There is always a good reason not to give. We don’t have enough time or money or time. We think somebody else will step up or do a better job than us. The list goes on.
Millie Ellis has more than her fair share of reasons not to extend herself, particularly to kids in Kalamazoo. That’s because Millie lives 2,000 miles away, in Dripping Springs, Texas.
There, she is busy caring for her husband who recently suffered a stroke. She is also dealing with her own health issues. Yet, despite distance and her current struggles, Kalamazoo kids are on her radar.
She learned from her friend, Shirley Street, that during the cold Michigan winters, some kids didn’t have mittens to keep their hands warm. Shirley told her of the need and that, for the third year in a row, she was doing something about this by knitting mittens. Her mittens would go to CIS Kids’ Closet and from there, CIS staff in 20 Kalamazoo Public Schools would be providing them to students who needed mittens.
Shirley knew about the need thanks to her daughter, Sue Warner, who lives in Kalamazoo. A long-time CIS friend, volunteer, and partner, Sue is Kalamazoo Public Library’s Head Librarian of Youth Services. Sue Warner is a knitter too, and has been knitting mittens and hats for Kalamazoo kids over the years.
Back to Texas. When Shirley shared with Millie how she was helping kids in Kalamazoo Public Schools, Millie was moved. She wanted to figure out a way to “help those kids in Michigan,” too. The next time the friends connected, Millie said, “I found some yarn. I’m going to knit some mittens, too.” And she did.
When a box from Texas (mailed by Millie) showed up at Sue’s door, Sue was stunned. “I thought she might have managed to knit a few pairs of mittens, but Millie had knit 52 pairs!”
Sue dropped off the load of mittens, made with love from Texas, and some of the CIS staff tried on a few.
Knitters make something beautiful—in this case mittens—by interlocking loops of one or more yarns. To knit is “to join closely and firmly, as members or parts (often followed by together).” Despite her own hardships, Millie made it her mission to make the lives of kids a bit better and a bit warmer this winter. Millie joined with Shirley, who connected with Sue who connected with CIS, who now gets these mittens into the hands of children.
Thank you, Millie. And thank you Shirley, Sue, and all you knitters (and non-knitters, too!) who join together with CIS to create a caring, loving community for our children.
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!
Have you read the new anthology, Immigration and Justice For Our Neighbors? If not, you may want to add it to your summer reading list. Published by Celery City Books, the anthology includes the work of a number of Kalamazoo Public School students from Arcadia Elementary School. Poems by Reem Ahmed, Nour Abdullah, Hala Alhasan, Nada Alhasnawi, Faris Bukhader, Nabaa Eyddan, Lisbet Lopez, Taema Qwam-Alden, Roziya Rustamova, Abdullah Tayara, and Ritika Verma are woven throughout the anthology. These fourth and fifth graders are published alongside prominent poets and writers from Michigan and beyond.
If you want to read a book on immigration policy, then this isn’t the book for you. However, if you are a neighbor, have a neighbor, or are interested in exploring the theme of immigration and what kids have to say about it, this 116 page anthology is for you.
Here are nine things you may not know about this anthology project:
What readers are saying.
CIS friend and community advocate Deborah Droppers says, “I applaud the anthology of essays and poems found in Immigration and Justice For Our Neighbors. The anthology uses the written word to encourage thoughtful discourse on the challenges that each of our communities face while celebrating the amazing things that happen organically when people believe in the power of conversation between neighbors that are close and beyond our picket fences.”
Retired KPS teacher Carol Hodges says this: “Opening this anthology in the middle, I find a child’s poetic love letter to the country of Iraq juxtaposed against the complex musings of an American man teaching English to Arabs in the Mideast. Then there is the story of a Nigerian woman named Rejoice who fears being deported. How different is her modern-day experience from the 1919 steerage voyage of the young British woman leaving shame and servitude behind?This volume is thin but it is far from an easy read. You’ll need time to ponder.”
The people behind the pages.
Were it not for the support of Communities In Schools of Kalamazoo and the Kalamazoo Public Schools, the children’s voices might not have been heard. A shout out to Arcadia Elementary School teachers Debora Gant, Holly Bishop, Erin Young, and Donna Judd for the opportunity to work with such wonderful students. Also, Donia Ali and Grace Gheen are two shining stars at Arcadia who are part of the fabulous Kalamazoo Public Schools Bilingual/English as a Second Language (ESL) Program. They were instrumental to the success of this project in so many ways.
It’s in the bag.
The anthology is now part of Kalamazoo Public Library’s impressive list of books available as a Book Club in a Bag. Karen Trout, Reading Together coordinator for the Kalamazoo Public Library says, “KPL’s 2016 social justice resolution includes the statement: KPL values compassion and champions everyone’s right to be welcome in a safe environment in the library and in the wider community. Adding this title to our Book Club in a Bag collection–and encouraging local dialogue about the issue of immigration–is a perfect way to put this institutional commitment into action.” Book Club in a Bag is open to all Kalamazoo Public Library district resident cardholders.
At a reading at the stunning sculpture gardens of Roan and Black in Saugatuck, award-winning Michigan poet Jack Ridl talked about the project and helped the voices of the children reach an even wider audience. Ridl contributed three of his own poems to the anthology.
Students got a lot out of this anthology project.
The Arcadia fourth and fifth graders wrote poems, some for the first time. Their work was published and they have had opportunities to read their work to others, at home, school, on the Kalamazoo College campus, and at Bookbug. They’ve read alongside well-known Michigan poets and writers like Buddy Hannah, Elizabeth Kerlikowske, Hedy Habra, Lynn Pattison, Kit Almy, Phillip Sterling, Marion Boyer, and Alison Swan. They’ve even been approached by audience members asking the students to autograph their copy of the anthology and have graciously done so. (Kudos to Arcadia Principal Greg Socha for all his support of this project, including his wise suggestion of giving students the opportunity to practice their signatures in advance of readings!)
Student are giving back to the community.
One can’t help but think that the students have given more than they have received. Like the other contributors, the children donated their work and all proceeds benefit Justice For Our Neighbors in Kalamazoo, a legal clinic for immigrants.
Also, their words make grown ups think! As one reader said, “I know immigration has been a hot topic but it didn’t really hit home until I read the children’s ‘Dear Country’ poems.” Similar sentiments have been shared by other readers. A reader who attended the June Bookbug event said, “I’m humbled by the bravery of these children. I can’t imagine the courage it takes to read before a group of people, let alone leave one’s country and then read so beautifully in a brand new language. How many of us could do that? I don’t know if I could!”
Jennifer Clark, co-editor of the anthology, works on special projects and initiatives for CIS and worked with the students on this anthology project as a CIS volunteer, offering workshops at Arcadia Elementary School. She can’t sing the praises enough of the CIS staff at Arcadia. Thanks to Caitlin Bales and Rachel DeNooyer for all their support! CIS volunteer Cindy Hadley also worked behind the scenes, escorting students to and from the poetry workshops. Go, Cindy!
Today we highlight Susan Knox, honored with a 2017 Champ Award. Her Champ award was sponsored byGreenleaf Trust. CIS Board member and Kalamazoo Promise Board Member Dr. Janice M. Brown presented the award.
A child’s success in school and life often hinges on the opportunity to have a one-on-one relationship with a caring adult. It’s one of the five CIS basics, something every child needs and deserves. This relationship can make the difference between a student staying in school or becoming one of the 1.2 million students who drop out of school each year. Since the Fall of 2010, Susan Knox has been that caring adult for many of our high school students, particularly those struggling academically.
When Susan, a chemical engineer, retired from Pfizer, she sold her house and car, and moved downtown. “I wanted to start volunteering,” she said, “to contribute to something I felt passionate about. I picked up a pamphlet about volunteering and circled the ones I thought I could do.” We’re forever thankful she circled Communities In Schools.
She has been a CIS volunteer at Kalamazoo Central for seven years now. Regardless of the weather, she catches the city bus and week after week, year after year, shows up consistently for our kids. “Suzie’s passion to serve students goes far beyond what is expected of any volunteer,” says CIS Site Coordinator Deborah Yarbrough. “She’s willing to adjust her schedule to accommodate the needs of both our students and staff.
Her flexibility has allowed CIS to connect her with the students who need her most. She provides academic support to student one-on-one and in small groups. She’s worked with students during study hall, after school, and during the lunch hour. While she primarily focuses on math, she’s willing to tutor in other subjects. “No French or Spanish,” she says, “but I’ll give everything else a try.”
Smart, compassionate and humble, Susan credits her success with students to the support she’s received along the way. “CIS gave me the training I needed to be successful. I learned how to do things and just as importantly, what not to do.” She refers to CIS Site Coordinator Deborah Yarbrough and CIS Success Coach Jenna Cooperrider as her “CIS bosses…They aren’t bossy, though,” she says. “Because they know the students so well, they give me insight into what the students need from me. They’re role models. I watch their interactions and it helps me figure out what I should do, what I should tolerate or not tolerate when it comes to behaviors. They coordinate with each other and give me the support I need so I can support the student.”
“Volunteering,” someone once said, “is the ultimate exercise in democracy. You vote in elections once a year, but when you volunteer, you vote every day about the kind of community you want to live in.” Through her rock solid and steady support, Susan is creating a community of hope, one in which all children can fulfill their promise.
Susan Knox, we thank you for helping kids stay in school and achieve in life.
This article was featured in our CIS Connections newsletter, The Double Issue. You can find the full publication here.
Congratulations to CIS volunteer Mary Aldrich who, along with her husband, Scott, has recently been awarded the prestigious Andrus Award for Community Service. Given annually, this award is named for AARP founder Ethel Percy Andrus. Mary has volunteered with CIS for the past four years as a Senior Services RSVP member. In addition to her fine volunteer work at Spring Valley Center for Exploration, she and her husband are involved in many other volunteer efforts throughout the community. They’ve clearly doubled up to extend their reach and make a difference in schools, hospitals, nursing homes, and elsewhere.
“Mary has become a part of the Spring Valley family,” notes Spring Valley’s CIS Site Coordinator Martha Serio. “She not only tutors our students, but she is there for them when they need a shoulder to cry on or a listening ear.”
KPS Teacher Jaime Hall says that “Ms. Mary has not only improved students’ confidence in themselves, but in their learning as well. She has worked with students in both math and reading. Many students have shown an improvement in their reading and math abilities after receiving one-on-one time with her. Ms. Mary is very thorough; she does her “homework” and comes in each week with new ideas and tools to help kids learn to the best of their ability…Ms. Mary is amazing. I am grateful for her each and every day, and I know that my students are as well.”
You can change the life of a young person by volunteering. To find out more, visit our website,
Today is Mayor and County Recognition Day for National Service. Some of you might recall helping Mayor Bobby Hopewell kick off the first ever day of recognition back on April 9, 2013. That morning, as Communities In Schools of Kalamazoo staff and AmeriCorps VISTA gathered on the steps of City Hall, we were excited to partner with Mayor Hopewell, the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), The Spirit of Kalamazoo, and New World Flood and its founder, Todd “TJ” Duckett. We celebrated college spirit and gathered college gear for students in Kalamazoo Public Schools. A friendly competition quickly ensued to see which Michigan public college or university could offer up the largest number of contributions during this one hour only event. As community members and downtown business folks like Jen Ward, owner of The Station, visited City Hall to drop off donations, the excitement grew.
We can’t recall which college or university won that day. It doesn’t matter as the real winner that day was our kids. And our 12,000+ kids continue to be the ultimate beneficiaries of VISTA support throughout the Kalamazoo Public Schools.
As the nation’s mayors and county officials increasingly turn to national service as a cost-effective strategy to address local challenges, it’s worrying that the the President’s budget proposal calls for the elimination of the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), which administers AmeriCorps. It’s distressing that this vital federal agency that helps millions of Americans improve the lives of their fellow citizens through service is on the chopping block. (In 2015, the Corporation for National and Community Service leveraged an additional $1.26 billion dollars in outside resources to increase their nationwide impact. That’s even more than the federal investment.)
Kalamazoo AmeriCorps VISTA members, past and present, we thank you for helping expand CIS’s capacity to meet student and school needs. Thank you for being part of the solution to help students stay in school and achieve in life!
Did you know that VISTAs commit to a full-time year of service and receive a stipend which is set just above the poverty level? In addition to the stipend, VISTAs are eligible to receive an educational award at the completion of their year of service. Each VISTA is assigned to work as part of a CIS site team in two schools.CIS is grateful to those past and present VISTAs who have chosen to serve their country through AmeriCorps. Currently, CIS has five citizens serving as Volunteers In Service To America (VISTAS) throughout the Kalamazoo Public Schools. If you see them, take a minute and thank them for their service:
Pamela Tate, Brenda Morris, Samantha Pennington, Stephen Brewer, and David Hamilton.
Over the years, our VISTA’s have worked closely with their CIS Site teams in a variety of ways. Click on the links below to find out how VISTAS working with CIS make a difference in the Kalamazoo Public Schools.
…get kids off to a great start. VISTAS helping CIS organize the pencils, notebooks, backpacks, and many supplies local businesses, faith-based groups, service organizations, and community members generously donate so kids start the school year with the basics they need to succeed.
National Reading Month has us wondering, what are Communities In Schools (CIS) volunteers reading? Here’s what a few of these wonderful volunteers who share their time and talents to benefit students throughout the Kalamazoo Public Schools told us. (We note what school they volunteer at within the Kalamazoo Public Schools.)
I have recently finished reading Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow and James Madison by Lynne Cheney. I am currently working through The Federalist Papers by Hamilton and Madison as well as Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville. I say ‘working through’ because these latter two are not easy reads due to somewhat archaic prose and the fact that, as a scientist, I am not a traditional reader of political history!
-Paul Runnels, Edison Environmental Science Academy
I just finished, Rosemary: The Hidden Kennedy Daughter. It was a very interesting read about the Kennedy family. The book was about Rosemary’s disability and how the family dealt with it. Her disability eventually led the family to seek out medical advice. Unfortunately, the wrong medical advice.
-Sherry Garrett, Hillside Middle School
I am reading Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah. It is about his unlikely path from apartheid South Africa to the desk of The Daily Show that began with a criminal act: his birth. Trevor was born to a white Swiss father and a black Xhosa mother at a time when such a union was punishable by five years in prison.
More about the book: “[A] compelling new memoir . . . By turns alarming, sad and funny, [Trevor Noah’s] book provides a harrowing look, through the prism of Mr. Noah’s family, at life in South Africa under apartheid. . . . Born a Crime is not just an unnerving account of growing up in South Africa under apartheid, but a love letter to the author’s remarkable mother.”—Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
I have just finished reading Simon Winchester’s Map That Changed The World, the story of William Smith and the birth of modern geology. A very interesting account of one man’s curiosity about the landscape of England and what was under it in terms of geological strata. I have just started Desert Godby historical novelist Wilbur Smith. It is a fictional story of ancient Egypt and it’s too early yet to know where it is going but the characters and historical setting are interesting.
I often tell the story of my 7th grade year. How I was kicked off every field trip that year – generally for being sassy and talking too much….(You can read the entire post here.)
Well, we are happy to report that the very teacher that Shirley credits with helping to turn her around is still out there. He read her post! Moved by what she had written, he reached out and shares the following:
This was a pleasant surprise as I never thought that I’d be remembered 45 years after an incident. Anyway, this had to have occurred during my second or third year of teaching. We young and inexperienced teachers tried whatever seemed to work to correct student “bad habits” and/or “behavior problems.” One of my favorite things to do was to elevate the person or people into a responsible position (this works with grandkids too), and hope (sometimes guide) they do the task to the best of their ability. If it doesn’t succeed, shake hands and try something different at a later date, but what does succeed is the building of the relationship. Everybody wins in that case.
I’m pleased to have been a very tiny part of your life. I’ve always thought that Schalmont was good to me and I to Schalmont. After 33 years in the classroom, and about 25 of that in 7th grade, the school district for the first time in its history, offered a financial incentive for Tier I teachers, and the money people told me to take the offer.
My wife (of 45 years) and I presently split our living between New York and Florida, and I’m sure you can guess the seasons at each place.
Again, thank you for allowing me to be just that very tiny bit of your life. I guesstimate that I was there for about 5,000-6,000 others as well, and with a few I still remain in contact.
What a great way to end our 2016 posts here at Ask Me About My 12,000 Kids! It is good to know that your efforts make a difference. It may take 45 years to find out that the seeds you are planting now will take hold some day. Hang in there!
We thank you for hanging out with us here at the CIS blog. Stay warm and come on back and join us for a whole new year of posts, beginning Tuesday, January 10th, 2017.