Volunteers In Service To America

Today is Mayor and County Recognition Day for National Service. Some of you might recall helping Mayor Bobby Hopewell kick off the first ever day of recognition back on April 9, 2013. That morning, as Communities In Schools of Kalamazoo staff and AmeriCorps VISTA gathered on the steps of City Hall, we were excited to partner with Mayor Hopewell, the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), The Spirit of Kalamazoo, and New World Flood and its founder, Todd “TJ” Duckett. We celebrated college spirit and gathered college gear for students in Kalamazoo Public Schools. A friendly competition quickly ensued to see which Michigan public college or university could offer up the largest number of contributions during this one hour only event. As community members and downtown business folks like Jen Ward, owner of The Station, visited City Hall to drop off donations, the excitement grew.

We can’t recall which college or university won that day. It doesn’t matter as the real winner that day was our kids. And our 12,000+ kids continue to be the ultimate beneficiaries of VISTA support throughout the Kalamazoo Public Schools.

As the nation’s mayors and county officials increasingly turn to national service as a cost-effective strategy to address local challenges, it’s worrying that the the President’s budget proposal calls for the elimination of the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), which administers AmeriCorps. It’s distressing that this vital federal agency that helps millions of Americans improve the lives of their fellow citizens through service is on the chopping block. (In 2015, the Corporation for National and Community Service leveraged an additional $1.26 billion dollars in outside resources to increase their nationwide impact. That’s even more than the federal investment.)

(Some of our current and former VISTAs, from left to right) Pamela Tate, Brenda Morris, Nicholas Baxter, Katie Pearson, Abby Schulze, Terra Mosqueda, Donielle Hetrick, Stephen Brewer, Stacy Salters, Samantha Pennington, and David Hamilton.

Kalamazoo AmeriCorps VISTA members, past and present, we thank you for helping expand CIS’s capacity to meet student and school needs. Thank you for being part of the solution to help students stay in school and achieve in life!

Did you know that 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. CIS is grateful to those past and present VISTAs who have chosen to serve their country through AmeriCorps. Currently, CIS has five citizens serving as Volunteers In Service To America (VISTAS) throughout the Kalamazoo Public Schools. If you see them, take a minute and thank them for their service:

Pamela Tate, Brenda Morris, Samantha Pennington, Stephen Brewer, and David Hamilton.

Over the years, our VISTA’s have worked closely with their CIS Site teams in a variety of ways. Click on the links below to find out how VISTAS working with CIS make a difference in the Kalamazoo Public Schools.

Our VISTAS…

are silent giants in the school. Former VISTA Laura Longwell reflected on her service at El Sol Elementary School and Hillside Middle School. You can read it here.

work with CIS partner Kalamazoo Loaves & Fishes to keep food pantries stocked and support Friday Food Backpacks.

help organize CIS Kids’ Closet to make sure kids have the basics like clothing, hygiene, and school supplies, so they can focus on learning.

promote a college-going culture throughout the Kalamazoo Public Schools.

make memories, working through the summer months with CIS Think Summer to prevent summer slide and assure that students have a safe summer filled with fun and learning.

share talents and passions. Nicholas Baxter, who recently completed his AmeriCorps VISTA service, spent his Thursday lunchtime supporting Arcadia students interested in reading, writing, and learning about poetry.

get kids off to a great start. VISTAS helping CIS organize the pencils, notebooks, backpacks, and many supplies local businesses, faith-based groups, service organizations, and community members generously donate so kids start the school year with the basics they need to succeed.

…and more.

Thank you VISTAS (past and present) and thank you, Corporation for National and Community Service, for your support!

(And if you’d like to check out some fun photos and news coverage from Kalamazoo’s 2013 Recognition Day for National Service, click here.)

 

The Dolly That Mike Made

Anyone who sets foot in a school knows that the role of a custodian is vital to the health and climate of a school. At Milwood Elementary School, students, their parents, along with KPS and CIS staff, and every community partner and volunteer who serves Milwood Elementary, is better because of Mike McCurdie. CIS Project Manager Missy Best says, “As Milwood’s wonderful custodial staff person, Mike has also really gone above and beyond to do things for CIS.”

Milwood’s CIS Site Coordinator, Dalanna Hoskins, agrees. She tells us Mike embraces his work as a custodian, going above and beyond to assure that the learning environment is ready every day for children. “Every now and then I bring him coffee, or free coffee coupons to let him know much we appreciate his help,” she says. And today, as guest blogger, Dalanna Hoskins shines the spotlight on one of her favorite custodian and tells us how other schools will soon benefit from Mike’s ingenuity.

“Mr. Mike” is what I call him. Before I even set foot in Milwood, Mr. Mike was supporting CIS staff, volunteers, and partners. For more than a decade, Mike McCurdie has served as custodian at Milwood Elementary School. Since the time of Renita Ellis (Milwood’s first CIS After School Coordinator) to now, we know we can count on Mr. Mike. Whenever I need help or assistance with access to the school or unlocking rooms or bringing in boxes of supplies –whether it’s clothes, backpacks, or other basic need items from CIS Kids’ Closet or items from one of our partners, like shoes from First Day Shoe Fund—Mr. Mike is always there to help me with getting these much needed resources into the school for our kids.

Most of you are probably familiar with the Friday Food pack program that exists throughout many of our CIS sites and made possible thanks to our partnership with Kalamazoo Loaves & Fishes. It was first piloted right here at Milwood Elementary, back in 2003. We credit our steadfast partner, Milwood Christian Reformed Church, with helping us get this program off the ground. Mr. Mike, too.

From the beginning, he has always there, helping with the food pack deliveries. As the program expanded and the number of food packs grew, Mr. Mike grew tired of always using the huge flat beds for the food packs. They were big, heavy, and cumbersome to wheel around. He knew there just had to be a better way. When, due to renovations, we temporarily moved to the school building on South Westnedge, Mr. Mike realized that the flat beds were not going to work at all. So, he came up with the idea of using wooden scooters instead.

The dolly that Mike made:

The dolly that Mike made

underside view of Dolly

And we have been using them ever since. In fact, it works so well that we are going to recreate his dolly for other CIS sites!

Thank you, Mr. Mike!Dolly made by Mike

Oshtemo Area Churches: One is as big as it gets

(From left) Carolyn H. Williams, Tony McDonnell, and representatives of OAC, Simon Tuin and Eli Bast.
(From left) CIS Board Member Carolyn H. Williams, Chief Development Officer of Borgess Foundation Tony McDonnell, and representatives of OAC, Simon Tuin and Eliza Bast.

Today we highlight Oshtemo Area Churches, one of seven school and community partners honored with a 2016 Champ Award.  Their award was sponsored by Borgess and CIS Board member Carolyn H. Williams presented the award.

_MG_4541Imagine, a number of churches individually supporting one school, independent of each other. Good things are getting done. The support is greatly appreciated. But now, picture this: six churches of various denominations coming together as one in partnership with Communities In Schools to serve the students, families, faculty, and staff of Prairie Ridge Elementary School. That’s exactly what happened and that decision was a game changer.

As Principal Karen Spencer puts it, “When these six churches: Heritage Christian, Centerpointe, Lifespring, Voyage, Lighthouse, and Oshtemo United Methodist chose to work together, to create a team, on behalf of our children—that support multiplied exponentially.

These six churches, known together as the Oshtemo Area Churches, meet monthly with CIS Site Coordinator Carly Denny and CIS After School Coordinator Alexis Arocho to discuss both academic and nonacademic barriers to student success. “OAC,” they say, “is sensitive to the needs of the entire school family and works closely with CIS to align and integrate a student support strategy. Even outside of these meetings,” say Carly and Alexis, “OAC can be counted on to communicate, brainstorm, and troubleshoot, as necessary.”

In various combinations and forms, these six churches have become part of the fabric of the school. We’ve found that six equals one and one is as big as it gets. What does the power of one look like? Here’s a glimpse:

_MG_4520– Nearly one half of all our CIS volunteers at Prairie Ridge found out about how they could help through Oshtemo Area Churches. OAC has recruited and funneled through CIS, committed and caring adults to tutor students on a daily basis.

-OAC reinforces the importance of literacy through tutoring support and supporting the school’s “Books to Bikes” reading initiative—providing new bicycles raffled off to students who read the most in February.

-More students are ready to learn so they can receive the full benefit of the excellent teachers at Prairie Ridge Elementary School. Students, who once arrived late to school or not at all, arrive on time because they have the winter apparel they need. On Mondays, students arrive focused and ready to learn because members from the churches took time to distribute Friday Foodpacks. And they work with our 2008 Champ, Kalamazoo Loaves & Fishes, to purchase enough food for more than 75 Prairie Ridge families, providing 4 days of food on a monthly basis.

-Family involvement is nurtured. Students celebrate with their home and school families during Thanksgiving Family Night and Back to School Bashes, organized, run, and led by the OAC.

-From one, an “Impact Group” was born. Composed of CIS and Kids Hope volunteers working within the school, the group meets weekly to encourage each other and plan events, such as this year’s “Harvest Party” and last year’s CIS after school “End of the Year Picnic.”

_MG_4530-Six as one can wrap their arms around an entire school. Each grade level within the school has been adopted by one of the churches, encouraging the classes with small notes and gifts. That reach can extend beyond the school and into the home. So, for instance, children, who might otherwise have had nothing to open for Christmas, had a present to open that morning.

-Teachers are provided with needed school supplies. Teachers and staff within the school feel appreciated and cared for in small and big ways. The OAC pooled together their money and catered lunch from Taco Bob’s!

While it can be tempting to go it alone, OAC sets a shining example for us all:  when grownups set aside differences—denominational or otherwise—and literally come together as one through CIS, it’s the students who benefit.

As Principal Karen Spencer says, “Every day—every hour—I turn around and see the evidence of the care and concern OAC has shared with our children…OAC is now a part of our culture and part of who we are. We are eternally grateful.”

Oshtemo Area Churches, we thank you for helping kids stay in school and achieve in life.

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Pop Quiz: Terra Mosqueda

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 another member of the Communities In Schools site team at Hillside Middle School, Terra Mosqueda. Embarking on her second year of service as an AmeriCorps VISTA with CIS, her work spans between Loy Norrix High School (three days a week) and Hillside (two days a week).

Terra grew up in Rockford, Michigan and it was college that brought her to Kalamazoo. She started at Western Michigan University studying Child and Family Development and then decided to change her focus. After taking some classes at Kalamazoo Valley Community College she decided to take a year off and try something else other than school.

“Being a VISTA has made me lean more towards social work,” Terra says. “School has always been my biggest obstacle. I didn’t try very hard in high school. And I want to work to make sure kids don’t go down my same path. Honestly, I never thought I’d be in a school again! But I really enjoy the relationships I’m making, especially with the students. Being a VISTA gives me opportunities to try new things. I get to talk to people I’ve never thought I’d have a chance to talk with by being in the schools.”

Like her other colleagues who are VISTAs with Communities In Schools, Terra helps nourish a college-going culture. To this end, she has planned college trips for Loy Norrix students and at Hillside she’s created a “college window” that she changes every few weeks.IMG_2940

She orders food from CIS partner Kalamazoo Loaves & Fishes to keep the food pantry stocked. She makes sure CIS Kids’ Closet is organized and filled with essentials, like clothing, hygiene, and school supplies.IMG_2938

Terra works with her CIS site teams to assure a smooth delivery of dental services offered to students through the Kalamazoo County Health and Community Services and their “Smiles to Go” van. She also supports the CIS After School program. “I’ve gotten really close to the kids. They’ve really grown on me.”


Alright, Terra: pencil out, eyes on your own paper. Good luck.

POP QUIZ

What is something interesting you’ve recently learned?

It’s not so much something I’ve learned as something that I’ve opened up to. and that is that no two kids have the same learning style. If two kids are sitting next to each other and I show one how to do a math problem, that same approach may not work for the other student. I have to bend my mind and think of other ways to help that child. At the same time, this helps me in that I expand and come up with new ways of thinking.

 

What are you currently reading?

With a Pistol in his Hand by Americo Paredes. It is about Gregorio Cortez, a Mexican outlaw still known to this day. When Gregorio eventually dies, he does so in my great-grandfathers house; it’s mentioned in one of the chapters. It’s a really interesting read, and I get to learn a little more about what my great grandfather experienced in his life with his compadre, Gregorio Cortez.

 

What’s your favorite word right now?

Go. I always say “Go” to the kids as a way to encourage them to be in the right classroom, do their homework, and such. “Go” is both encouraging and demanding. It’s the best of both worlds!

 

What do you want to be when you grow up?

I’m really leaning towards social work. It’s so important to keep kids in good environments. I want to help them graduate with the Kalamazoo Promise and do what they want to accomplish in life.

 

Behind every successful student is a caring adult. Who has been your caring adult?

My mom and dad, equally. My mom was the caring one and my dad helped me by pushing me. They had the good cop-bad cop thing going on and it worked well on me.

 

Thank you, Terra!

Are you or someone you know interested in becoming an AmeriCorps VISTA? The next group of AmeriCorps VISTA members will come on board in August. To find out more, go here.

In the weeks to come, we’ll introduce you to Fred Myles and Precious Miller, two more CIS team members from Hillside. In the meantime, if you missed the  post about Principal McKissack, you can read it by clicking here. You can read about Katherine Williamson, Hillside’s CIS After School Coordinator, by going here. To learn about Nicholas Keen, Youth Development Worker at Hillside, go here.

Giving Back “Just Because”

_MG_3781-3This week, we’d like you to meet Rex. Rex turned five years old in March. He is starting t-ball this spring, loves inventing things, and when we talked to him prior to his birthday – he was hoping his birthday cake was going to be chocolate with vanilla frosting and a Star Wars theme.

While we don’t keep stats on this kind of thing, we have a hunch that Rex might be our youngest CIS donor ever. With support from his mom, Noelle, Rex decided to ask his birthday party guests to consider bringing donations to the CIS Kids’ Closet as his birthday gifts. Rex thought it would be good to help others and it seemed like a natural extension of the donation of food he made to Kalamazoo Loaves & Fishes at Thanksgiving.

When we asked Rex why it was good to help others, he said, “just because.” We couldn’t agree more. There doesn’t need to be any specific reason to help others – it’s good to give back “just because.” Rex has a great role model in his mom. Noelle has shared her time through CIS as a volunteer at Parkwood-Upjohn Elementary.

We recently asked our staff, board, and volunteers what they have been reading lately, so we thought it would be fun to find out what Rex was reading. His latest reads: Rosie Revere the Engineer and Iggy Peck the Architect.

Thank you Rex for inspiring us to give back “just because!”

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Water Wizard In The School

CIS Volunteer Patrick “Pat” Early with student
CIS Volunteer Patrick “Pat” Early with student

Since the fall of 2013, Patrick “Pat” Early has been volunteering with Communities In Schools of Kalamazoo at King Westwood Elementary. Currently, Pat tutors and mentors four boys, two days a week for 2.5 hours, giving a total of 60 hours to CIS during 2014.

Pat is a retired Chemical Production Coordinator for Pfizer, which means that science is a large focus for him. When we asked him if he wanted to join us in piloting a new program called “Water Wizards”—a collaboration between the Kalamazoo County Drain Office, Kalamazoo River Cleanup Coalition, and CIS—he immediately hopped on board. The program involves using a portable model to demonstrate how the water cycles works and how man-made structures (like parking lots) disrupt or prevent this process from taking place. The model is about four feet by two feet and comes with a bog, houses, trees, a parking lot, and a river that runs the length of the model. When the parking lot is placed over the bog, the water floods the houses and landscape. The model not only teaches students about water conservation, absorption, and evaporation, but also demonstrates ways to manage the land and water in sustainable ways that prevent run off, flooding, and other damages.

All four boys value spending time with Pat. They consistently comment on how funny he is. Pat works to help them develop sustainable strategies for completing schoolwork or taking tests. For example, looking for the answers in the book helps with test taking but also forms a solid study habit.

Pat also attempts to impart life lessons in a subtle way. By asking how a student’s day is, and dealing with any problems together, Pat helps students take ownership of their lives and also become accountable to those around them. He works to engage them with other kids so they see themselves as leaders, rather than passive recipients to their own learning. He does this by being willing to negotiate with kids so they’re part of the process rather than just told what to do. His style of interaction invites students to join, to set their own goals, reach those goals, and celebrate with rewards upon completion.

By empowering students to participate in setting their own guidelines, he’s also teaching lessons on creating structure, time-management, and other qualities that pave the road for sustained self-esteem and self-growth.

CIS-Volunteer-Pat-Early-at-school-300x225One of the main ways Pat achieves these goals is by cultivating curiosity—specifically about science. He states that his objective isn’t to get into the nitty-gritty mechanics of any scientific experiments, but rather to generate a spirit of investigation. He uses very simple experiments—such as separating oil and water, showing the differences between a solid, liquid, and gas, or demonstrations with dry ice—to spark those questions that naturally emerge when we experience wonder. Those questions are the jumping off point either for classroom discussions now or those questions might resonate years from now when students encounter more of the nuts and bolts of science.

One obstacle that wasn’t anticipated was being prepared to help students. Pat told CIS Volunteer Services, “I needed to know what their needs are and how I can help them.” For Pat, this requires not having a pre-conceived idea of what kids need but being present and listening to what the problem is. Being genuine, engaged, and willing to help with whatever comes up.

Another obstacle Pat encountered was learning to set limits with his volunteer time. Finding balance and learning to say no to certain projects was necessary so he didn’t burn out and so the time he was able to give was quality time.

Pat is a patient communicator and always bends the conversation toward mutual understanding.Those who encounter Pat comment on his friendly and approachable nature. His enthusiasm and curiosity jump off him in even the simplest interactions. As Laura Keiser, CIS Site Coordinator at King-Westwood Elementary puts it, “Pat greets every tutoring experience with contagious positivity and energy that charms even the most reluctant students into learning. He connects readily with students, gently and calmly guiding them toward more effective self-monitoring. We are so thankful for Pat’s contribution to our community at King-Westwood!”

In addition to his volunteer work with CIS, Pat makes the time to rake roofs, shovel snow, and make homemade soup for two senior neighbors as well as volunteer at Kalamazoo Loaves & Fishes events.

Pat Early was nominated within the “Adult Volunteer” category for the STAR awards. Special thanks to CIS Volunteer Services for their assistance with this and the recent post on Literacy Buddies, nominated within the “Youth Group Volunteer” category. The final STAR winners within each of the 14 volunteering categories can be found here.

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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.