Question: What does Texas, Georgia, New Mexico, Kansas, and California have in common with Kalamazoo, Michigan?
Answer: They have CIS Site Coordinators and public schools who have just received the prestigious Unsung Heroes Awards.
The Unsung Heroes Awards annually honor CIS site coordinators, and schools and communities that partner with Communities In Schools to change the picture of education in America. CIS site coordinators work in more than 2,200 K-12 public schools serving 1.3 million young people and their families every year. Together, site coordinators, schools and communities keep kids in school, and this award recognizes those that are doing whatever it takes to eliminate barriers and never giving up, on anyone.
Last year, you may recall, Kalamazoo was one of four communities in the country given a “Community of Excellence” award by National CIS. This year, Kalamazoo won in two areas!
“I am truly honored, humbled and grateful to be receiving this award,” said Serio. “I love being a Site Coordinator for Communities In Schools of Kalamazoo. I am able to connect students with over 40 fabulous volunteers and community partners they need to succeed because of the support I receive from my Principal, Mr. William Hawkins and the Spring Valley teachers, staff, parents, and CIS staff. Here at Spring Valley, we are all a team.”Martha Serio, CIS Site Coordinator at Spring Valley Center for Exploration for the past nine years, is one of five individuals to receive an Unsung Hero Award.
Arcadia Elementary School, committed to the CIS model for more than 13 years, was one of four sites honored in the school category by the national Communities In Schools’ network. The award highlights successful implementation of the proven site coordinator model in a partner school.
“Arcadia Elementary School is a shining example of what can happen when we work together for kids. This award is shared by all of us—The Kalamazoo Public Schools, Communities In Schools of Kalamazoo, our volunteers, partners, and donors—all dedicated to meeting students’ needs,” said Pam Kingery executive director, CIS of Kalamazoo. “Along with the talented KPS teachers, staff, and administrators, we will continue working with the community to serve the students at Arcadia as well as students in the nineteen additional KPS schools that CIS is in.” You can watch the Arcadia video by clicking here.
In addition, Dominique Edwards, a Kalamazoo Central High School graduate and former CIS Board member, attended the three-day CIS Leadership Town Hall and also made Kalamazoo proud—serving on the Mission Possible: Communities In Schools Alumni panel. Keep reading Ask Me About My 12,000 Kids and you’ll learn what she is up to. (We had a chance to pop our “pop quiz” on her as she waited in the New Orleans airport for her flight home.)
One of my colleagues kept suggesting I write an ugly post to remind folks to come out to our Ugly Sweater Party with the Young Professionals that is going on later this afternoon, Tuesday, December 9 at Old Burdicks Bar & Grill. 5-7pm. I told them no. “Admission is free with minimum $10 donation or a new item from the Wish List,” they’d remind me.
“I’m coming to the party,” I said. “But I DO NOT WANT TO WRITE AN UGLY POST.” But they didn’t seem to take the hint and kept nudging. I must admit, we’re all pretty good about that at CIS. About not letting go or giving up when we believe in something. Especially when it comes to kids. (There must be something in the water here because it is a trait we share with Kalamazoo Public School teachers, staff, administrators and countless community partners and volunteers.) So, buckle up.
Here comes ugly.
That’s what he said. It feels like I heard that a thousand times as a young girl. For the first two of my school age years, I walked to my friend’s house, waited while she finished breakfast so we could walk safely together to school. My friend’s father would regularly tease me, say, “How are you doing, Ugly?” Or “Hey, everyone, here comes Ugly!” I didn’t say anything to my parents or teachers. I was embarrassed because a part of me believed him. I did have a huge gap in my front teeth. So big it felt like a car could drive through it. And why did I agree to that stupid shag haircut in first grade? What other classmates looked like Mrs. Brady?
Kindergarten picture, pre-shag haircut
Fortunately for me, my friend and her family moved after a few years. I also have a pretty strong ego. (My husband complains that it’s too strong.) And it didn’t hurt that I was accidently born into a family that could pay to close my gap with braces, that I had opportunities outside of school to feel good about myself. Mostly, I got over the ugly because of caring adults. This experience, though, is one of the things that drew me to CIS. It took a while to believe in myself, for a host of caring adults, like my parents, an orthodontist, two piano teachers, and a slew of fine school teachers to wipe away the ugly. It left a scar I’m content to bear—it’s made me hyper-focused on all the ugly things children hear along the way. The messages we send—intentional or not—that seep into their psyche until they believe the ugly.
Here is the ugliest truth of all: too many of our kids lose hope in themselves every day. Kids who have come to believe they are nothing but a bad grade, who feel as empty as their tummies, and begin to believe that theKalamazoo Promise® isn’t for kids like them.
It’s hard to take in all this ugly. But we owe it to our kids to hang in there with them and give them hope. Every day, our CIS Site teams along with hundreds of volunteers and school and community partners are doing just that. Here’s just one great example of the kind of beauty that cuts at ugly:
When Kalamazoo Central High School identified some young men with patterns of missing school, skipping classes, academics slipping—clear warning signs that these students were at risk of dropping out—CIS Site Coordinator Deborah Yarbrough jumped into action and started meeting with each student to connect them to a men’s group. Some of them told her: “It’s no use. I’ve messed up too badly. What’s the point? The Promise isn’t for kids like me.”
“Just come once,” she said. “Promise me that.” And they did. Again and again because CIS partner, Pastor James Harris and his team were surrounding these young men with love, speaking to each, as Nelson Mandela says, “in his own language, that goes not to his head but his heart.” So the site coordinator wasn’t surprised, when one day Pastor James dragged a bag of trash into the group.
“What’s this?” he asked the young men.
“Trash,” they said.
“You sure?” he replied.
The young men realized that they couldn’t be sure, not until they searched through it. Turns out, mixed in with all that trash was a 100 dollar bill Pastor James had tucked inside an envelope. The lesson learned that day? Despite missteps along the way, value resides inside each of them and they do not need to throw their life away.
This is the kind of beauty that CIS Site Coordinators are orchestrating every day. Putting just the right resources—volunteers like Pastor James, Kalamazoo College students, or a grief therapist from Hospice Care of Southwest Michigan—with the right kids at the right time. They do an awesome job of it and kids can’t help but stumble into their own beauty.
So, if you have survived this ugly ride, thanks for hanging in there. Come on down to Burdick’s and hang out with us from 5-7pm. Bring a donation of $10 or some newclothing item for CIS Kids’ Closet (packs of underwear, winter boots, and sweats especially needed). They’ll be plenty of food, fun, and prizes for the ugliest sweaters. (I even hear that Burdick’s is making a signature drink for CIS!)
And, if you didn’t like this ugly post, I don’t want to hear it. Stop downtown at Burdick’s and let my colleague know. (You can’t miss her. She’ll be the one wearing an ugly sweater.)
Can’t make it? We understand. It’s a busy time. We just ask that you take a moment to consider making a donation to CIS. No matter the amount, your contribution takes a bite out of ugly. ‘Tis the season after all. No matter what form of action you choose to take, it reminds our children—and all of us—that they are a treasure worth fighting for. That is one beautiful message that will never go out of season.
Compassionate, smart, creative and so much more, Melissa Holman is part of what makes Communities In Schools of Kalamazoo a great organization. In her role as the CIS After School Program Coordinator, Melissa is dedicated to her 12,000 plus kids. She works hard. She is always on the go, checking in, supporting CIS staff and students, and assuring that we are meeting or exceeding licensing standards at ten CIS sites throughout the Kalamazoo Public Schools. Funding provided by theMichigan Department of Education (21st Century Community Learning Centers) allows us to provide after school as a strategy for promoting student success.
Anybody who knows Melissa also knows she has a fabulous fashion sense. She pulls off some of the coolest looks. She mixes colors and patterns that shouldn’t work, but do. She can strap a belt in her hair and look totally hip. (Several years ago, inspired by her hairdo I decided to don a belt myself the following week. The first person I ran into said, “Um, did you know you have a belt in your hair?” Sigh.)
So, I’m grateful that this hard-working, hip, and delightful colleague—who is living a beautiful life—took a few minutes out of her busy schedule to sit down and talk with us today.
Can you tell us a little something about yourself?
Here’s a little background on me: originally from Ann Arbor, I grew up in Romulus, Michigan and graduated from Romulus High School. I attended Ferris State Universityand obtained a BA in Communication with a minor in U.S. Multicultural Relations. Then, from Western Michigan University I received my MA in Educational Leadership, with a Higher Education Student Affairs Concentration.
I have a knack for working with young people and am able to develop relationships because I like to have fun with them! I love for students to have “aha” moments—especially related to their identities. This is what drives me to do the work that we do. I’ve worked at Communities In Schools of Kalamazoo since December 2008 and have loved every minute of it! After School Program Rocks!
What is something interesting you’ve recently learned?
Recently I’ve been following the media on Lupita Nyong’o, the breakout star from the multiple-award-winning movie 12 Years a Slave. In a recent speech she made at anEssence Banquet, she spoke a lot to the concept of beauty as it relates to African/African American girls. During her open response to a young female fan who had begun skin bleaching treatments, Lupita spoke of her own struggles. She quoted her mother by saying, “you can’t eat beauty.” This is a thought-provoking statement. I’ve learned that “beautiful” is something you have to “be” and continue to “become.” My hopes are that I live a beautiful life that inspires others to do the same.
What are you currently reading?
I sometimes get into commentary, and read a lot of news online, but in a week or so, I’ll be starting a book called “DNA” by D.A. Hammond. It’s about understanding and explaining the Christian faith from the lens of hip-hop culture.
What do you want to be when you grow up?
When I grow up, I want to be a world changer! In reality, my hopes are to be impactful in whatever it is that I do. Ideally, I’d love to meet some of our CIS students at the university level and motivate them to finish strong and become productive adults who also impact society.
What is your favorite word right now?
I’m really into etymology, so right now my favorite word is “peace.” The word has multiple meanings and understandings.
Will you share with us something that has been on your mind lately?
Lately, I have been thinking a lot about what it means to leave a legacy. I’m still mulling through my ideas, but I think that your character could make your environment better or worse. A legacy could be either positive or negative. The formula (I think) for leaving a positive legacy would be Character + Accepted Responsibility + Positive Attitude. I’m not saying my thoughts make a lot of sense, but that’s what’s on my mind!
Behind every successful student—and grownup— is a caring adult. Who is one of your caring adults?
I have been very fortunate in having a lot of caring adults in my life who helped me get to where I am today. Two come immediately to mind. One is my third grade teacher, Ms. Awosika, who is by far one of my favorite people in life! She challenged me to read, corrected me when I was wrong, and even checked on me far past my third grade year. She spent a lot of her years in Africa, and she always had interesting stories and color pages. I had never met anyone who was interested in sharing with students their life experiences outside of my grandparents. She became friends with my mother and my aunt, so I was sure to stay on my best behavior.
I have a very supportive family that is full of caring adults. The one who comes to mind is my aunt who recently passed away, Charlene Johnson. Growing up, she embodied the CIS “5 Basics” for me. I remember having to temporarily move in with my aunt after the birth of my little brother because I was having a hard time adjusting to a new baby being in the house. Once I was able to “play nice” I was able to move back home and embrace having a little brother. In more serious circumstances—she is one of many adults I lived with when I was displaced as a child. She provided food, clothing, shelter, love, and a safe environment where I could concentrate so that I could learn and grow. Later in life while I was struggling to finance my freshman year in college, she paid my tuition, and I was able to finish. She believed in my dreams, and even up to her death, she was covering me in prayer and encouraging me to do more. My aunt was a community leader, and taught people across southeast Michigan and abroad. I spent a lot of time with my aunt, and she definitely made an impact in my life.
Melissa, thanks for sharing today and thanks for all you do for our community. And, just for the record, you show up day after day for our kids. You give your all. You already are a world changer.