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.

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.

POP QUIZ

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.

POP QUIZ

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?

Excellent.

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.