Von and Fran Washington: Stirring The Dreams and Imagination of Young People

Fran Washington (left) and Von Washington (center) joined by CIS board member Namita Sharma and WMU sponsor representative and CIS board member Bob Miller.

This year’s Diether Haenicke Promise of Excellence Award, sponsored by Western Michigan University, has been awarded to Von and Fran Washington. At the 10th Annual Champs Celebration, CIS board member Namita Sharma presented the award to the couple. This prestigious award was established by the Communities In Schools Board back in 2010 to honor Diether’s extensive contributions to his adopted home of Kalamazoo and in particular, his service and genuine concern for the children and young people of our community. 

Both Von Sr. and Fran Washington are educators, creators and professional performers, involved in the world theatre scene for years. For over 20 years, Von served as a theater professor and director of Western Michigan University’s Multicultural Theater program, retiring in 2010. Because his tenure overlapped with Diether’s time as University President and because of Diether’s deep appreciation of the arts, they developed a mutual respect and admiration.

Like Diether, this talented couple has a gift for poking holes in assumptions and challenging us to a truer, deeper understanding, always with an eye towards improving the lives of young people and improving the quality of life in Kalamazoo. Diether would be especially delighted that this year’s award goes to Fran and Von Washington.

This couple and their company, Washington Productions, provide an accurate and in-depth view of the African American experience through the performing arts. These two truth tellers extend the dialogue of race, culture, identity, and what it means to be American. By creating and bringing works to life that celebrate a variety of world views and not simply through the lens of the dominant culture, the Washingtons stir the dreams and imaginations of our young people. They have directly influenced thousands of young people and how they view themselves and the world around them. That is no small feat.

The Washingtons, giving an incredibly creative acceptance speech, one which, to the delight of the audience, showcased their storytelling talents.

 

For decades now, the Washingtons have known what research is now telling us: that a child’s sense of self and an understanding of their place in the world is linked with school attendance, graduation, and academic achievement, particularly for youth who are members of non-dominant racial/ethnic groups. Master storytellers, the Washingtons use their theater skills to conjure living moments from history for our youth. Moments that could easily have become forever lost, are lifted up and become wondrous, real, and exciting, right before children’s eyes. For many students, this is their first exposure to live theatre and the art of storytelling.

Education for the Arts Director, Bryan Zocher considers their presentations as the bedrock of EFA’s Arts For All school programming. He says, “By reaching 5,000-7,000 students annually over 20 years, Von and Fran may very well be the single, most powerful means of introducing African-American history and spreading a message of inclusivity and respect in our community.”

“Community leaders struggle every day to fill in gaps, gaps of every kind,” says their nominator, Mayor Bobby Hopewell. “As Mayor of Kalamazoo, in this city of promise, I stand in awe of Von and Fran Washingtons’ work as truth tellers and gap fillers, particularly when it comes to tackling history. They help all of our children learn and integrate the African American story into the American story.”

Just as Diether asked tough questions, always with the intent of challenging us to be the best we can be, the Washington’s work helps us challenge our assumptions and consider alternative, and too often overlooked, points of view. By making it their life’s work to tell stories that would otherwise go untold, the Washingtons break myths that limit understanding of who we are and feed truths to our young people—as well as those that are educating and nurturing them. Sharing a vision of the African American experience allows all of our youth—regardless of color—to fill that yawning gap of understanding and develop a bigger, truer identity of who they are and what it means to be an American.

Along with the limited edition art print of James Huff’s “(Harriet) Underground Railroad” (held by Von Jr., center), the Washingtons also received a special tribute from the State of Michigan.

Von and Fran Washington, we thank you for tirelessly sharing your passions and gifts with our kids and this community. Congratulations on being selected as this year’s recipients of the Diether Haenicke Promise of Excellence!

Champs Among Us

 

This past Wednesday, CIS board and staff had a fabulous time hosting the almost 400 people who gathered at the Radisson for the 10th Annual Champs event to honor community partners who share in the CIS vision— an engaged community where every child fulfills his or her promise— by actively putting forth time, energy, talent and resources to drive this vision to reality.

 

All in for kids, this year’s Champs are:

Evening Custodians: Mike Free, Ike Thurman, and Chalene Watson,

KPS Custodians of Milwood Magnet Middle School

Kalamazoo College Men’s Baseball Team, CIS Higher Learning Partner

Pfizer, CIS Business Partner

Prevention Works, CIS Nonprofit Partner

Rotary Club of Kalamazoo, CIS Service Club Partner

Susan Knox, CIS Volunteer

The CIS Board also honored Von and Fran Washington with the Diether Haenicke Promise of Excellence Award. This award is named for Western Michigan University President Emeritus Diether Haenicke. As educators, creators, and professional performers, this couple and their company, Washington Productions, use the performing arts to extend the dialogue of race, culture, identity, and what it means to be American. They gave an unforgettable acceptance speech that awed us all. We’ll feature the Washingtons next week.

Special thanks to the event sponsors:

  • PNC,
  • Maestro,
  • Lawrence Productions,
  • BASIC,
  • Borgess,
  • Fifth Third,
  • Greenleaf Trust,
  • Miller-Davis Company,
  • Schupan & Sons,
  • TowerPinkster,
  • Warner Norcross & Judd,
  • Western Michigan University,
  • Bronson,
  • First National Bank of Michigan, and
  • Kreis Enderle Hudgins & Borsos.

As Von Washington Jr., Executive Director of Community Relations with the Kalamazoo Promise, and emcee who kept the event flowing said, “You are all champions for children!”

In addition to hearing brief, yet memorable remarks from Superintendent Dr. Michael Rice and CIS Board President Dr. Tim Light, guests were treated to a performance of “Glorious.” As many of you know, “Glorious” was conducted by Dr. Eric Barth, Kalamazoo Kids In Tune Curriculum Director.  (Kalamazoo Kids in Tune is a partnership of The Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra, Kalamazoo Public Schools, and Communities In Schools of Kalamazoo.) The children were joined by soloist Christine Mason, a CIS Youth Development Worker at Woods Lake.  Kalamazoo Kids in Tune, along with students from Arcadia, El Sol, Spring Valley, Woods Lake and Woodward Elementary Schools and Kalamazoo Central High School, Maple Street and Milwood Magnet Middle Schools filled the ballroom with glorious sounds. Bravo to all involved in the performance (both in front of and behind the scenes)!

Curt Johnson, a senior at Kalamazoo Central High School, shared his CIS story—which we’ll be publishing here in the coming weeks —and lifted up the voices and needs of the more than 11,000 students that CIS serves throughout 20 Kalamazoo Public Schools. Thank you, Curt!

A special shout out to our CIS Site Teams, the CIS Site Coordinators, After School Coordinators, Youth Development Workers, VISTAs, and interns who provide the infrastructure to support the hundreds of marvelous volunteers and community partners who work to help children stay in school and achieve in life.

So, keep up with us at Ask Me About My 12,000 Kids to discover the Champ experience. You’ll be able to read what our various presenters said about their efforts and thanks to CIS volunteer, Don Kingery, you’ll be able to see what guests saw (and missed!) through his photographic lens.

We think you’ll agree it’s not just a one day event!

Sitting at table, left to right: Namita Sharma, Carolyn H. Williams, Sid Williams, and Moses Walker

 

Barbara Witzak: A Blue Ribbon Woman

Over the next few months we will be introducing you to our nine award winners honored at our recent annual Champ Celebration. You won’t want to miss these special installments to our blog. Hopefully, you got a chance to read last week’s post which featured Kawyie’s speech. Today, we officially kick this series off with the winner of the Diether Haenicke Promise of Excellence Award. Retired Judge and CIS Board President, Carolyn H. Williams presented the award. 

20140506-DSC_7737The late President Emeritus of Western Michigan University demanded excellence of himself and inspired and cajoled others to achieve excellence. Whether reflecting on his experiences as a 6th grade teacher, getting donations of winter clothing for Western Michigan University students from the Middle East or questioning what Communities In Schools was doing to support boys, Diether Haenicke was always in pursuit of ways in which the lives of young people could be improved so that they could demonstrate their own excellence.  That trait of straightforward sense of determination is shared by this year’s recipient of the Diether Haenicke Promise of Excellence Award, Barbara Witzak.

A native of Kalamazoo, Barbara has served the children who attend the Kalamazoo Public Schools for more than four decades.  Among the many attributes for which she is known, is a work ethic reflected in regular fourteen-hour days that often begin in her office at 5:00 a.m. and end well after dark. She has sustained an intense level of commitment to her profession, to the school district, to her educator team and to the children in KPS, whether as Principal of Oakwood Elementary and Washington Writers’ Academy over a 14-year period or in her subsequent administrative positions including the most recent, Assistant Superintendent for Teaching and Learning.  Among her most noteworthy accomplishments was the selection of Washington Writers’ Academy as a “Blue Ribbon School.”

Ms. Witzak consistently reflects the behavior of a servant-leader, always willing to jump in with her sleeves rolled up to enhance support for others or to fill in for someone attending to other needs.  According to her nominators, Superintendent Michael Rice and School Board Trustees, “In her leadership roles, Barbara has been integrally involved in every major instructional reform of the last several years in the district.” The nomination goes on to indicate,  “As Assistant Superintendent for Teaching and Learning Services, Barbara has been instrumental in helping to establish and build community partnerships in support of an urban literacy community and a growing college culture.”

Please join me in saluting the 2014 outstanding winner of the Diether Haenicke Promise of Excellence Award, Barbara Witzak.

20140506-DSC_7745

Champs Among Us

(Left to Right) Ming Li, Dean of the College of Education and Human Development, Pam Kingery, Executive Director of Communities In Schools of Kalamazoo, Mayor of Kalamazoo, Bobby Hopewell
(Left to Right) Ming Li, Dean of the College of Education and Human Development, Pam Kingery, Executive Director of Communities In Schools of Kalamazoo, Mayor of Kalamazoo, Bobby Hopewell

Upon leaving our seventh annual Champ Celebration, held last week at Cityscape, one of our almost 200 guests said, “Everybody in town should experience Champs!”

We agree. Our CIS board and staff had a great time hosting the event and we want to share with everyone what these nine individuals and organizations are doing to help kids stay in school and achieve in life.

So, in the weeks and months to come we’ll introduce you to each of them. You’ll be able to read what our various presenters said about their efforts and thanks to CIS volunteer, Don Kingery, you’ll be able to see what guests saw (and missed!) through his photographic lens.

Dr. Michael F. Rice, Superintendent, Kalamazoo Public Schools
Dr. Michael F. Rice, Superintendent, Kalamazoo Public Schools

And, because we’ve had numerous requests to publish the speech given by our youngest Champ ever—fifth grader Kawyie Cooper—we’ll post her speech next Tuesday. According to Kathy Jennings, editor of Southwest Michigan’s Second Wave, Kawyie “stole the show with her words of what being named a Champ meant to her.” You can read the entire article here. And, if we can convince some of our other Champs to guest blog for us, we’ll publish their reflections here as well.

Today, though, we’ll leave you with a list of our award winners. And then, take a moment to click on the “Dear Kalamazoo” video below that first aired during the event. This video was created because throughout the 19 KPS schools that CIS is currently in, we have a number of grateful students (not to mention parents and teachers) who wanted to take the opportunity to say thanks and give shouts out to their own Champs.

Special thanks to all of our CIS Site Coordinators and CIS Site Team members (Assistant Site Coordinators, Youth Development Workers, VISTAs, and interns) who provide the infrastructure to support the hundreds of marvelous volunteers and community partners who work with Communities In Schools and the Kalamazoo Public Schools to help kids stay in school and achieve in life.

Our 2014 Champs:

Kawyie Cooper, 2014 Champ
Kawyie Cooper, 2014 Champ

Terri Aman, KPS Executive Supervisor for Transportation

RSVP through Senior Services Southwest Michigan, CIS Nonprofit Partner

Jay Gross, KPS Home School Community Liaison, Maple Street Magnet School for the Arts

Consumers Credit Union, CIS Nonprofit Business Partner

Rosalie Novara, CIS Volunteer Tutor, King-Westwood Elementary School

Radiant Church, CIS Emerging Faith-Based Partner

Kawyie Cooper, CIS Student, King-Westwood Elementary School

Carol Steiner, KPS Principal, Parkwood Upjohn Elementary School

And this year’s recipient of the Diether Haenicke Promise of Excellence Award:

Barbara Witzak, Assistant Superintendent of Teaching and Learning Services for Kalamazoo Public Schools

So, please, keep up with us at Ask Me About My 12,000 Kids to discover the Champ experience. We think you’ll agree it’s not just a one day event!

Carolyn H. Williams, President, Communities In Schools of Kalamazoo Board
Carolyn H. Williams, President, Communities In Schools of Kalamazoo Board

Girls on the Run is Seriously Fun

From left to right: Carolyn H. Williams, Sandy Barry-Loken, Wendy Hutchison, Leslie McCullough, Donna Perry Keller, Beth Gregory-Wallis
From left to right: Carolyn H. Williams, Sandy Barry-Loken, Wendy Hutchison, Leslie McCullough, Donna Perry Keller, Beth Gregory-Wallis

Over the coming months we will be introducing you to our nine award winners honored at our sixth annual Champ Celebration last week. You won’t want to miss these special installments to our blog. We kick this series off with the winner of the Diether Haenicke Promise of Excellence Award. Retired Judge and CIS Board Member, Carolyn H. Williams presented the award. 

The Diether Haenicke Promise of Excellence Award was established by the Communities In Schools of Kalamazoo Board in 2010 with the support of his wife, Carol Haenicke and the Haenicke family.  The Award was established to honor Diether’s extensive contributions to his adopted home of Kalamazoo and in particular, his service and genuine concern for the children and young people of our community.  While everyone knew of his love for higher education, and for Western Michigan University most especially, Diether Haenicke cherished teaching and learning at all levels and wanted all young people to have the gift of an excellent education and perhaps more importantly, the joy of life-long curiosity and learning.

GOTR Sandy Barry-Loken
GOTR Sandy Barry-Loken

The 2013 winner of this very special award is Greater Kalamazoo Girls on the Run. As a former coach of the Girls on the Run program at Edison School, I am most honored to make this presentation as I know from personal experience the impact that the program makes on individual girls and on each school or organization that hosts a team. The mission—to inspire girls to be joyful, healthy and confident using a fun, experience-based curriculum which creatively integrates running—has grown from its first year serving 348 3rd, 4th and 5th grade girls to serving almost 2,500 girls in 2013. Still among the largest Girls on the Run Programs in the country, Kalamazoo’s program hosts a finale 5K event beginning in Western Michigan University’s Bronco Stadium that brings together not only the 2500 girls and their volunteer coaches, it attracts a wide range of community runners to run with them in support of their “girl power.” Likewise, there is something special in seeing a diverse community of parents, siblings, teachers and principals sitting next to one another in the stands of the stadium, all cheering for everyone’s daughters, nieces, sisters, cousins and neighbors.  It brings together parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and neighbors throughout the county and they unite behind every girl regardless of their income, job, race, religion, politics or school district.

0327The broader community supports this program by making sure that no girl is denied the opportunity to participate because her family cannot afford to pay the program fee which ensures that each girl has a pair of running shoes that fit, a water bottle, t-shirts and carefully trained coaches.  In addition, every year, hundreds of volunteers give of their time as coaches or event helpers.  Seeing thousands of 8, 9 and 10 year old girls in their Girls on the Run t-shirts with braids, ribbons and ponytails flying across the finish line to collect their medals is a sight to behold. Our entire community is positively impacted by Girls on the Run.

In his quest and urging of high standards and excellence, Diether was a prolific questioner, and those who worked with and for him knew both his genuine curiosity and their own angst when a good answer to his question escaped their brains or their tongues. The winner of this year’s Diether Haenicke Promise of Excellence Award, Greater Kalamazoo Girls on the Run, through its Director, Sandy Barry-Loken, knew the experience of hearing one of Diether’s sincere questions, punctuated by a pronouncement—“why aren’t we doing Boys on the Run? Boys are more at risk, particularly in terms of education!”

KALAMAZOO -- Participants celebrate finishing "Girls on the Run" 5k together. Many parents ran with their children for support.
KALAMAZOO — Participants celebrate finishing “Girls on the Run” 5k together. Many parents ran with their children for support.

We are certain of two things. One, someone in this community—perhaps one of you who is here now—will answer Diether Haenicke’s challenge and start a special program for boys that has as great an impact as Girls on the Run. Two, we are certain he would agree with the message of the nominators of Girls on the Run: “THANK YOU for all that you do to support the positive development of girls in our community. The dedication of your staff, your Council and your volunteers is inspiring! Not only have you made tutus the fashion “must have,” the evidence of your hard work is alive on the faces of girls crossing the finish line. You are truly creating tomorrow’s powerful, joyful, confident and healthy women.

Congratulations Greater Kalamazoo Girls on the Run.