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.

Open Letter To Kids’ Closet Supporters

So many cool things can happen while waiting in the checkout lane of the grocery store. Here’s one thing you need to check out today: the below post. It is written by our own Emily Kobza, CIS Director of Development & Business Engagement.

100_6403Dear Kids’ Closet Supporter:

You donated items or made a monetary gift to our Kids’ Closet sometime in the past to help make sure that kids in our community have the basic clothing, school supplies, and personal hygiene products that they need so they can attend school comfortably and with dignity, ready to focus on learning.  You never had the opportunity to know who benefited from your donation or what need it met – you just did it and trusted us to make sure that the student who needed a winter coat, a backpack, or a pair of sweatpants would be able to get that item.  I want to share what this meant for one student.

A manager of a local business contacted me in early September to let me know that they wanted to donate a couple hundred travel-size personal care products to the Kids’ Closet.  We made arrangements for me to pick them up later that week.  As she was helping me load the donations into my car, the manager shared her shopping experience with me.  She was excited that she had been able to take advantage of both a sale on these items and a promotion so she could get 260 items for the price of 200.  As a fan of Extreme Couponing, I was impressed!

100_6412 - EditThe cashier at the store helping to ring up these items was interested in why she was purchasing such a large quantity of personal care products.  The manager explained that her business was donating these items to the Kids’ Closet of Communities In Schools of Kalamazoo to make sure that students were in school every day and able to focus on learning without the distraction of being embarrassed about their personal appearance.  As she pushed her shopping cart away from the checkout lane, the cashier thanked her for making this donation.  The manager said something along the lines of “Thanks, but I really like doing this, and I know it makes a difference for kids.”  The cashier said, “No, I really want to thank you for what you’re doing because my child benefited from the Kids’ Closet.”  She went on to say that her child came home from school last year with a small bag of items.  She said she was a single mom and while she had a job, sometimes it was still hard to get everything her kids needed.  She really appreciated the help that the Kids’ Closet had provided to help meet the basics for her child.  Needless to say, the manager and I both got teary-eyed as she relayed this experience to me.  She said, “I knew that this made a difference, but to hear it directly from someone who it made a difference for was really amazing.”

Project Coordinator Sandy Dee (left) and Hiemstra’s Vice President Todd Totzke (center) dropping off donations from their “Stuff the Bus” collection. CIS Director of Health Initiatives Donna Carroll is on right. Thank you Hiemstra Optical!

We know you don’t get to see the smiles on kids’ faces or hear them or their families, say “thank you,” but I wanted you to know that your donations are making a difference.  On behalf of the thousands of kids who have accessed the Kids’ Closet, thank you for your generous support.

100_6439Last year, CIS distributed over 13,000 Kids’ Closet items!  Interested in removing barriers to learning by helping to fill Kids’ Closet with new clothing, personal hygiene products, and school supplies for K – 12 students? It’s a  great  opportunity for our local businesses and faith-based organizations to get involved in helping our students achieve in school and in life. Contact Emily at ekobza@ciskalamazoo.org for to find out how you, your business, or service-oriented group can help.

What’s Underwear Got To Do With It?

I once worked with this guy—let’s call him Ben. First day on the job he showed up in a short sleeve shirt and sandals. Apparently, he didn’t get the memo that it was cold and snowing outside. Ben also smelled a bit funky. A male colleague pulled him aside and encouraged him to use deodorant. (Later, Ben admitted that it was challenging enough to get food on the table, let alone worry about such extravagances as deodorant.) We tried not to smell him.

Or stare.

But it was hard not too, especially when, during the middle of a presentation Ben was required to give, he wet his pants. The boss sent him home. Ben returned the next day. He was wearing the same pants and they hadn’t been cleaned. He didn’t last long on the job. How could he? He didn’t even have the basics.

Okay, so I fibbed. I never worked with a guy named Ben. But our CIS Site Coordinators do. Every day they have younger versions of Ben coming into their offices. These children want to do their job: be the best student they can be. But they need help with having the basics covered (literally!) so they can focus on learning. Last year, Site Coordinators reached into the “CIS Kids Closet” and handed out over 7,200 items of clothing items, personal care, and school supplies to kids. That need for the basics continues to grow. This school year, the demand for socks and underwear (particularly the smaller sizes) has never been greater.

So what do underwear, socks, and shoes have to do with school success? If you ask one of our little Bens, they’ll tell you that sometimes it is everything. Speaking of underwear, I’ll leave you with a portion of an email I recently received from our Executive Director, Pam Kingery.

…this past weekend I was doing “big shopping” for Kids Closet—cart overflowing with children’s socks, underwear, and pants, this time all small sizes as the numbers of wee ones have increased.  So for the first time I was buying lots of size 4 undies and pants.  Anyway, when I do this, I attract a lot of attention in the check-out line at Kohl’s—mostly because no one wants to get behind me.  However, many curious on-lookers start by staring, followed by, “uh, um, do you have twins or something?”  Usually I make jokes and say I have lots of grandchildren or the bargains are just too good to pass up. This time I told them that really, I just have 12,000 kids, lots of whom need a little help with socks, underwear, and pants.