High School Graduate: CIS Helped Me Find My Voice

Dreon Smith recently graduated from Loy Norrix High School. In May, he reflected on his CIS experience at the 11thAnnual Champ Celebration. Dreon has given permission for us to publish his remarks here, at Ask Me About My 12,000 Kids.

PNC was the Student Spotlight Sponsor and Steve Powell, on behalf of PNC, presented Dreon with an Apple iPad Pro as a gift to help him continue his education this fall as a Kalamazoo Promise scholar

I still remember that day. I was a fourth grader in Ms. Clawson’s class at Washington Writer’s Academy. I was nervous and scared as I made my way to the CIS office. I got there and saw my cousin, Dalanna. She is the CIS site coordinator at Milwood but back then she was at Washington. Well, Ms. Hoskins—that’s what Dalanna told me to call her at school—she introduced me to this tall dude. Turns out he was Mr. Larry Manley, the CIS after school coordinator.

Thinking back on that moment, it was like I was a young branch that became planted in CIS. I became a part of something that was bigger than me. I also became part of the first group of students who got to be part of the CIS after school program at Washington.

Not only did my grades begin to improve, but I grew in ways I didn’t know I could. Sports has always been important to me. So it really helped that Mr. Manley liked basketball just as much as me. He used basketball to help us kids grow. It was a way for us to talk and learn and dream. He taught me how to be a young man and how to be a gentleman. You know, like at lunchtime, let the ladies go first.

With CIS, there’s always been people there to catch me. Like Ms. Melissa [Holman], who worked with CIS Think Summer. It was a time when, as a branch, I had to learn to grow a different way. See, I’d had some surgery and my dream of a sports career over. There I was, a middle school student with a pin stuck in his hip, in a wheelchair. I’d wanted so badly to be part of CIS in the summer but now I didn’t even know how I could make that work. It was Ms. Melissa [Holman] who caught me then. She helped me to get there. Literally. If I didn’t have that ride, I would never have been able to go.

CIS helped me find my voice by giving me opportunities I might not have had otherwise. I’ve been able to explore my passion for poetry and music. My grandma loves music and can sing and I wanted to get into that too. I believe putting poetry and music together really gets your voice out there. One CIS partner that especially helped me with that: Bangtown Productions. We wrote and performed songs and to this day, you can find some of them on YouTube, songs like “Rise Above It”—we performed that one at Bronson Park.

CIS helped me find my voice by helping me speak up about things that are important to me, like funding after school programs. Back in 2013, when I was in 7th grade, I was one of the student representatives who went to City Hall. We wanted the Kalamazoo City Commission to help us: keep the lights on! Thanks to our voices—and those of you who advocate for after school funding to remain a priority, the lights have stayed on. At least for another year.

 

Back in 2013, Dreon (far right) advocating for after school funding before the Kalamazoo City Commission.  (Ms. Melissa is at the podium.)

When you find your voice, you can do things you never thought possible. Just this year, I wrote a poem called “We have something to say” and it was a finalist for the MLK Courage to Create Poetry contest. I read it on the campus of Western Michigan University. That was really special, to think that people came to hear my voice…

Now back to when I left eighth grade. There wasn’t an after school program at Loy Norrix; it kind of hurt. It had really helped having the structure, the homework help, and all the enrichment activities. Monday through Thursday it had been a big part of my life. So, in 9th grade, I found myself going home after school and struggling to get homework done. And even though my mom and dad were on me, I didn’t always make the best choices, like choosing to sleep over doing homework.
In 10th grade, things started to look up. Ms. Trella [Artrella Cohn], who I knew through CIS Think Summer caught me and connected me with Mr. [Montrell] Baker, who has been my CIS Site Coordinator ever since.

One thing I’ve learned along the way is that I like helping people. A lot of freshman look up to me. Being tall helps! They literally look up to me. So, by connecting me to a lot of opportunities, Mr. Baker has helped me with being able to give back to my peers and other, younger students. Because I’m really good at math, I’ve been able to tutor students that need help with math. I volunteer with the food pantry we have at my school, thanks to CIS partner Kalamazoo Loaves & Fishes. I do a lot of the heavy lifting and sorting, and stacking the food items. I’m working Tuesdays and Thursdays at Parkwood Upjohn Elementary School. Through Literacy Buddies, I support students in their reading.

Most recently, I have become involved with the Men’s group which is led by Dr. [John] Oliver. Young men meeting with older men. We talk about our futures, current events—important things that need to be talked about for us to grow. Some of my good friends are a part of the group and for some of them, I never knew their stories until we had that group. It’s meant everything to me, to hear from those higher branches. I’m going to be that higher branch some day. And I’ll be passing that wisdom they poured into me, down to the next branch.

I’m grateful to CIS for catching hold of me, nourishing me, and feeding my desire to help others. Thanks to CIS, I am the young man I am today. And I’ve made great friends along the way. We have all came together as one through Communities In Schools.

As for my future plans? I have a few ideas. I’m thinking about going into business or communications, or maybe I’ll pursue teaching and coaching in a sports area. What I know for sure is that thanks to all those of you who have nourished me, I am using the Kalamazoo Promise to go to college because I’ve been accepted to KVCC!

I’d like to close with a poem I wrote for this occasion. But first, thank you all for doing your part. Know that when you work and volunteer and partner and donate to CIS—you’re making sure the kids that come after me will have the “Mr. Manley’s,” the “Ms. Melissas,” the “Ms. Trellas,” and the “Mr. Bakers” they need to grow strong, so they can be there for the next group of branches that have yet to even bud.

Thank you.

Dreon Smith with Dr. John Oliver

Millie’s Mittens

There is always a good reason not to give. We don’t have enough time or money or time. We think somebody else will step up or do a better job than us. The list goes on.

Millie Ellis has more than her fair share of reasons not to extend herself, particularly to kids in Kalamazoo. That’s because Millie lives 2,000 miles away, in Dripping Springs, Texas.

There, she is busy caring for her husband who recently suffered a stroke. She is also dealing with her own health issues. Yet, despite distance and her current struggles, Kalamazoo kids are on her radar.

She learned from her friend, Shirley Street, that during the cold Michigan winters, some kids didn’t have mittens to keep their hands warm. Shirley told her of the need and that, for the third year in a row, she was doing something about this by knitting mittens. Her mittens would go to CIS Kids’ Closet and from there, CIS staff in 20 Kalamazoo Public Schools would be providing them to students who needed mittens.

Shirley knew about the need thanks to her daughter, Sue Warner, who lives in Kalamazoo. A long-time CIS friend, volunteer, and partner, Sue is Kalamazoo Public Library’s Head Librarian of Youth Services. Sue Warner is a knitter too, and has been knitting mittens and hats for Kalamazoo kids over the years.

Back to Texas. When Shirley shared with Millie how she was helping kids in Kalamazoo Public Schools, Millie was moved. She wanted to figure out a way to “help those kids in Michigan,” too. The next time the friends connected, Millie said, “I found some yarn. I’m going to knit some mittens, too.” And she did.

When a box from Texas (mailed by Millie) showed up at Sue’s door, Sue was stunned. “I thought she might have managed to knit a few pairs of mittens, but Millie had knit 52 pairs!”

Some of Millie’s mittens

Sue dropped off the load of mittens, made with love from Texas, and some of the CIS staff tried on a few.

CIS staff modeling Millie’s mittens. (From left): John Oliver, Director of Quality & Evaluation, John Brandon, Partner Services Coordinator, Alonzo Demand, Human Resources Coordinator, and Michael Harrison, Associate Director of Site Services

Knitters make something beautiful—in this case mittens—by interlocking loops of one or more yarns. To knit is “to join closely and firmly, as members or parts (often followed by together).” Despite her own hardships, Millie made it her mission to make the lives of kids a bit better and a bit warmer this winter. Millie joined with Shirley, who connected with Sue who connected with CIS, who now gets these mittens into the hands of children.

Thank you, Millie. And thank you Shirley, Sue, and all you knitters (and non-knitters, too!) who join together with CIS to create a caring, loving community for our children.