Oshtemo Area Churches: One is as big as it gets

(From left) Carolyn H. Williams, Tony McDonnell, and representatives of OAC, Simon Tuin and Eli Bast.
(From left) CIS Board Member Carolyn H. Williams, Chief Development Officer of Borgess Foundation Tony McDonnell, and representatives of OAC, Simon Tuin and Eliza Bast.

Today we highlight Oshtemo Area Churches, one of seven school and community partners honored with a 2016 Champ Award.  Their award was sponsored by Borgess and CIS Board member Carolyn H. Williams presented the award.

_MG_4541Imagine, a number of churches individually supporting one school, independent of each other. Good things are getting done. The support is greatly appreciated. But now, picture this: six churches of various denominations coming together as one in partnership with Communities In Schools to serve the students, families, faculty, and staff of Prairie Ridge Elementary School. That’s exactly what happened and that decision was a game changer.

As Principal Karen Spencer puts it, “When these six churches: Heritage Christian, Centerpointe, Lifespring, Voyage, Lighthouse, and Oshtemo United Methodist chose to work together, to create a team, on behalf of our children—that support multiplied exponentially.

These six churches, known together as the Oshtemo Area Churches, meet monthly with CIS Site Coordinator Carly Denny and CIS After School Coordinator Alexis Arocho to discuss both academic and nonacademic barriers to student success. “OAC,” they say, “is sensitive to the needs of the entire school family and works closely with CIS to align and integrate a student support strategy. Even outside of these meetings,” say Carly and Alexis, “OAC can be counted on to communicate, brainstorm, and troubleshoot, as necessary.”

In various combinations and forms, these six churches have become part of the fabric of the school. We’ve found that six equals one and one is as big as it gets. What does the power of one look like? Here’s a glimpse:

_MG_4520– Nearly one half of all our CIS volunteers at Prairie Ridge found out about how they could help through Oshtemo Area Churches. OAC has recruited and funneled through CIS, committed and caring adults to tutor students on a daily basis.

-OAC reinforces the importance of literacy through tutoring support and supporting the school’s “Books to Bikes” reading initiative—providing new bicycles raffled off to students who read the most in February.

-More students are ready to learn so they can receive the full benefit of the excellent teachers at Prairie Ridge Elementary School. Students, who once arrived late to school or not at all, arrive on time because they have the winter apparel they need. On Mondays, students arrive focused and ready to learn because members from the churches took time to distribute Friday Foodpacks. And they work with our 2008 Champ, Kalamazoo Loaves & Fishes, to purchase enough food for more than 75 Prairie Ridge families, providing 4 days of food on a monthly basis.

-Family involvement is nurtured. Students celebrate with their home and school families during Thanksgiving Family Night and Back to School Bashes, organized, run, and led by the OAC.

-From one, an “Impact Group” was born. Composed of CIS and Kids Hope volunteers working within the school, the group meets weekly to encourage each other and plan events, such as this year’s “Harvest Party” and last year’s CIS after school “End of the Year Picnic.”

_MG_4530-Six as one can wrap their arms around an entire school. Each grade level within the school has been adopted by one of the churches, encouraging the classes with small notes and gifts. That reach can extend beyond the school and into the home. So, for instance, children, who might otherwise have had nothing to open for Christmas, had a present to open that morning.

-Teachers are provided with needed school supplies. Teachers and staff within the school feel appreciated and cared for in small and big ways. The OAC pooled together their money and catered lunch from Taco Bob’s!

While it can be tempting to go it alone, OAC sets a shining example for us all:  when grownups set aside differences—denominational or otherwise—and literally come together as one through CIS, it’s the students who benefit.

As Principal Karen Spencer says, “Every day—every hour—I turn around and see the evidence of the care and concern OAC has shared with our children…OAC is now a part of our culture and part of who we are. We are eternally grateful.”

Oshtemo Area Churches, we thank you for helping kids stay in school and achieve in life.

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A Day Off With A Day On

CIS After School…making beautiful tiles at Art Bayou
CIS After School…making beautiful tiles at Art Bayou

I can’t stop thinking about a recent Friday. It was  a no school day for Kalamazoo Public Schools and my son was quite excited by this fact. He loves school but we both were looking forward to the fun day we had planned together.

First on the agenda, a visit to the Kalamazoo Valley Museum. We wanted to check out the temporary exhibition “Kalamazoo for the Union” and then hit the Planetariumshowing of Sky Legends of the Three Fires to learn three stories about the night sky from Native American people of western and northern Michigan. After that, lunch out and then a visit to the Kalamazoo Public Library.

As we bundled up to head out, I couldn’t help but think of all the kids for whom a day off from school is a day off from learning, a day off from having a warm meal. You’re a lucky kid, I told him. Some kids don’t get opportunities to do these kinds of things.

Anyway, we came out of “Kalamazoo for the Union,” the temporary exhibit (check it out before it leaves town in May) and started down the stairs. There was a woman, her back to us, talking to a group of elementary students, all standing in line, eager to go into the Kalamazoo Direct to You exhibit of Kalamazoo history. I was impressed by the children’s behavior. My son was impressed by what the woman said. “Mom, did you just hear what that lady told the kids? She told them to touch stuff!”

Creating more beautiful tiles at Art Bayou
Creating more beautiful tiles at Art Bayou

The woman continued preparing the students, asking them to pay attention to what they would be learning. “Remember to tell us what you learn about. We want to know what you discover!” she exclaimed and sent them, all wide-eyed into the exhibit. At just that moment she turned her head and I realized it was Calli Carpenter,CIS after school coordinator from Arcadia Elementary School! And there wasAmeriCorps VISTA Bumeun Lee. Later, at the Science in Motion exhibit, we ran intoYouth Development Worker Aleena Robinson and CIS after school coordinator Alexis Arocho from Prairie Ridge Elementary School. Students were busy exploring science through the hands-on exhibits. When we came out of the planetarium show we ran into CIS after school coordinator Jay Gross from Spring Valley Center for Exploration, CIS after school coordinator Phillip Hegwood from Woodward and dozens of others as students sat on the floor, eating lunch, talking and laughing.

Tiles students made at Art Bayou
Tiles students made at Art Bayou

Lindsey Westfall, CIS after school coordinator for Northglade Montessori noted that, for a number of students, it was their first visit to the museum; they were amazed that the wonders it held were right in their hometown. What a beautiful thing to behold. Young people from all over Kalamazoo having an opportunity to fully explore all the museum has to offer.

“These school kids are really good,” one parent commented to another as we left. And they were. While I credit the students, I also credit our staff.  Everywhere I turned our kids were being supervised by CIS staff who were calm and positive and the kids were modeling their behavior. Staff had clearly prepared the students before and throughout the field trip so it would be an enriching experience.

When I shared these impressions with CIS Directors of Elementary Sites Elyse Brey and Linda Thompson, I learned that, because so many students (over 200) were eligible to participate in the field trip (to reinforce their 90% or better attendance rate for school day and CIS after school program) the museum was just one location of several. Some students tapped into their inner artist while painting tiles at Art Bayouand others, for the first time ever, sank tiny fingers into bowling balls and unleashed energy down the lanes at Airway Lanes.

“Thank you for giving us an opportunity to work with Communities In Schools today!” said Art Bayou owner, Palee Haney. “I think the kids had a lot of fun painting their tiles.” They did. As one student said, “It was just so peaceful.”

CIS after school coordinator for Washington Writers’ Academy Deondra Ramsey noted that at Airway Lanes it wasn’t just about bowling. “Students had a chance to interact with each other as well as staff on a different level, whether it was bumper cars, bowling, team work with laser tag, or playing together on some of the other games.”

Even staff got in on the fun! (From right to left) CIS After School Coordinators Jay Gross and Phillip Hegwood, AmeriCorps VISTA Cankeeshia Stegall, Youth Development Workers George Khamis and Bri Fonville
Even staff got in on the fun! (From right to left) CIS After School Coordinators Jay Gross and Phillip Hegwood, AmeriCorps VISTA Cankeeshia Stegall, Youth Development Workers George Khamis and Bri Fonville

When one student who had never bowled before discovered he loved the sport, DaMarceo Thomas was there to help hone this new found passion. A Youth development worker for CIS, DaMarceo worked one on one with the blossoming bowler, sharing techniques and tips, like proper stance, what pins to target, how to hold the ball, and how much power to put behind the release. “Listening and focusing attention can be a challenge and yet this student listened intently. It was really fun to see,” said Deondra. While most students bowled two rounds and moved on to other activities, he spent over two hours bowling and learning from his mistakes. “The more he played, the better he got.”

I am reminded of what Mickey Ciokajlo, editor of the Kalamazoo Gazette and mlive.com/kalamazoo wrote once, “CIS serves as the glue that ties together and coordinates the many services that we already have available in Kalamazoo.” Kalamazoo is rich in resources. Unfortunately, not every kid is as lucky as mine and able to tap into these resources. But this is what CIS is all about. We have friends, donors, partners, and volunteers who support CIS and allow us to replace luck with opportunity. A day off with a day on.