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.

In Step with John Curran

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 Curran, Executive Director of First Day Shoe Fund (FDSF). We met up with John a few weeks back at Walnut & Park Cafe in downtown Kalamazoo.

A lifelong resident of Southwest Michigan, John grew up in St. Joseph and then came to Kalamazoo to attend Western Michigan University. He graduated with a degree in political science.

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

Pop Quiz

Tell us a shoe story.

When I think of First Day Shoe Fund stories, one memorable moment that comes to mind is of a young man who got shoes with Batman on the sides. He put them on and started running circles around the gym. That’s how it works, right? Oh, and then there were these twins who each got a pair of shoes, different colors. Their teachers were grateful as, not only did they have shoes that were comfortable and fit them, the different colors made it easier to tell them apart!

Can you talk some about the partnership FDSF has with CIS in the Kalamazoo Public Schools?

I’m glad you asked that. I really want to put in a plug for your site coordinators!

CIS is really a special partner. We were, as you know, founded by Valerie Denghel. It was in volunteering with CIS at Edison that she was inspired to start this organization. In a way, First Day Shoe Fund grew out of CIS. And our partnership with CIS and KPS over the last twelve years, the help we’ve received with both identifying students in need and making sure they got the shoes that were right for them has been critical to our growth and success. Having CIS site coordinators in the school building dedicated to facilitating resources from the community to connect them to children who can use them makes our program possible and makes sure no child is left out.

We know [from last year’s Valentine Post] that you love “Lake Michigan and the bike trails that can get you there from Kalamazoo.” What else do you love about Kalamazoo?

I love that this town puts its collective focus on education. That is unique and one of the things that attracted Sakhi and I to live here and buy a home here.

Any favorite places?

Walnut & Park Cafe, of course. And Kleinstuck. It’s a hidden gem, a 48-acre nature preserve right in the neighborhood.

In 2016, First Day Shoe Fund celebrated its tenth anniversary. Tell us more about your organization and what’s happened since then.

Photo courtesy of FDSF.

We are now in our 12th distribution of providing shoes to elementary school-aged children. This past year, in 2017, we distributed 4,687 shoes! That a record high for us. The shoes were distributed across all the districts we now serve: Kalamazoo Public Schools, Comstock Public Schools, Paramount Charter Academy, and KRESA’s WoodsEdge Learning Center. Also, in 2017 we introduced a pilot program to serve Vicksburg’s students at their ‘Back to School Bonanza.’ That was organized by South County Community Services and Generous Hands, Inc.

As a grassroots organization, we depend on hundreds of volunteers to get this work done. We welcome new volunteers throughout the year. Those interested in volunteering with FDSF, can just fill out a form on our website. [You can do that by clicking here.]

One question we get a lot: Where do the shoes come from? We buy them. They don’t just come out of nowhere! A truck from Adidas doesn’t just pulls up and drop them off. We raise the money and buy the shoes.

What is the connection between shoes and academic success?

We are a piece of the puzzle. I mentioned that collective focus on education. First Day Shoe Fund is a part of that. We are doing everything we can do so students are ready to learn when they enter the classroom. When they have comfortable, correct fitting shoes, they are one step closer to that opportunity to be successful. Oh, I just said a shoe pun, one step closer, but it’s true!

We also believe shoes are important to a child’s self-esteem, feeling a sense of belonging and self-worth. Having the appropriate shoes leads to a healthy and active lifestyle. Students can participate in activities both inside and outside of school, they can be part of gym class, a school or community sport, and feel like they belong.

A pair of shoes put the young person on equal footing with their peers, providing them the same opportunity to walk into their classroom, feeling comfortable and good about themselves, ready to learn.

Favorite word?

Process. As in the process of how we do things at First Day Shoe Fund and in my personal life I’m a big believer that if you’re doing the right thing, if you commit to the process, it may not always turn out right, but in the long term the outcome will be good.

What is something interesting you’ve recently learned?

I was doing some research on the depth of need throughout our county. I learned that there are over 9,000 kids that would qualify for our program in Kalamazoo county. Throughout every community, in every corner of our county, there are children that could really benefit from a pair of new shoes.

What are you currently reading?

I’m a grad student—I’m in the MBA program at Western—so I’m reading a lot for school, much of which I find particularly helpful in my work as an administrator of a non-profit. When I have the pleasure of reading something that hasn’t been assigned, I read a few pages of Hard Labor by Sam Smith. It’s about the history of organized labor in the NBA. It combines my interest in social justice, worker’s rights, and basketball. Those are the topics I tend to gravitate towards for my leisure reading.

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

I’ve had a lot of them, but perhaps the person who has been the most impactful is Professor Don Cooney. He set me on the course that my life has followed for the last decade. I’d always had a vague idea that I wanted to make a difference in the world. Don showed me how. He gave me—as he does other students–a wealth of information as well as how to apply my energy. He introduced me to a great deal of learning and opportunity. He’s the best…such a decent human being.

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

[You can read more about First Day Shoe Fund in this 2016 post, First Day Shoe Fund: A CIS Partner with Sole.]





Robin Greymountain: A Passion for Making Things Work In Schools (and on ships!)

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 Robin Greymountain, now in her fourth year as principal of Parkwood Upjohn Elementary School.

Originally from Fulton, Michigan, Robin and her family moved to Sugar Island when she was in the second grade. She notes that this Michigan island, located in the St. Marie’s river that flows between Michigan and Ontario, used to be considered part of Ontario. “It is part of the Chippewa reservation land and part private land. We lived on land that has been in my family for hundreds of years. My father’s mom was born and raised on Sugar Island. My family historically would come to the land known as Manmade Lake for summer berry picking. The land is still in my family’s name.”

Principal Greymountain holds a bachelor’s in education from Southern Utah University and a master’s degree in educational leadership from Northern Arizona University. Prior to working in the Kalamazoo Public Schools, she served eight years as an elementary principal in Page, Arizona, and previously worked as a teacher and the district’s coordinator for English Language Learners and Gifted and Talented programs. Before pursuing a career in education, she was a diesel mechanic.

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


I didn’t know you had been a mechanic!

I joined the Coast Guard between my junior and senior year of high school. That’s all I ever wanted to do. My parents signed the waiver the day I turned 17. I got on a plane and went to boot camp. I was in the reserves one year and then went active duty when I graduated from high school.

What made you want to be a mechanic?

All of my uncles and my grandfather were mechanics. My Uncle Butch was truly an artist, I’d watch him weld, make race cars, take apart his van and put it back together. Oh, what he could do with engines! I wanted to do that. And, at some point, sexism came into play. Somebody told me, “You can’t do that because you’re a woman.” Oh, yea? I thought. Watch me! I became a mechanic and I was the only woman in the engine room, supervising 17 men.

As part of the mechanic’s training, I worked inside a ship and had to learn the engine compartment. It was three stories high and twice a wide. The piping was a huge puzzle. I had to figure it out. It was exciting, learning how things worked, drawing all those pipes. I liked this! I held the record for finishing it the fastest. I proved to them that woman are just as good as men.

Or, in this case, better.

I was better.

So how did you move from mechanic to the world of education?

When I got out of the Coast Guard and went to college I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I knew I wanted to stay home or close to the reservation and I knew the reservation was always looking for teachers. I started taking education classes. I enjoyed it and loved it. It lit a fire inside me. It’s the kind of job where you have a purpose; it’s fulfilling. I’m a part of shaping something better for the future.

What is something interesting you’ve recently learned?

I learned about the Social Justice Book Bowl competition that they have at Western Michigan University with Kalamazoo Public Schools. It’s part of the annual MLK Celebration.

We just blogged about that a few weeks ago! [Post may be read here.]

Until this year, I didn’t understand the greatness of this event. I was missing this for the last four years? The speakers were moving—Mr. Sidney Ellis was so good. I enjoyed the poem the student read aloud, the book bowl competition, the celebration, just everything about the whole event was wonderful. I only happened to go this year because my daughter participated in the Social Justice Art Competition. (Anja Greymountain, a seventh grader at Maple Street Magnet School was one of the top three finalists. Her work, “Multi-War Bonnet,” took top prize.)

I’m so glad I went to the celebration. The books the students read in advance of the Book Bowl give them courage to have context to have meaningful discussions, to share provocative thoughts, and have the ability to have the hard conversations.

… As a school and as educators, we have to teach about diversity and instill an appreciation and a respect for all the cultures and demographics our students come from.

What are you currently reading?

Decisive, a book by Chip and Dale Heath. I have a couple of their other books. Made to Stick and Switch. They write about how people and systems work and what you can do to make systems more effective. Made to Stick is about emotions, how people run off of emotions and how the emotional part of the brain leads people to do certain things. When you work with people, you want to create buy in, not have teachers do something because “I told you to do it” but rather they do something because you can show them this will work and how doing this is the best thing for children. Their book I’m reading now, Decisive, goes into how you make those changes in education to make the system better overall for kids.

Favorite word?

Fricative. That is the sound of letters when they blend together or come out of your mouth. There are 44 sounds in the English language. Some kids, when you ask them to sound something out, if they haven’t heard that specific sound from birth to four—that pure sound—they can’t differentiate and sound out that short /e/, or short /i/ sound; but they can feel it in their mouth.

What do you love about Kalamazoo?

The diversity of Kalamazoo. I love being able to experience different cultures. There is so much opportunity here. You can meet people in a variety of settings and be surrounded with different social groups and it doesn’t matter what your background may be. I can interact and learn their stories…Of all the places I have been, Kalamazoo, more than any other place, appreciates diversity.

And there is always something going on in Kalamazoo. That’s another thing I love. You can’t say you’re bored or don’t know what to do. You just have to choose from the many things, the diverse celebrations happening throughout the year.

As a principal, what was the transition like for you, coming from Arizona to Kalamazoo? Did you experience a cultural shift of any kind?

The transition part, culturally, wasn’t difficult for me. The students of my school were 75% Native American from the Navajo Nation…Coming to Kalamazoo, it was more about learning the culture of the system. What are the policies? What are the procedures I need to learn? Also, I came from a smaller school district, and went from a district with two elementary schools to 17. So, while the overall the size of the district was an adjustment, the school size of the elementary building I had been principal is comparable. I had a school of 600 kids and I have 588 students here.

What does it mean to you, as principal of Parkwood Upjohn to have CIS in your building? Do you see CIS as value-added to the school environment and the work you do here?

Yes! CIS is a crucial element to our school and needs to be in all schools for children. For instance, when a student’s basic needs aren’t met, learning can be compromised. CIS works to get those basic needs met. Student needs can range from emotional, to behavioral, attendance, health, and whatever it is, CIS works to connect the right resources to the child. If CIS doesn’t have a specific person or resource, they provide direction for how to find something for that child.

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

Different people have been that caring adult at different points in my life. Whether they’ve come from the community, the church, the neighborhood, they’ve had an influence on me.

My mother, she was and still is my caring adult. I still hear her voice…telling me to do something or not do something. She had cancer, she was in Hospice and I was flying back and forth from Arizona to Michigan. Each visit I told her, I don’t know if I can make it to see you again. She said, Go live your life. I’m at peace with my life; you need to live your life…

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

April Rocco: Striking The Right Balance in Teaching & Life

School is back and so is 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 April Rocco, sixth and seventh grade teacher at Milwood Magnet Middle School. She teaches strategic reading and also serves as Milwood’s Athletic Director and the WEB (Where Everybody Belongs) Coordinator. WEB, building on the belief that students can help students succeed, trains members of the 8th grade class as WEB Leaders. These student leaders serve as positive role models and mentors, supporting the younger students during their transition to middle school.

At Communities In Schools of Kalamazoo, we feel fortunate to work closely with talented and compassionate Kalamazoo Public School teachers like Mrs. Rocco. Also featured in the CIS Annual Report, Mrs. Rocco shares some of the benefits she sees by having CIS in her school.

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


What is something interesting you’ve recently learned?

How much money is made from low income rentals, just the sheer profits that are made, and the socio-economic impact of these low income rentals and evictions—how it creates a cycle of inequality.

Favorite word?


What are you currently reading?

I just finished Evicted by Matthew Desmond. It’s the community read, the 2018 Reading Together title.

What do you love about Kalamazoo?

Kalamazoo is big enough for having really good restaurants. Its size allows for many opportunities and things to do, but Kalamazoo is small enough that you know your neighbors and you can know what’s going on.

What is one of your favorite things about being a teacher?

Getting to know a new group of kids every year and then being able to watch them grow and learn as they move from middle school to high school.

What is the hardest thing about being a teacher?

Being able to balance meeting students’ academic needs and balancing these needs with their emotional and social needs.

You have a wonderful sense of humor and can be quite funny. What role, if any, does humor play in your classroom?

Good advice I was once told: sarcasm is not a teaching strategy. It’s simply not. And I really try and tame down that part of me in the classroom. You might find that surprising, but I do. That said, it’s important to strike a balance. I want to model to kids, that we have learning to do but that we can laugh at things along the way. But it’s important to do it in a way that allows us to still focus in on learning.

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

Lots of people. Athletics has played a big role for me, so I would say all of my coaches played that role. I went to Concord High School near Jackson, Michigan and played basketball and ran track.

Thank you, Mrs. Rocco. And a big thank you to all you teachers out there who show up every day for our 12,000+ kids.

Mike Stoddard: People Focused

We recently met up with Mike Stoddard at BASIC, where he is chief operating officer of the human resources consulting company that has been named to Inc. magazine’s list of America’s 5000 fastest-growing private companies for the fourth year running.

Mike has served on the board of Communities In Schools of Kalamazoo for 13 years, holding the position of Treasurer for many of those. Mike holds a bachelor’s degree in accounting from Ferris State University. A former Sergeant in the United States Marine Corps Reserves, he served as a Military Police during the Vietnam era.

By 1976, Mike had started his accounting practice and in walked his first tax client, Fritz Teutsch, It was Fritz who shared with Mike his idea to start a business. The rest, as they say, is history.

In 1989, Mike and Fritz established BASIC, which stands for Benefits Administration Services International Corporation. Headquartered in Portage, Michigan, BASIC has grown into one of the largest third party administrators in the nation. A technology driven HR Compliance Company, BASIC focuses on delivering administrative and technology solutions to assist human resource departments nationwide. Their offices are located in Michigan, Ohio, Arizona, California, Missouri, and now Rhode Island.

Tell us about BASIC.

It’s a good company. We have a lot of great people that have worked with us for a long time, We’re a good corporate citizen. We take pride that we’re involved in a number of different boards, from CIS to The Salvation Army, to West Michigan Therapy Dogs,…[Mike keeps naming organizations and we found it hard to keep up. Given that “People Helping People” is one of BASIC’s values, it’s not surprising that this flows from their business culture and spills into the community. You can catch the names of all the worthy organizations here.]

The number one thing is our people. We have 186 employees. That’s doubled in the last three years. Our five-year goal is to double again and get to 400 employees. We’re fortunate and blessed, to be allowed to do the work we do. As we grow, our people grow with us as well.

BASIC is consistently recognized as an Inc. 5000 Fastest Growing Private Company. What is behind BASIC’s ability to both successfully grow as a business and to manage that growth?

Hire the right people. It’s really about having a good team.

Fritz and I, we’ll be working out at West Hills, and we’ll look at each other and think back to when we started. Our office space was the size of closet, about 50 square feet. Today, [Mike gazes upwards and counts out loud, “13, 20, 25…”] BASIC is over 35,000 square feet. The success of our company is no one or two people. It’s about the team.

What trend(s) are you seeing in your field, particularly when it comes to improving staff focus and effectiveness?

Staff need to continue to be trained and stay up on trends in the business. At BASIC, we need to be up on the latest and best technology. We need to identify what clients need because that changes over time.

Be nimble. That’s one of the reasons BASIC develops new products. It’s important to keep up and be flexible. In a blink of an eye, things change, particularly when it comes to technology.

We are and always want to be an American company. For us to continue to be an American company we need to be productive. Some of our competitors outsource stuff—that’s a trend right now. We could look to India, hire a person for 400 dollars a week. We wouldn’t pay payroll taxes, health insurance, dental, vision, 401-k match, no time off, none of that. But our people are more productive even though we pay them more. Our people work hard. We are an American company and we’re proud of that fact.

You are a dedicated and long-time CIS board member, holding the role of treasurer for a number of those years. As you know, there are many great organizations throughout the area that support kids. Why CIS?

I came on board one or two years after the merger in 2003.

I only ever remember you as being part of the CIS board!

Yes, that’s just about right! [He laughs.]

Bob Borsos first approached me and asked me if I might be interested in being on the board. I went to meet with Pam [Kingery] at the PNC Building where CIS used to be housed and she showed me this video—I’ve shared this story with as many people that will listen. It really made an impression.

In the video, an African American male is wheeled into the emergency room. He’s been shot up with bullets. The video then cuts to another scene, another patient being wheeled into the ER, and you see the face of that same male—but now he’s the emergency room surgeon. The tagline: Give kids a chance to succeed. I’ll never forget that. CIS is about giving kids a chance to become educated. That the American dream. With education, combined with opportunity and the willingness to work, you can get ahead. CIS helps kids take advantage of opportunities—and, in the case of Kalamazoo, take advantage of the Promise—they change not only their lives but their future children’s lives.

What is something you’ve recently learned?

Photo by Rebecca Finneran, MSU Extension

I’ve learned what invasive bittersweet is and what it does to our forest. It kills trees.

I didn’t know anything about bittersweet until Ruth from the Kalamazoo Nature Center came out one Saturday morning. She taught us how to identify the invasive species and we pulled out bittersweet along the Eliason trail. [BASIC adopted an almost two-mile stretch of the Eliason nature trail that winds near their property and is part of the 123-acre Eliason Nature Reserve.] Bittersweet is a vine-type plant and strangles trees. We saved one big tree. We call it the Basic tree now.

What is your favorite word right now?

Grandkids. We have nine, soon to be ten grandkids come February. They range in age from zero to 18. The older I get, the more I realize how much we can make a difference in their lives. They are our future!

What is something you love about our community?

We are a caring community. People care about other people and are willing to help. That’s my experience, whether it is CIS, Portage Community Center, our church, or neighborhood. We’re Western Michigan! We’re hard workers. Family is important and we watch out for our neighbors.

Any favorite restaurants?

Let’s see. Oh, let me think. Latitude 42! I’m a bit biased, however. [He smiles. The microbrewery restaurant is owned by the Stoddards, and co-founded by their son Joe Stoddard, Todd Neumann, and Scott Freitas.] I often work there on Friday and Saturday night, as the bar back.

Bar back?

Essentially, I’m a glorified dishwasher. I like watching the interactions and seeing how well the employees treat the customers. It gives me a lot of pride. They take good care of the customers. The service is good. The food is good—the fried chicken and salmon are my two favorite dishes.

Also, on Sundays, after church, my wife Ruth and I love going to the Daily Grind Cafe for breakfast.

At Communities In Schools, we believe that every child needs a marketable skill to use upon graduation. It’s one of our five CIS basics. As an employer, what marketable skills are you looking for right now?

Communication skills. Both written and verbal. The ability to communicate—whether that is talking on the phone, composing emails, being attentive and listening to the client—is important in our service business. A lot of people, unfortunately, don’t have those skills.

What advice do you have for our 12,000+ students—the up and coming generation of workers—to prepare themselves for obtaining a job?

In our business, you need to know English. English is important. You can’t talk like you might talk at home in the work environment. You must be professional. You can set yourself apart and really advance if you can communicate. Strong written and verbal communications skills, having computer skills, composing emails that reads like you know what you’re saying…that is what we’re looking for.

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

My dad. Growing up on the West Side of Grand Rapids, he taught me a lot. I was the oldest of five children. My mom stayed home and raised us. My dad was a postal clerk. He worked all the overtime he could. After doing his postal work, he had a paper route. It was a rural route, in the area where Grand Valley is now. That was something! All those snow banks in the winter…

My dad was a good man, good husband, and good father. He set a good example. I learned from him that it takes effort to be successful. You don’t need to be the smartest. You just need to put in effort and be willing to sacrifice. It starts with effort.

Mike, thank you for hanging out with us at Ask Me About My 12,000 Kids!

17 New Sparks with CIS

The 2017/18 CIS interns. (Front row, left to right): Joe Conrad, Janae McEwen, Angie Franklin, Alyssa Borkowski, and Kaleigh Walters. (Back, left to right): Alyssa Smith, Matthew Krieger, Kelsey Nimtz, Courtney Mahaffy, Kali Hancock, Dan Sullivan, Karly Poole, Travis Guerrero, Neala Smith, Kayla Garrett, and Blaec Arevalo. Not pictured: Karynn Taylor and Ernest Bell.

This is the largest group of interns CIS has yet to connect to the schools! Seventeen of the students attend Western Michigan University and one attends Spring Arbor University and is pursuing her Bachelor’s in Social Work. Of the WMU students, eight are working towards their bachelor’s degree in the School of Social Work, five towards their Master’s in Social Work, three working towards their Bachelor of Science in Interdisciplinary Health Services and one towards their Bachelors of Science in Family Studies.

In no particular order, here are the interns and the schools’ CIS site teams they will be joining. (Drum roll, please): Dan Sullivan (Loy Norrix High School), Courtney Mahaffy (Northglade Montessori Magnet School), Kali Hancock (Maple Street Magnet School for the Arts), Kelsey Nimtz (Spring Valley Center for Exploration), Matthew Krieger (Woodward School for Technology and Research), Kayla Garrett (Hillside Middle School), Travis  Guerrero (Milwood Magnet Middle School), Karly Poole (Linden Grove Middle School), Blaec Arevalo (El Sol Elementary School), Neala Smith (Edison Environmental Science Academy), Alyssa Smith (Woods Lake Elementary: A Magnet Center for the Arts), Janae McEwen (Prairie Ridge Elementary School), Angie Franklin (Washington Writers’ Academy and Linden Grove Middle School), Neala Smith (Edison Environmental Science Academy), Alyssa Borkowski (Woodward School for Technology and Research), Joseph Conrad (Kalamazoo Central High School), Kaleigh Walters (Spring Valley Center For Exploration), Karynn Taylor (Lincoln  International Studies School), and Ernest Bell (Milwood Elementary).

We popped our quiz on these newest members of the CIS family and compiled their answers below.

Alright, interns: pencils out, eyes on your own paper. Good luck.

What is something interesting you’ve recently learned?

  • Wisdom does not always come with age.
  • In Norway, the maximum prison sentence is 14 years.
  • How awesome Communities In Schools is!
  • A Mobile Health Clinic makes stops to local KPS schools for students who need access to them.
  • Boys are a group currently struggling with academics. Our CIS caseloads will be 60% boys, 40% girls.
  • There is an American Sign Language minor now offered at WMU.
  • Learning some Spanish here and there.
  • I’ve recently been interested in Brené Brown’s work on love/belonging and shame/fear. She talks about how love is what you allow your authentic, vulnerable self to be seen and accepted, and how shame, fear, and self-doubt often get in the way.
  • There is a printer that will staple your papers for you.
  • How to play golf.
  • All of the great resources for kids around Kalamazoo.
  • A co-worker of mine used to be employed with CIS.
  • New workout circuit for lower body with bands.
  • Recently, I’ve learned several new ways to participate in self-care.
  • The urge to kill cute things comes from evolution.
  • Expanded my understanding of positive reinforcement.

 What are you currently reading?

What do you love about Kalamazoo?

  • The focus and dedication the community has to helping the students.
  • I think the downtown scene is very cool. There is a lot going on.
  • I love that Kalamazoo is full of diverse cultures. I like eating all different types of food, going to art openings, and local festivals. Oh, also we have live music and good beer. I just went to see Verve Pipe at Bell’s Beer Garden.
  • The resources available to the community.
  • I love that Kalamazoo has a lot of donors and organizations that like to give back to the community.
  • It’s where I grew up and, as a community, we try to support and stick together as a family.
  • The food.
  • How beautiful downtown is.
  • I like that it is a bigger city with a lot of fun things to do.
  • The complexity, yet closeness, of everything.
  • The downtown culture.
  • TNT and soul food.
  • I love being in Kalamazoo because there is always something to do.
  • The arts and diversity.
  • The atmosphere. There’s always something to see and do.
  • The sense of a small town and the community. It reminds me of home.

What is your favorite word right now?

  • Persistence
  • Accomplish
  • Gnarly
  • Fascination
  • Endeavor
  • Indeed
  • Energy
  • Fantastic
  • Free
  • Creative
  • Success
  • Fabulous
  • Gooey
  • Communication & wisdom
  • Interesting
  • Extremely

Will you share with us something that has been on your mind lately?

  • How will I use my Master’s degree to make a positive impact of children’s lives? I am interested in being exposed to the potential job opportunities this degree will offer me.
  • My girlfriend, who lives in Boston. Her name is Dulce, and she’s going to accomplish great things for vulnerable and oppressed people.
  • Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the changing seasons. Fall is one of my favorite seasons so I am excited.
  • The possible threat of nuclear war with North Korea.
  • Moving to a whole new state and finding out where everything is at can be very overwhelming, as well as meeting new people.
  • Taking advantage of every opportunity given and appreciating the little moments in life.
  • Finding a way to come up with some form of a resource that can aide me on how to connect and strategically teach my current 7th graders and how to grasp the new math curriculum of “Engage” New York Math.
  • What life will be like after graduation. I often daydream about my career potential and wonder where I will be living.
  • Trying to live more mindfully and in the present moment, rather than living in the past or future.
  • Since I am a senior, pretty soon I’ll be applying to WMU’s Master program. It’s a long process of applying and then months of waiting. I’m hoping to be accepted into the advanced standing program.
  • I would like to go back to Western and get my Master’s degree in social work. I would not mind being a school social worker since I enjoy kids. I know that I would be good working in the school system, plus I enjoy learning and helping people who want to succeed in school.
  • Graduation and how close I am to finally being finished with my BS.
  • Grad school and where I will be living a year from now.
  • Graduation and my next step in my career. Grad school is on my mind, also the holidays.
  • Post-graduation and the future.
  • My future. I’m getting ready to graduate and have been thinking a lot about the future and what I’m going to do following graduation.

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

  • My two high school football coaches and my high school math teacher.
  • My parents are my biggest support system.
  • My parents.
  • My mom.
  • My mother has always been my caring adult.
  • My brother is my caring adult.
  • My father and my 19 year old daughter.
  • My parents.
  • My aunt.
  • My mother pushed me through elementary through high school and my father has gotten me through the end of my college career.
  • My momma and first high school teacher.
  • My father. Just the way he speaks to me of family and friends helps keep me focused.
  • My best friend, Jessica.
  • My professors at Western, a few memorable instructors in particular.
  • My mom. She has always been there for me, no matter what.
  • My parents are both very supportive and caring.

Thank you, interns! Welcome aboard!

Pop Quiz: Jennifer Swan

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 Jennifer Swan. Senior Architectural Project Coordinator with TowerPinkster, Swan’s work schedule makes it difficult for her to volunteer on a weekly, consistent basis. Yet, she wanted to help kids stay in school and succeed in life. She came up with a creative solution and developed the Swan Snack Emporium which supports CIS Kid’s Closet. True to her name, Swan is helping children connect with their inherent beauty and value by giving kids the basics they need to stay in school and learn with dignity. You can learn about this initiative in the latest CIS Connections “Back-to-School” newsletter.

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


Since 1953, TowerPinkster, a design firm, has been creating vibrant places for people to live, work and play. As you know, TowerPinkster has received a number of awards. TP was named one of the “101 Best and Brightest Companies to Work for in the Nation” (National Association of Business Resources). TP was also awarded “Best Firm to Work For in the Nation” (ZweigWhite). From your perspective, what makes TP the best and the brightest?  

What I think makes us the best are the people. We are like a family. We have two offices, in Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo, and although it’s a little harder these days—we’ve added quite a few new people to both offices and I don’t get up to the Grand Rapids office as much as I used—we used to know everybody and know everything that everybody is doing.

TowerPinkster is a family culture and we have a lot of fun. It’s not just coming to work. It’s coming in to work with your friends, what seems like brothers and sisters, more often than not. It’s a great environment and we have a ton of fun here.

What is something interesting you’ve recently learned?

I learn something every single day with my job. There are always new things happening in the construction industry, whether it’s new process or new people you work with. There’s not just one thing that I can give you that is something that I’ve learned because I learn every day on my job. Every single day I learn from contractors and learn from the construction managers on the project site. I learn from project managers here, even our interns that come in who know the new tech stuff that I don’t know, so I’m always learning.

What are you currently reading?

While I don’t have time to sit down and read a full book right now, I get on the internet and I read a lot of blogs and news articles.

Besides Ask Me About My 12,000 Kids, what are your ‘go-to’ blogs?

The type of blogs I turn to are ones that I can learn new things related to my work and to learn how other people are doing things so I can make myself better and faster at my job.

What is your favorite word right now?

My favorite word right now is strength, not like muscle strength but strength as in being a woman in a male-dominated field. You have to have a lot of strength and tenacity to go on job sites and be with a lot of men that are very experienced in the construction industry. I don’t build stuff, but I know how stuff is supposed to go together. It’s being able to hold my own on job sites and here in the office. I mean, the guys here are great and they’re very, very easy to work with and nobody’s ever like, You’re a girl and you don’t know what you’re doing. But it’s important to always have an understanding of what you’re talking about.

What’s your story behind getting into this line of work?

I think I got into this line of work because of my mother. When she was growing up, she and many women of that time were taught that women could be a secretary or go into teaching. I think she always wanted to be an architect because she was always, always sketching house plans at home. My dad was in the construction industry and in the summer he sometimes would take me with him and I would get to go to a construction site. I was always very interested in the construction architectural field just being around that growing up. So when I was in high school I took some drafting classes and just fell in love with it all.

I didn’t go to be an architect because growing up my family we didn’t have a lot of money so I didn’t go to U of M or any of the big colleges for that. I chose a smaller school—Baker College—as they had an architectural technical program.

What is something you love about Kalamazoo?

There’s so much to do! I come from a really, really, small town called Langston. There’s a party store, a church, and an ice cream place. So to come to Kalamazoo and there are restaurants, bars, festivals, and so many things to do and just so much to pick from…it’s wonderful!

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

My mom is definitely 100% my caring adult. She supports me with everything I do. I grew up in a single family household. My dad left when I was 11 or 12 so my mom raised my brother and me. She had a really strong work ethic and would work late nights and weekends because she was the only income that we had. She worked really hard and I pride myself on being like my mom because, like her, I have a very strong work ethic. Her being a single mom and raising two kids by herself; it’s just always been an inspiration to me. If she can do that, then I can do anything.

Jennifer, thank you for hanging out with us at Ask Me About My 12,000 Kids!

Pop Quiz: Dalanna Hoskins

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 Dalanna Hoskins. Her history with Communities In Schools of Kalamazoo (CIS) began in 2009 when she served for three years as the CIS Assistant Site Coordinator for Washington Writers Academy. Hoskins returned in 2014  as CIS Site Coordinator at Milwood Elementary School. She also serves as a community broker for the Arcadia Institute helping young students and teenagers with developmental disabilities figure out their life goals and get them connected to their community, with emphasis on inclusion. She says, “I love my work with both CIS and Arcadia. I really learn a lot from the kids.”

A proud graduate of Kalamazoo Public Schools, Dalanna attended several KPS elementary schools and it was during her time at Woods Lake she met Mr. Leroy Green, a 2015 CIS Champ. [You can read more about that here.] After graduating from Loy Norrix High School Dalanna attended The College of Wooster in Ohio, graduating with a degree in black studies. She then decided to “explore my more creative side and check out the fun route” and obtained a fashion design degree from Ursuline College.              

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


Thinking back to your years with the Kalamazoo Public Schools, who was one of your favorite teachers?

Definitely my second grade teachers at Northglade Elementary—Mr. Bushhouse and Mr. Chuck Pearson. We had great times! At Halloween, they dressed up as the Blues Brothers. We put on plays, once a month it seemed. We also made a cookbook and I still have that cookbook.

My favorite teachers in middle school were Ms. Diane Lang and Ms. Dales. They both were math teachers and took time with us and made sure that we understood. Patience is something that I’ve always appreciated. Also, Paul Rothi who taught us social studies.

One of my favorite teachers at Loy Norrix was Barbara Felkel, my Latin teacher. She made Latin fun. I still remember basic Latin principles because of her teaching.

So, what’s a basic Latin principle?

Sum, es, est, sumus, estis, sunt. Which is: I am, you are, he/she/it is, we are, you all are, they are.

What is something interesting you’ve recently learned?

I have learned about the importance of process and living in the moment. As a person who wants to just get things done, sometimes it’s hard for me to ‘stop and smell the roses’ but I have learned that I just need to enjoy it, enjoy the process on the way to my destination, instead of worrying about the destination itself.

What are you currently reading?

God’s Armor Bearer by Terry Nance and The LQ Solution by Dr. Keith Johnson. LQ stands for leadership quotient to the teaches you how to become a better leader. I’m reading both these books through my church.

What’s one way you are learning to be a better leader?

Looking at a problem and finding a solution instead of capitalizing on the problem. Okay, so there’s a problem. It’s good to identify it but now what are some solutions to the problem? Instead of taking the victim mentality and asking Why me? a leader would say Why not me? What is a solution?

What is your favorite word right now?


What is something you love about Kalamazoo?

I love that Kalamazoo is very rich in resources and understanding. People from Kalamazoo are very giving and service-oriented.

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

Both of my parents. My mother and my father have given me the foundation that I have and now I just build on that.

Dalanna, thank you for hanging out with us at Ask Me About About My 12,000 Kids!