your volunteer force?

Kalamazoo Loaves & Fishes would not exist without volunteer support. On a weekly basis, it takes 300 to 400 volunteers to do what we do. That’s a massive amount of people! From front desk people volunteering, helping us answer the phone, escorting people through the building, to drivers who pick up and deliver our food, and those volunteers who deliver those food packs to schools. [If you would like to learn how you can volunteer with Kalamazoo Loaves & Fishes, go here.]

Thank you, Jennifer, for hanging out with us at Ask Me About My 12,000+ Kids.

John Brandon Chats on Cats, Closets, & Cafes

Welcome back to the POP QUIZ! This is a regular, yet totally unexpected, feature where we ask students, parents, staff, our friends, and partners to answer a few questions about what they are learning, reading, and thinking about. Today we feature John Brandon.

We met up with John at Caffè Casa, in downtown Kalamazoo.

John grew up on the east side of Michigan, in Lexington, about 20 minutes north of Port Huron. John came to Kalamazoo to attend Western Michigan University and graduated with a degree in history. In 2014, he joined CIS as an AmeriCorps VISTA worker, supporting both Milwood Magnet Middle School and Kalamazoo Central High School. John now supports all 20 CIS sites in his role as partner services coordinator, a position he’s held for a little more than two years.

Alright, John Brandon: pencil out, eyes on your own paper. Good luck.

Pop Quiz

How would you describe your position as partner services coordinator?

I work as a representative of CIS with many of our partner organizations. I look over the day-to-day nuts and bolts of the partnerships, making sure services are running smoothly within the CIS model.

Part of your responsibilities also include overseeing Kids’ Closet. If you could use no more than five words to describe Kids’ Closet, what would say? Go!

Clothes. Hygiene items. School supplies.

But I have to say more because those five words don’t fully fit or complete the description of Kids’ Closet. CIS is able to distribute the basic needs items I mentioned and more to students thanks to the community. We collect and store items, we operate the distribution and delivery of these items to the schools, but it is the community that is 100% providing this resource to our kids.

We couldn’t operate Kids’ Closet without the support of community donations or the volunteers. Take Sally Stevens, for example. She volunteers five hours every week to helping with Kids’ Closet. Our kids really benefit from her organizational skills and dedication. Without her, we wouldn’t be able to accomplish one fifth of what we currently do when it comes to getting kids the basics they need. We’re able to do as much as we do because of volunteers like Sally.

What item do you find the hardest to keep in stock?

Adult sizes of [new] clothing items, like adult-sized sweatpants, especially in small and medium sizes.

What item(s) have been big in demand from school sites this year?

School supplies of all varieties. Notebooks, mechanical pencils, pocket folders, dry erase markers—all the elementary kids have a white board to do math on but they need replacement markers from time to time. That’s a new thing for us this year, the dry erase markers. We also have had many requests for sweatpants for all ages and underwear at the elementary level. This winter, boots, coats, and shoes have been in high demand, as have items like deodorant and feminine supplies. Basically, while the list of what we have in stock is long, the demand for these items is especially high. Fortunately, people in our community are good about donating them!

Also, what we need depends on the time of year. For instance, at the start of year we do great with school supplies, but towards the end of the school year, we’re in need of more of these supplies, like pocket folders, notebooks, and mechanical pencils, because the kids have already gone through them. [To see the most current list of needed items, check out the Kids’ Closet wish list here.]

What is your most favorite item you have in your closet?

Probably this sweater I’m wearing. See, it even has orange elbow pads.

You look like a history professor.

[John laughs.] I do pay attention to history. I read history books frequently and listen to a history podcast.

Podcasts are really a thing now, aren’t they? Any particular podcast you listen to?

Hardcore History. It is done by Dan Carlin and one of the more prominent history podcasts out there. Most podcasts last a half hour or so. This podcast comes in at six hours. You can’t listen to it all at once. He takes a topic in history and elaborates on it. You listen and think and then you listen some more.

What are you currently reading?

I’m reading three different books right now. One is a history book called The Age of Capital by Eric Hobsbawn. It’s about the blossoming of the capital system and the spread of industrialization as well as the political ideology of liberalism. I’m also reading A Feast for Crows by George R.R. Martin. It’s one of the books in the Game of Thrones series. And also, A Horse Walks into a Bar by David Grossman. It’s a novel about a comedian that is not very funny. It’s tragic, really.

Favorite word?

Thank you. Thank you is two words, though, so you can’t use that. So, how about just thanks!!

We know [from last year’s Valentine Post] that you love “The Great Lakes—all of them.” What else do you love about living in Kalamazoo?

Kalamazoo has such a unique collection of people. I’m from a small town, so it feels like a big city to me, but without being too big. I love all the historical buildings. It’s also hip.

I live in the Vine neighborhood. Just this weekend, I was thinking how I’m so lucky I can walk to a record store or a fancy sandwich shop or a pub. I like the mingling of small businesses along with residential areas. Those are the biggest hits for me when it comes to what I love about Kalamazoo. Oh, and of course that Kalamazoo is not too far from the lake!

Any favorite places?

I am a big fan of Fourth Coast Cafe. Also, the Lillian Anderson Arboretum which is just outside of town and owned by Kalamazoo College. I enjoy the nature trails winding through the pine trees planted in rows, off to either side. It’s a good spot. There are so many good spots and that’s why the city of Kalamazoo is so great. I learned that we even have a cat cafe!

You can bring your cat?

No. It’s called Kzoo Cat Cafe and they work with Kalamazoo Animal Rescue. Debi Newsome [CIS Senior Director for Finance, Human Resources and Administration] told me about it. You pay twelve dollars and can hang out, play with cats, drink coffee and tea, and have some snacks. The cats are all adoptable through the rescue center.

What is something interesting you’ve recently learned?

I attended a conference on foster children. I got the opportunity to listen to and speak with people whose focus is entirely foster children. In being exposed to an area of advocacy I had no real prior knowledge on, it was eye-opening. I’m constantly learning how little I really know about people’s struggles in this world.

Behind every successful person is a caring adult. Who has been your caring adult?

For me, that would be my parents. Both of them. They’ve been role models for me in being a good adult. They’ve always done a good job of balancing, encouraging me to be who I am but also having a realistic view of what is possible. I’ve turned into a well-rounded person thanks to them, though. I didn’t always appreciate how awesome they are until I got older.

Thank you, John, for hanging out with us at Ask Me About My 12,000+ Kids.