Principal Amira Mogaji: Guiding Leaders of Today and Tomorrow

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 Principal Amira Mogaji.
Principal Mogaji was working as the CEO/Head of School at a Montessori school in her hometown of Philadelphia when she was recruited by Kalamazoo Public Schools to lead its Northglade Montessori Magnet School. Now in her eighth year as principal, she says, “I love making a difference here and helping our students achieve the Kalamazoo Promise.”

Principal Mogaji serves on the Anti-Bias/Anti-Racism (ABAR) committee at both the school and district level. Her leadership extends beyond the district as she is a board member for Montessori for Social Justice as well as the American Montessori Society (AMS), the national board governing body for American Montessori schools in the U.S. and abroad.

She and her husband, Olatubosun, have six children at home. This includes: one KPS graduate who is in WMU’s aviation flight science program, two who attend Northglade, and three “little, little people,” including two-year-old twin girls.

Oh, and if that isn’t enough, she is also working towards completing her dissertation for a doctoral degree in Educational Leadership and Management.

We met in the school’s Peace Room. Peace education is an essential component that is infused throughout a child’s Montessori education. Mogaji’s own passion for engaging in peace and justice work flows through her work, home, and community life. Peace and justice isn’t something that just happens. It is challenging, hard work and, as you will discover, Mogaji doesn’t take the easy way out when conflicts arise. Instead of choosing to disengage or yell back with an unkind remark, Mogaji, always mindful of the example she is setting, responds from a place of peace.

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

Pop Quiz

You clearly enjoy welcoming students in the morning, don’t you?

Greeting kids in the morning is my favorite part of the day. I love to see their faces and feel their energy coming into the building. I can quickly discover if someone is struggling and it’s an opportunity to check in with parents, too.

Two days a month I’m not here as I have meetings and I miss it. Otherwise, I’m out there in rain, snow, monsoon, you name it. Everybody deserves a hello and it may turn somebody’s day around. It’s important how you come into the building.

I’m always struck by the sense of peace and zen-like atmosphere of your school. As the leader of the building, I’m sure you have a hand in creating this environment. You seem to radiate peace.

Thank you. I’m not always zen, as my kids can attest to when I am trying to get ready for school each morning. [She laughs.] Hurry up, we can’t be late! For the most part, though, things don’t ruffle me.

What does ruffles you?

Dishonesty bothers me a lot, to the point that I have to manage how I manage that feeling. In my personal life, if I find you to be dishonest, I’m not going to bother with you. I’m a bubbly person and I love everybody until I find you to be dishonest. That said, when it comes to my work, I don’t have the right to not give 100 percent of myself. I must be intentional and give everybody the same support.

What is something interesting you’ve recently learned?

When twins learn how to, one: get out of their cribs and, two: open the door, your life changes forever. Life as you know it, is over. [She laughs heartily.] I haven’t slept since Wednesday!

What are you currently reading?

White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo.

I haven’t read it yet, but I’ve been reading a lot of articles about it [like this one].

It’s nice for this book to come out; some things can’t come from people of color. [The author and anti-racist educator, Robin DiAngelo, is white.]

It helps to explain the difficulty of doing anti-bias/anti-racism work. People who want to do this work—and I believe everybody has good will—but you find people automatically start blocking things and they become defensive. I see it all the time. They want to do the work and then they get stalled. The book helps explain this.

Anti-bias/Anti-racism work is not something that is not done to people. But rather, it is what you do with yourself, in your own journey of self-transformation. All of us need to go through it and become the best we can be. This book can help with that. I have friends who are white who love the book and it is helping them on their journey and I have friends of color who love it as well. It’s helping them, too.

May I ask what, as a Muslim woman, has been your own experience with bias and racism?

I’m always randomly selected at airports. I have been yelled at and told to get out of this country and go back home. My car has been vandalized in the Walmart parking lot. I was in the doctor’s office with my children and in the waiting area we were yelled at and called terrorists. Unfortunately, over the past few years these kinds of things have been happening more often.

That is stressful. How do you handle that?

I carry my passport at all times. And when it comes to flying, since I’m always randomly selected I have to add an additional hour and a half or more to my schedule so I won’t miss my flight…

Honestly, it stresses me out to think that some people are afraid of me… My self-care is walking around Walmart and buying things I don’t need [laughs heartily]. In fact, I was there recently and one of the ladies who worked there informed me she was okay with me being covered. This I can handle, she said. But if you had all black on, I wouldn’t like that. I’d be afraid of you. A lady who worked at Walmart felt she could say that to me, in front of other people.

Incredible. How do you respond to something like that?

The way I see it, my job as a person—as a covered, black, woman—is to set the best example I can so that when situations like that occur, people will think, Oh, that was a nice lady. You need to set a good example and give a good experience to people. You may be the only contact they’ve ever had with a Muslim.

Where else, besides Walmart, do you like to frequent in the community?

The public library. Always!

What is your favorite word right now?

Intentional. I try to be intentional in everything I do. My second favorite word is kindness.

Can you tell us, from your perspective as a principal, what it is like to have CIS in your building?

I love CIS! My experience has been very positive. Over the years, we’ve had a few staff and they have all been strong people. I’ve been most appreciative about the people and the way in which Pam [Kingery] and those helping with staffing Northglade do this. CIS understands that we are a unique school. All schools are unique, but we are really unique and CIS takes that into consideration. They have always invited me to come in and participate in interviews.

The way CIS operates in the building, whether it’s during the day [post about CIS Site Coordinator Steve Brewer here] or when Ashley [Serio] is running the after school program, it doesn’t feel like a separate entity. We’re working together to support kids. I laugh with the CIS staff every day. We have fun! It’s those relationships that children see—between CIS staff and the teachers and administration—and how we are all here together. We’re a family. Children can’t go to mom because they don’t like what dad says. We are one, collective voice.

CIS really remove barriers for children. It’s just a wonderful program!

What drew you to Montessori?

I knew of it when I was a student at Chestnut Hill College and had learned some about the philosophy having taken a Montessori class in elementary education. But I fully appreciated the beauty of it when I was a CEO/Head of School in a Montessori school in Philadelphia. It was in a very poor area with a high percentage of socio-economically disadvantaged students. It was awesome working there…

Montessori is a great way to educate children in an urban setting. That is the reason why I’m here: on the northside of Kalamazoo, in a Title I, American Montessori Society accredited Montessori public school, providing high quality Montessori education to children who would not otherwise have an opportunity to have it.

We have one of the lowest behavioral referrals in the district.

Why do you think that is?

There is a level of respect children have for each other here. That is because Montessori emphasizes respect for self, for others, and for the environment. We focus on the whole child and our children have opportunities to meet Montessori outcomes which are not all academic, such things as responsibility, global citizenship, and self-regulation. They learn to walk to the bathroom without the whole class—in kindergarten they are learning that. They have freedom within limits and as self-directed learners, they are figuring out how to prioritize their work, a skill some students may not learn until college! So while our children are learning to read, write and do math, it is also important to learn things like, How do you care for others? How do you help someone in need? What if someone is hungry?

We all recently learned that one in six children in Kalamazoo go hungry. We know this because the upper elementary students researched hunger, they wrote persuasive essays, and went from class to class sharing what they learned. Hunger, they said, is not justice. The children collected food and donated it to Kalamazoo Loaves & Fishes.

A Montessori education provides opportunities for those kind of conversations to exist. We support the children in what they want to learn more about—whatever that is. We all have a place in the world and it’s our job to find out what our responsibility is in it.

My husband says Islam is a way of life. It’s not about ‘when do you pray?’ It’s more about what kind a person you are. It’s about giving back to the world. The same is true for Montessori. It is a way of life. It’s about how you treat children, giving them opportunities, and meeting them where they are at—that is very important. Follow the child. That is a famous Montessori quote: Follow the child.

Not necessarily an easy thing to do.

When children do get off task, we have conversations, reflecting on how can you be respectful to yourself? Others? Your environment? You are not getting all you need because you are not doing your work. So what do you need? What is it you are not getting? These are the conversations we have with each other and that is the beauty of it.

With Montessori, we’re offering children options in their learning environment. Today, do I want to read sitting in a chair or work on the chalkie [a moveable table] or floor? That’s one less argument to have. We don’t have to be on their backs all day.

I happen to think we have the most wonderful children in the world!

What’s your philosophy of leadership?

A leader is there to serve, and to serve everyone. Leaders set a good example and model the expectation…We have lots of leaders here—students and teachers—and my job is to grow the leaders in this building.

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

Obviously, my parents. And I have a really wonderful and supportive husband who gives me the strength I need to take risks. I trust him and he’s wise. He doesn’t just say, Go for it. He says, You should do this because of a, b, and c reasons. Take, for example, my being on the board of directors for the American Montessori Society. I never would have submitted my application and run, except for his encouragement. While I wasn’t sure about it, he pointed out that they contacted me about running. They’re reaching out to you about doing this because you are the best, he’d said.

I never would have put myself out there like that, in that arena of running for an elected position, without his support. He really has been most influential in my life. We’re partners in everything.

I have to add that my children make me want to be my best self. While they don’t say it, we are models for our children… If I see them fussing or not being kind—of course, sometimes it may be a developmental stage—but I can’t help but wonder, what in the environment is causing the child to act this way? Have I been fussy lately? Do I need to adjust myself? That’s a Montessori way of thinking.

Thank you, Principal Mogaji, for hanging out with us at Ask Me About My 12,000 Kids.

In the weeks to come we’ll be featuring Ashley Serio, a graduate of Kalamazoo Public Schools and Northglade Montessori’s CIS After School Coordinator. In the meantime, practice peace with yourself, your neighbors, friends, and strangers at Walmart.

Pam Dalitz: In School for Kids

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 Pam Dalitz, a CIS volunteer at Spring Valley Center for Exploration, or, as she refers to the school, her “second home.” Pam also serves on the CIS Volunteer Leadership Advisory Council (VLAC), advising CIS on such things as volunteer recruitment and retainment.

Pam, who is originally from Ann Arbor, Michigan, retired one and a half years ago “from a bunch of careers.” She started as a recreation therapist, went back to school and became an exercise physiologist working in the physical therapy department at Borgess. Eventually, she attended Kalamazoo Valley Community College’s nursing program. She worked 12 years as a registered nurse and then retired from the health field.

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

Pop Quiz

What is something interesting you’ve recently learned?

How to teach kids to read. I didn’t really know how to do that until taking this SLD reading class. The SLD way is so different than how I learned to read as a kid. I’ve tutored multiple students and I’m currently only working with one SLD-mentored student. [To learn more about SLDRead, go here.]

Any tips you can impart when it comes to helping kids read?

Take the SLD reading course! Be open-minded. It is amazing.

What are you currently reading?

I’m always reading a lots of kids’ books, particularly The Adventures of Captain Underpants by Dav Pilkey and Henry and Mudge and the Sneaky Crackers by Cynthia Rylant. I’m also reading a John Muir biography but I’m not reading that one to the kids, though. And I just picked up The Hot Cripple by Hogan Gorman from the Parchment Community Library.

What is your favorite word right now?

‘You’ve got to be kidding.’ That’s my favorite phrase at the moment: ‘You’ve got to be kidding,’ and I’ve been saying it a lot. But a favorite word? ‘Unbelievable!’ For a while, I was into ‘macabre.’ I’m off of that one now. Oh, ‘Whoa’ is another favorite. I like words!

Tell us a bit about your volunteer work with CIS.

I’m the kind of person who bores easily, but the kids make it so interesting and the work is really inviting. [CIS Site Coordinator] Martha Serio is a great boss! Also, it’s nice that there isn’t tons of paperwork.

Do you help Martha with paperwork?

No, I just go in and work with the kids, tutoring them. I also help in Ms. [Chyna] Campbell’s second grade classroom. Sometimes I’ll help with classroom papers, but now paperwork is much more fun than when I was a nurse and charting to help the hospital get reimbursed for units of morphine. By the way, Ms. Campbell is an amazing teacher and I admire her so much. She has her stuff together, and at such a young age!

I also like working with Martha. She is energetic and I find her easy to get along with because she’s very direct. I don’t have to guess what she wants. I get anxious if I don’t know what is expected of me and she lets me know. Martha goes above and beyond. She really cares, making sure students’ needs are met, whether it’s for academic, or social and emotional support. She’s always getting hold of their parents so everybody is working together to attend to the needs of the kids.

How often do you volunteer at Spring Valley?

I help in the second grade classroom two days a week. I also tutor several children two days—sometimes three—a week. I have a warm spot for kids that struggle in school. I really like working with them.

Where does that warm spot come from?

As a kid, I was given the diagnosis of ADHD [attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder]. I struggled, too. It was hard for me to stay focused, stay quiet, and stay in my seat. I would try and work in my seat and then I’d find myself across the classroom. Oh, there I go again, I’d think. I knew what was expected of me, but I just couldn’t do it. I didn’t want to be seen as “the bad kid,” but I was…

Those that have struggled in school sometimes end up being the best support for kids. So tell us, what made you decide to choose CIS as a way to share your time and talents?

I got into volunteering with CIS thanks to my hair salon, Honoré! They really should get credit for it.

We love Honoré Salon! They are a great CIS partner. [Read here how Honoré Salon, a 2016 Champ recipient, supports kids through CIS.]

I go to Kristin Peterson who—every time—does a wonderful job. I recommend her and Honoré to everyone in our community. Shaun Moskalik, the owner, I love him! Anyways, Honoré collects coats each year for CIS. I started buying up a few coats and bringing them into the salon and donating them to the cause. Then, one time, while getting my bangs cut by Mindy [Meisner], she started telling me about her volunteer work with CIS. You should talk to CIS about volunteering, she said. Kristin, Shaun and Mindy, they all encouraged me to follow up with CIS.

Even though you’ve retired from nursing, you still carry that health background with you when you work with kids. Do you have any thoughts on the health of children these days?

Yes, I worry about our kids’ health. When kids don’t have set bedtime hours, they often come to school exhausted. I’ll ask kids what their bedtime is and some say 7:30 or 8 o’clock. But others, the tired ones, are staying up late and playing video games.

I also ask students what they like to do, and while some mention playing sports, many—far too many—identify sedentary activities, like video games and watching television. You don’t hear much more about kids gathering informally to play outdoor games. I’m a huge Red Rover fan and I probably still have ruptured organs from playing that game! But seriously, that sedentary lifestyle worries me. I wonder about the heart disease and diabetes we’ll see in the future.

I must say, though, I do love seeing the healthy snacks, like fruits and pretzels, available in the school. That’s a good thing.

As a former exercise physiologist, do you see a connection between learning and movement?

Definitely. Activity is huge for learning. It gives the brain a boost in oxygen, it reduces stress, and can help kids rest their eyes a bit. There is this Go Noodle program that Spring Valley uses and the kids love it.

Never heard of it. What is Go Noodle?

They are little videos, about two minutes each, that can easily be played during the school day. It lets kids take a small break, get up and Go Noodle to burn off some steam. I think they have videos geared to all grade levels, maybe even for grown-ups. Basically, kids “noodle” for relaxation and can then re-focus. The kids love it and so do I!

Where is someplace you like to frequent in the community?

Bow in the Clouds Preserve. It’s the 60 acres of land preserve behind Nazareth Campus. Also, the Kalamazoo Nature Center. I love to hang out there.

Behind every successful person is a caring adult. Who has been one of your caring adults?

My dad was definitely one of my caring adults. He was a huge role model for me. He ran an industrial laundry. He worked 12-14 hour days but always had time to do fun, recreational activities.

Bertha Walker also comes to mind. She was a community mental health social worker and we worked together at Crisis Stabilization (which is part of Kalamazoo Community Mental Health & Substance Abuse Services but was affiliated with Borgess Hospital at that time). She was the senior staff. She was no nonsense and was all about our team getting the work done. We never doubted that she cared about us or the patients we served. She’s been gone now over eight years.

When you think back on 2018, what is one of your fondest memories that you carry with you into this new year?

My first year following retirement was last year, so I got out the bucket list. As part of a mission trip, I got to go into the gypsy camps of Romania last year and that amazed me. I also went dog sledding in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. That is something I wanted to do my whole life!

What are you most looking forward to this year?

My other volunteer is with the Sierra Club and I’m looking forward to some local and national trips with them. When I see a hint of spring, that means we’re getting closer. I can’t wait! I also love walking my dog. It’s a simple pleasure, just walking my little dog.

Thank you, Pam, for hanging out with us at Ask Me About My 12,000 Kids.

Nkenge Bergan: Keeping the Focus on Kids

At the 11th Annual Champs Celebration, presented by Kalsec, Nkenge Bergan was honored with a 2018 Champ Award which was sponsored by Chase. CIS Board Member Pam Enslen presented the award.  

Positive. Hard working. Forward thinking. These are just three of a host of wonderful qualities that only just begin to describe Nkenge Bergan. As Director of Student Services for Kalamazoo Public Schools, Nkenge refuses, for convenience-sake, to lump students into categories based on a single need to make it easier for grownups to render a ‘one size fits all’ approach. For Nkenge, it’s about helping students succeed academically while also being prepared to respond effectively to the needs of the whole child.

As many of you know, Kalamazoo Public Schools incorporates CIS within 20 schools to increase our collective impact on children. Artrella Cohn, Communities In Schools’ Sr. Director of Community Engagement and Student Investment, says, “Nkenge lives out this partnership. She goes above and beyond to ensure that CIS is able to perform effectively in the schools. She carves time out of her busy schedule to meet with me on a regular basis with an eye on how we can both assure that students can be served to our fullest capacity.”

Spend just a few minutes with Nkenge and you’ll quickly learn that she seeks to understand where students and families are coming from and actively encourages the adults around the table to do the same. As she often says, “But what do our kids need? That’s what I care about!” Her mantra is much like the traditional greeting among the African tribe of the Masai who place high value on their children’s well-being. “Kasserian Ingera,” they say to one another. It means: “And how are the children?”

Living to the beat of this kid-focused mantra, Nkenge works with CIS to problem-solve, modify program designs, and identify needs as well as gaps in service delivery. This is the kind of input that helps our system of integrated student services work, so CIS, KPS and our partners are positioned to move students forward in areas of attendance, behavior, and academics.

Barriers and challenges naturally arise when working together. Moving forward doesn’t just happen. It takes hard work, a lot of behind the scenes planning and coordinating—and not giving up.

Oprah Winfrey once said, “Doing the best at this moment puts you in the best place for the next moment.”

Nkenge always gives her personal best. It’s that stick-to-it-ness and mindset of ‘let’s figure this out together’ that Nkenge brings to the partnership table, always with an eye for doing her part—and helping others—to seize each moment and keep moving forward for kids’ sake.

Nkenge Bergan, we thank you for helping kids stay in school and achieve in life.

From left: Pam Enslen, CIS Board Member Nkenge Bergen, Director of Student Services for Kalamazoo Public Schools, Darren Timmeney, Market Manager and Community President of Chase Bank in Southwest Michigan, and Kevin Bing, Vice President, Commercial Banking, Chase.

SALLY STEVENS: FIRST RECIPIENT OF GULNAR HUSAIN VOLUNTEER AWARD

From left: Arcadia Teacher Debora Gant, CIS Volunteer Sally Stevens, and CIS Board Member Carolyn H. Williams

 

At the 11th Annual Champs Celebration, presented by Kalsec, Sally Stevens was honored with the Gulnar Husain Volunteer Award, a new recognition established by the Husain family to honor Gulnar’s long-time contributions to Communities In Schools and the community.

Gulnar immigrated from Pakistan in 1981 and for more than 38 years, she dedicated herself to volunteer work throughout the community of Kalamazoo. The award recognizes a CIS volunteer who emulates Gulnar’s desire to serve children with a consistent and unflinching passion. [To learn more about Gulnar and to reflect on her, read this post, “A Good Life.”]

CIS Board Member Carolyn H. Williams presented the Gulnar Husain Volunteer Award, sponsored by the Gulnar Husain Legacy Fund.

 

Gulnar Husain, in her 14 years with CIS, first as an AmeriCorps worker and then as CIS site

Gulnar Husain

coordinator at Arcadia Elementary School was not motivated by status or money or awards. She worked persistently, quietly, often invisibly behind the scenes for children. So it is fitting that Sally Stevens is the first recipient of the Gulnar Husain Annual Volunteer Award. She shares these same traits.

Sally is the invisible behind the visible. Quietly, without fanfare, she shows up each week for kids. When she retired from Borgess Hospital in 2013, Sally’s plan was to find volunteer work where she could give back and make a difference. And she has.

Visit any one the 20 CIS sites throughout the Kalamazoo Public Schools and you won’t find her. You won’t see her in a classroom or in the hallways. She’s not in the cafeteria or on the playground. And yet, every day, because of her volunteer efforts, she touches the lives of students in all 20 CIS school sites.

Children want to do their job: be the best student they can be. But they need their basics covered so they can focus on learning. Sally is helping them do that by literally lifting up the generosity of this community. As many of you know, your donations to CIS Kids’ Closet help kids attend school every day with confidence and dignity, ready to learn. When students or school staff connect with the CIS Site Team at their school to meet a basic need, it is most likely Sally who has already inventoried the items CIS gives out. She has folded the sweatpants with love, organized the underwear by size, sorted socks, folded tops, gathered up the pencils, markers and crayons, and backpacks and boots, preparing them for the schools.

“Sally can organize the heck out of anything,” says John Brandon, who, as CIS partner services coordinator, oversees Kids’ Closet. “Sally,” he says, is “an incredibly hard worker, extremely efficient, and jumps in every way she can to help.” Take, for example, November 2016. When the tiny closet in the basement of the CIS/Kalamazoo Promise office building was bursting with your donations, Kalamazoo Public Schools graciously accommodated our need for more space, providing a classroom-size, walk-in closet at their building on Westnedge. Sally—who also volunteers with the Oakwood Neighborhood Association, Warm Kids, and the Bronson Park Food Pantry—bumped up her four hours a week to over seven, to get Kids’ Closet settled and up for operation. At the start of school and over holidays—when larger quantities of donations come flooding in—Sally increases her hours to meet the demand.

With Sally’s help, we’ve been able to serve children better by expanding operations at Kids’ Closet, increasing both the donations coming in and items going out to the schools.

Gulnar Husain was a prolific user of Kids’ Closet, a fact her Arcadia Principal Greg Socha could attest to. We know Gulnar would be so thrilled that you, Sally, are the first to receive this special recognition.

Sally Stevens, thank you for helping kids stay in school and achieve in life.

Here’s the blessing bowl Sally received. The lip of it is rimmed with words Gulnar often said and believed: “Being able to serve others, especially children, is a blessing.”

Keep up with us at Ask Me About My 12,000 Kids. You can learn more about Sally in the weeks to come. We popped one of our quizzes on her!   

 

Reverend Morris “Mo” Brooks: In Schools for Kids

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 Reverend Morris “Mo” Brooks.

A Kalamazoo native and proud graduate of Kalamazoo Public Schools, Reverend Mo attended Northeastern Elementary School, Hillside Middle School, and “the great Kalamazoo Central High School.” He went on to graduate from Western Michigan University with a bachelor’s in social psychology. A number of summers ago, he also served as a youth development worker in CIS Think Summer!

Reverend Mo is the Director of Youth Ministries at Mt. Zion Baptist Church, a position he’s held for almost three years. He’s written a book, Unmasked: The Courage to Be You, and is working on another book, also geared to youth. And still, he makes volunteering with youth in the schools a priority. For the past two years, he’s volunteered with CIS at Kalamazoo Central High School, supporting young men in a group that meets on a weekly basis. The young men have named the group, KC Men of Change.

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

Pop Quiz

Thinking back on your years as a student in the Kalamazoo Public Schools, who was your favorite teacher?

I’d have to say my favorites were my English teacher, Mrs. [Sandra] Daam and Mr. [Topher] Barrett. He was a forensic coach and I was also in his drama class. Mr. Barrett was patient and challenged me to be a leader. Mrs. Daam was loving and hard. Oh, she was hard! But a loving hard. She helped me out a lot.

How would you describe the volunteer work you do with CIS?

For me, the work is really meaningful, especially because when I was their age, I wish that I could have been a part of something like this, to have someone help me make wise decisions, and challenge me.

Last year, I was able to meet with them twice a week and this year, we’re meeting once a week. I’m hoping that next year I’ll be able to go back to doing the group twice a week. When we meet, I’m able to ask the hard questions of them because of my experience growing up, and we have deep conversations. I like impacting them in a positive way.

I sense a great deal of respect for our youth, whether it is here at the church, in the schools, or in the community. Kalamazoo cares about its young men and women.

CIS Site Coordinator Deborah Yarbrough said one of the most impactful sessions for the students was one that had to do with self-love.

Yes, Deb wanted to have a few sessions that combined both the males and females [Young Women with a Purpose], so we did. I had them list five or more people that they love. I then asked them to name the things they do for them because they love them. They identified things like I protect them, I’m loyal to them, I make sacrifices, and so on. I asked them to list five more people they love and then asked, Now how long does the list have to be until you’re on it? It was an eye-opener for them. Too often, our young people aren’t taking care of themselves because they’re busy worrying about others. We then talked about loving ourselves and how that involves things like trusting one’s self and protecting one’s self.

When it comes to engaging our youth, what do adults often forget?

I think they forget that they were once a youth and, along with that, they forget their mistakes.

I can remember my mistakes vividly. In 2015, I wrote a book, Unmasked: The Courage to Be You. In it, I share my own struggles of when I was in high school, my mistakes and regrets, as well as being somebody who I wasn’t. Students often struggle with that.

Sometimes, adults do too!

Yes, and while the book is geared to youth, I’ve had adults who have read it tell me: I’ve needed this!

When it comes to working with young people and connecting with them, what’s your secret?

One, recall your own youth and know your own mistakes. Also, know that their emotions and feelings are real. Too often we can cast them aside or don’t recognize them. Youth don’t always share their feelings but just because they aren’t communicating them to the world, doesn’t mean they aren’t experiencing the feelings. They may be bottling them up, so offering them a safe space to bring out and express their feelings can help. When I share my story, my path, and the wrong things I’ve done, that helps get the process going. They see this guy wearing a suit and tie, and think, well, he has baggage and pain and if he can open like that, maybe I can too. And they start sharing, because now we’ve got this trust thing going on and are connecting on a deeper level, having real conversations.

Speaking of suit and ties, Deborah Yarbrough also mentioned that you implemented a “Dress for Success” day and that that too, was a huge hit and brought the group closer together, identifying even more as a team.

Actually, it wasn’t me but the young men who came up with the idea! Each week, I come wearing a suit and tie to group. We had a tie session last year and taught the young men to tie ties. Last year, the group decided to have a dress up day and it went so well we thought, why not keep this going? And so, this year we had another tie session and then another dress up day!

What are you currently reading?

I’m always reading and listening to books. Right now, I’m listening to Meet Generation Z. It’s written by James Emery White. He takes a look at this next generation that follows the Millennials, or “Generation Z.” He explores the trends, how culture is shifting, how we can reach these young people, minister to them, and serve them.

What is one way, according to the book, that we can reach this next generation?

Answer their questions. With the age we are living in, young people have a lot of questions. We need to listen to those questions and have answers.

James Emery White points out that we are living in a post-Christian world, one in which the norm is that people are no longer connected to a religion. More often than not, as a minister I’ll hear, I don’t have any religion. I’m spiritual, but I don’t belong anywhere. This generation is asking, Is religion necessary? Is it relevant?

What are some of your favorite Kalamazoo places?

Home, here [church], and Sweetwater’s Donuts. That’s about it…I’m really a home body!

Favorite word?

Self-assessment.

I feel like a lot of people have the inability to self-assess. I want to know, how can I grow? What could I have done better? We live in a blame generation. So, when things go wrong, it’s easy to point the finger and blame anybody but ourselves. But if we stop and assess ourselves, recognize hey, I could do this or that better, well, when we do that, we can move forward. If everybody did that, we could really move forward. We need to self-assess.

What is something interesting you’ve recently learned?

The importance of habits as well as practicing those habits. By training on whatever you’re working on, you can build upon good habits. While I’m always learning, that’s the big one right now: habits.

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

During my elementary years, I’d have to say it was Mr. Gary Vanstreain. He was our basketball coach at Northeastern Elementary School. He was so positive, caring, and challenging, and would give you the shirt off his back.

In middle school, there were quite a few. I’ll go with my coach at Hillside, Steve Dunning. He was a disciplinarian and made sure you were on track and what you needed to do to stay on track. Even outside of the court, outside of basketball season, he cared and was on me. He showed that tough love.

In high school, it was Pastor James Harris. I will never forget, I was in a low moment in my life and Pastor Harris came to my house, spoke with me and prayed with me. He set out on a notecard representing where I was and then set out another notecard showing me where I could be, my potential. I doubt he’d remember that, but that moment really impacted me.

Then, in my college years, it was my own pastor, Pastor Moore. He really poured into me, invested in me, mentored and disciplined me.

Thank you, Reverend Mo, for hanging out with us at Ask Me About My 12,000+ Kids.

Jennifer Johnson: Ever Moving Towards the Possibilities

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 Jennifer Johnson, Executive Director of Kalamazoo Loaves & Fishes.

A lifelong resident of Southwest Michigan, Jennifer grew up in northern Michigan. “People won’t like to know that I love snow,” she laughs. “But I grew up with snow! I love it!”

Jennifer attended Central Michigan University, double majored in psychology and English and then obtained her Masters in English, Language and Literature. “When people learn I have an English degree, they’ll often ask, What makes you qualified to do this? I tell them I’m annoying,” says Jennifer. “And I ask questions.”

We’d describe Jennifer not as annoying but rather, persistent, focused, and curious, always looking for possibilities and moving not just her and Kalamazoo Loaves & Fishes towards them, but the whole Kalamazoo community.

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

Pop Quiz

When we talk about hunger these days, we often hear the term, ‘food insecure.’

That is the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s measure of hunger.

What is your definition of food insecurity?

People need enough food to lead a healthy active life. They need food that counts nutritionally. A person may be eating food, but not the right food. They may be taking in calories, but not the right calories. The reality is that some people don’t have enough money to buy the right food, or perhaps they have enough money but they live in a food desert. Their only access to food is the local Family Dollar or corner store that doesn’t have fresh fruits and vegetables; the foods they need to grow health and strong.

Hunger presents itself in many different ways. Teachers see it in the form of concentration problems and behavioral issues. For kids themselves it is more of an out loud thing, literally. My stomach is growling! My daughter’s teacher, like a lot of teachers, has a snack drawer in her classroom. We see the holes and we’re all trying to fill them.

Speaking of filling a need, let’s talk Friday Food packs! We are so grateful to you and all those at Kalamazoo Loaves & Fishes for your commitment to this program. As you know, since 2005, your food packs have been one of the critical “tools” CIS site coordinators pull out of their tool box of resources to help students.

In the early days with the program, Kalamazoo Loaves & Fishes saw the food packs as merely a bridge, a bridge to more things. It was, and still is, helpful for us that CIS site coordinators, working with teachers and administrators, identify students who need that little extra help on weekends from Loaves & Fishes. Identifying the kids has been a way to help us reach the families. We want to feed the whole family as well as the child.

So the Friday Food Packs has helped bridge that end?

It has helped with that, yes… I’d add that we are limited by the number of packs we can provide. Around 6,000 kids are on free and reduced lunch. The number of food packs provided are small in proportion to the need. We know how tough it is for CIS site coordinators to prioritize what students will receive the packs.

You’ve been with KLF for eleven years, serving these last four years as executive director [and prior to that, as resource development and public relations director]. When it comes to feeding hungry people and engaging our community in the fight to end hunger, what is one of the biggest changes you’ve noticed over the years?

One of the most recent things I learned was from talking with Deb Yarbrough, the CIS site coordinator at Kalamazoo Central. She’s been there a long time and really knows the kids. So I asked her, “When it comes to hunger in the high school, what’s changed?” She said that it’s changed a lot. Kids, she said, are more responsible than they’ve ever had to be for their food, their sibling’s food, as well as accessing food for their household.

What a responsibility that puts on our children’s shoulders! Now, there are lots of reasons for this, one being that a parent may be working at night. Whatever the case, the level of responsibility that has been put on kids in the last few years has greatly increased…I grew up as a latch key kid, but it was different then. It’s not the same thing.

If you could feed us one statistic on hunger, what would it be?

In our community, there are 40,000 food insecure people. That means in Kalamazoo County there are people living right on the edge and there are also people living deeply in poverty. It’s the whole spectrum.

One of the thing people don’t realize is that just because you have a couple of jobs doesn’t mean you have all the bases covered. Imagine, you have two part time jobs, no benefits, and something happens where you have medical bills. Or maybe your car dies and you don’t have the dollars to fix it. You need groceries, but don’t have a vehicle. Life is complicated for many people. Holes and gaps hamper their success and their children’s success. At Loaves & Fishes, we live with that every day and work to create as many access points as possible to help kids and the surrounding community.

We know [from last year’s Valentine Post] that you “love the possibilities” as seen through your daughter, her friends, and this community. What possibilities have you been noticing recently?

It’s hard to see them sometimes. It’s easy to get bogged down by external things, like what’s going on in the environment, the media, the world. It’s hard to not be negative. I encourage everyone to push all these distractions out of the way to see the possibilities. They are there! We believe at Kalamazoo Loaves & Fishes—we believe to our core—that we can create a hunger free community. That is an immense task, but it is possible! And CIS is an integral part of that task.

How so?

Your CIS people are incredible connectors. We couldn’t do this work without CIS. CIS site coordinators are on the ground and in the schools. They see and can help identify a child in need and that helps us know where our food needs to be. CIS is one of many agencies that are helping us do that throughout the community.

We love partnering with Kalamazoo Loaves & Fishes in the Kalamazoo Public Schools! Your organization really has an open mind set. Back in 2003, when we came to you and sought out your expertise about kids coming to school hungry, especially on Monday mornings, KLF was quick to say, Let’s figure something out! Soon after, the Friday Food packs was born.

Sometimes, possibilities are stopped by a system. We adhere too strictly to boundaries or the way things have always been done. When we open ourselves up to looking at ways systems can be stretched, that’s when possibilities can happen and we can leverage things like breakfast, lunch and summer feeding programs to their fullest.

I’m not saying it’s easy. Systemic change is hard. Real change takes work! We’re all busy and it’s hard to stop, to take the time and figure out better and new ways to do something. But if we can stop and focus—together— and say, I know this isn’t easy work, but let’s take the time to figure this out, together, we can make things better.

Do you have a favorite condiment?

I’m anti-condiment. I don’t like condiments, and that includes salad dressing. I’m boring, I know. That will be the theme of this blog interview! I’m boring.

Far from it! So, what’s the best meal you’ve ever had? What one food item is a “must have” in your own home?

We love fruits and vegetables. Mostly fruits, if you ask my daughter.

My best meal? Probably the home-made pizza I made with my daughter. I love baking and cooking with my daughter. Growing up, I cooked with my mom and grandmother and I am trying to instill that love of cooking with my eight-year-old daughter. We recently made spaghetti and meatballs from scratch. Not the noodles, though. We don’t have a noodle maker. But my daughter helped with the meal. She squished and formed the meatballs with her hands…I know how much it meant to me to bake with my mom and knowing I can do that with my daughter, well it’s thrilling to have that experience with her. Cooking and baking together is an important part of our life.

Favorite word?

Possibilities. That’s been one of my favorite words for a very long time. I can trace my thinking on possibilities back to Zora Neale Hurston and her book, Their Eyes Were Watching God. That book taught me a lot about possibilities. It really made me think beyond my own life. When you think there is no other way to go, nowhere to turn, there is. You just need to stop, collaborate, and take a different road.

What are you currently reading?

I just finished Katharine Graham’s Personal History.

Loved that book, though it was a lot of pages.

God Bless America, that was a long book! But it was so good. I really enjoyed reading about Graham’s growth as a woman, her running the Washington Post, and working in a male-dominated industry. I found it inspirational and relatable for our times: don’t give up! Oh, and I’m just starting The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. To think about the contributions to the world both of these women made, and in completely different ways. It’s inspiring.

Did you know that the librarian [Jermaine Jackson] at the Alma Powell Branch Library is related to Henrietta Lacks?

Yes, there are several of her descendants living in our community. That is exciting.

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

I’ve had several. Both my parents have been my caring adults. I lost my dad four years ago. My mom is still here. My mom was my baker, teacher, and challenger. So was my dad. I’d go to Rotary with him, we’d collect for UNICEF together. I learned to give back at a very young age.

I’d also have to say my English teacher was very influential. I didn’t like school, didn’t find it very challenging. She changed my life by showing me books I should read. In college, I even ended up going into English Language and Literature.

Without a doubt, another caring adult in my life is Anne Lipsey. She became a friend but she is also my mentor, having been my boss for years. I’ve learned so much from her, how the voice of the people we serve must be heard and how we must stand up for them, particularly during these judgemental times. I’ve learned so much and continue to learn from her. She is just amazing.

We’re so grateful to the KLF staff and board for your on-going commitment to helping hungry kids in the schools and for all you do to end hunger throughout our community. We know there are many volunteers who work behind the scenes to make your work, such as food packs and school pantries, possible. What is the size of your volunteer force?

Kalamazoo Loaves & Fishes would not exist without volunteer support. On a weekly basis, it takes 300 to 400 volunteers to do what we do. That’s a massive amount of people! From front desk people volunteering, helping us answer the phone, escorting people through the building, to drivers who pick up and deliver our food, and those volunteers who deliver those food packs to schools. [If you would like to learn how you can volunteer with Kalamazoo Loaves & Fishes, go here.]

Thank you, Jennifer, for hanging out with us at Ask Me About My 12,000+ Kids.