Giving Up Recess to Give Back

Kids deserve a chance to give back. We must create environments for young people in which everyone’s gifts are nurtured, and service to others is both expected and rewarded.

This opportunity to give back to peers and community is one of five basic principles underlying the work we do at Communities In Schools (CIS). [You can learn more about the 5 CIS Basics here.] At the end of last school year, we met up with four students doing just that, giving back. Here’s their story.

Every Tuesday this past school year, when the Kalamazoo Loaves & Fishes truck pulled up to Woodward School for Technology & Research, four volunteers were ready to help: Kensavion, Andrew, Dawon, and Lashaun.

Woodward students working hard and giving back.

These dedicated elementary students volunteered during their lunchtime and chose to give up recess (which they love!) to help with the food pantry.

Matthew Krieger, a Western Michigan University student working towards his Masters in Social Work, interned with CIS during the 2017/18 school year and provided the boys with guidance and direction. His favorite part of working with the boys? Seeing the look of pride that comes with mastering skills. “They have many skills now that they did not know before,” Matthew said. “Now they know to face food to the front, to place food with the same type, and to make room by consolidating items.”

These skills extend beyond organizing a pantry. “There is also a sense of group togetherness,” he noted.  “We are always working on vocalizing our needs in a clear way. I have seen improvements in their ability to express their feelings and needs to each other, which helps them to avoid conflict. I really enjoy seeing them use their words to communicate what they’re feeling.”

Ask any of the students why they volunteer and they will tell you, “Because it’s fun!”

Kensavion said he has looked forward to being part of the team that keeps the pantry up and running for his school. “Kids need food,” he said. Along with his three other peers, he has been part of the team that makes sure Woodward’s pantry is well-stocked.

“There is a lot of food that comes off the truck,” explained Andrew, “and we get to take it out of the boxes and put it in the cabinets.”

“We help put food away and people come and get it because they are hungry,” said Dawon, “and then they won’t be hungry anymore and won’t be starving and can do better in class and do a good job.”

“So they can survive,” added Lashaun. He is right. Food is a basic, human need and in living out the CIS basic of giving back to peers and the community, these students have been doing all they can to make sure hungry students and families have what they need.

To learn more about how Kalamazoo Loaves & Fishes partners with CIS in the schools to combat hunger, check out this conversation we had a few months back with Jennifer Johnson, Executive Director of Kalamazoo Loaves & Fishes.  

 

We Can’t Have a Strong America with Weak Kids

Hunger, by its very nature, takes bites out of academic success. When a child is hungry, it impacts that child’s ability to learn. It’s harder to pay attention to what the teacher is saying, it’s difficult to focus on reading, and to regulate behavior. A chronically hungry child is worried when and where their next meal will come from.

I had written the above words and then met Billy Shore, Founder and CEO of Share Our Strength. Actually, we didn’t really meet and Mr. Shore has no clue who I am. I was just one in the crowd when he stepped out to the podium the day after the Awards of Excellence celebration in Charlotte, North Carolina. It’s just that he was so engaging, funny, and thoughtful that I felt like we met. He said a lot of important things in his speech but what has stuck with me is this: “We can’t have a strong America with weak kids.”

In America, there are 11 million children in kindergarten through 12th grade who live in poverty. That is, as Mr. Shore pointed out, a lot of children coming to school in a state of distress, sitting at their desks “fundamentally compromised in their learning…plopping them in front of a great teacher” does not solve the problem. If anything, it is, in the eyes of Mr. Shore “setting children up to fail.”

Since 2003, here in Kalamazoo we have learned that if we can send kids home with food on Fridays, they return to school on Monday more focused and ready to learn.

Thanks to Kalamazoo Loaves & Fishes, Friday Foodpacks have been one of the “tools” CIS Site Coordinators pull out of their tool box of resources to help. Just last school year, 750 elementary students received a weekly foodpack while food pantries served students in El Sol Elementary and all six secondary schools.

As third grade Kalamazoo Public School teacher P.J. Bucholtz puts it, “No amount of love in the world can fill an empty tummy.” Only food can do that. And it is only because of the efforts of Kalamazoo Loaves & Fishes, Anne Lipsey, the entire KLF staff and their board that our Site Coordinators, with the support of many organizations and volunteers can get Friday Foodpacks into the hands–and tummies–of our hungriest of children. For students like Charles (not his real name), it can make all the difference.

Identified this year by his CIS Site Coordinator as someone who could benefit fromFriday Foodpacks, Charles was looking forward to receiving his pack. At the same time, it so happened his school, like many schools, was engaged in a food drive. So when Friday arrived and his Site Coordinator gave him his first ever foodpack, he informed her he was going to donate all of it to the food drive. After all, he knows what it feels like to be hungry. He is hungry a lot. Weekends especially.

She looked into eager eyes and in her wisdom said, “How about this time you pick one thing from your bag to donate? Just this one time, okay?”

He loved the idea. So, he parted with one item and then went home, with dignity and food still in his pack.

Upon hearing this story, CIS Executive Director Pam Kingery replied, “Loaves & Fishes is about feeding hungry people, but it is also about dignity.” How true. One of the hunger stories noted on the KLF website quotes someone as saying, “KLF volunteers always made me feel like somebody instead of nothing.” Our Site Coordinators and community volunteers are doing the same thing within the schools. Providing both access to food and embodying the KLF values: respect, diversity & inclusion, stewardship & accountability, integrity, collaboration, urgency, and service.

By working through us within the Kalamazoo Public Schools, Kalamazoo Loaves & Fishes taps into the heart of one of our values or what we refer to as a “CIS basic”:  that all children deserve a healthy start in life. And, for one little boy, who, according to the Site Coordinator is now eating every last crumb in his pack, it spoke to another CIS basic, the opportunity to give back to peers and community.

We are thankful for the ongoing commitment of members of this community who make it possible for our children to arrive to school on Monday more focused and ready to learn. Milwood Christian Reformed Church (MRC helped pilot this program back in 2003) both carry out the foodpack distribution at Milwood Elementary and financially support this program. And when MCR volunteers Helen Anderson and Thelma Vantill go on vacation they find people from the church to step in while they’re gone. Mt. Zion financially supports the foodpacks at Northglade. Workers who are part of the MRC Industries sheltered workshop pack food into bags for Edison and Spring Valley each week. Out at other KPS schools, our kids rely on CIS volunteers like Allison Leonard (Parkwood Upjohn), Rose Blackwood (Prairie Ridge), and Cortney Afton (Lincoln) to make sure the packs get to kids in time for the weekend.

CIS Site Coordinator Leslie Poucher Pratt refers to these foodpack volunteers as “All Stars.” We couldn’t agree more.

Director of Volunteer Services, Abby Nappier, says we still need a number of volunteers to help deliver foodpacks to children within several schools. So, if you or someone you know may want to volunteer, click here.

There is, Mr. Shore reminds us, much work to be done when it comes to eradicating child hunger. Until then, we will only be as strong as our weakest child.

A version of Charles’ story first ran in Kalamazoo Loaves & Fishes newsletter. You can find it here.

Silent Giants In The Schools

Today’s post is written by Lauren Longwell. She is venturing into her second year as an AmeriCorps VISTA with us. (VISTA stands for Volunteers In Service To America. 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.) 

Lauren working in food pantry at El Sol Elementary School
Lauren working in food pantry at El Sol Elementary School

In thinking what I would like to do in retirement it came to me that education seemed to be getting short changed. I began to think about who had influenced me and where my life changing experiences had occurred. I immediately thought back on my seventh grade teacher and how she supported and guided me, cared about who I was, and saw potential in me. I wanted to be able to assist and support a child in some way so that they too would have a chance at their potential. CIS is a way the community supports our schools, providing wrap around care for Kazoo’s kids. I like that.

Becoming a VISTA went hand-in-hand with being a volunteer with CIS. AmeriCorps VISTA has many volunteer opportunities, making it possible to be a part of a community, work with people in need, and assist others in realizing a dream. For me this dream is our kids, our cities, our communities, our homes, and on the larger scale, our country. Thus, my opportunity to become a VISTA and work with CIS came to fruition.

I have the wonderful opportunity of being a VISTA within two Kalamazoo Public Schools: El Sol Elementary School and Hillside Middle School. I do a variety of tasks within the schools. El Sol Elementary rings with the sounds of two languages, Spanish and English. Although I don’t speak Spanish, I am able to get along just fine and this experience has prompted me to enroll in a Beginning Spanish Class. I assist the CIS Site Coordinator with the El Sol Food Pantry. The Food Pantry provides a wide range of foods for families in need who have children attending El Sol. Shelves are stocked weekly with food from Kalamazoo Loaves & Fishes. Each week I pick up a load of food supplies and stock the El Sol Food Pantry shelves. I’d always played pretend “grocery store” as a kid and, gosh, my wish has come true. I now stock a food pantry that provides food to others.

One of my other VISTA roles is to promote a “College Going Culture” within my assigned schools. I have the pleasure of working with students in setting up College Awareness bulletin boards. Students in the CIS After School Program meet as a group and help design College Awareness posters which they then hang up throughout the school. The Middle School kids are aware of how important grades, study time, attendance and completion of homework all are in their journey to College. As a VISTA, my task is to assist, guide, support and honor the students’ potential for college. This requires care, belief in students’ abilities and assisting them to know that they can succeed.

At Hillside Middle School I have helped to promote, develop and present the idea of recycling at the school. A team of students from the CIS After School Program (and me) go to each classroom weekly to empty the recycling bins. The kids have developed a team approach which gets the job done and allows them to help keep Hillside Middle School clean as well as environmentally aware.

During my year as a VISTA I have learned much about the importance of volunteers in the school setting. I have also seen other VISTAs who are much younger than myself step forward and give back to our community and this country. It has been a humbling experience for me to step aside from a professional career to a less visible one. Having said this, I must say with a loud and clear voice that, without volunteers and the silent helpers of our community, we would be at a loss. The gifts, passion, experience and care of volunteers and VISTAs in Kalamazoo are the silent giants who give of themselves to help our community fulfill its Promise…. Thank you CIS for allowing me to be a VISTA with you and the kids of Kalamazoo!

And thank you, Lauren, for being one of those silent giants! We are grateful to have you, and the passion, wisdom, and experience you bring to benefit our children. Know a young person, a retired person, someone who is passionate about youth and may want to explore the possibility of being a VISTA with us? Share Lauren’s post with them.