Von and Fran Washington: Stirring The Dreams and Imagination of Young People

Fran Washington (left) and Von Washington (center) joined by CIS board member Namita Sharma and WMU sponsor representative and CIS board member Bob Miller.

This year’s Diether Haenicke Promise of Excellence Award, sponsored by Western Michigan University, has been awarded to Von and Fran Washington. At the 10th Annual Champs Celebration, CIS board member Namita Sharma presented the award to the couple. This prestigious award was established by the Communities In Schools Board back in 2010 to honor Diether’s extensive contributions to his adopted home of Kalamazoo and in particular, his service and genuine concern for the children and young people of our community. 

Both Von Sr. and Fran Washington are educators, creators and professional performers, involved in the world theatre scene for years. For over 20 years, Von served as a theater professor and director of Western Michigan University’s Multicultural Theater program, retiring in 2010. Because his tenure overlapped with Diether’s time as University President and because of Diether’s deep appreciation of the arts, they developed a mutual respect and admiration.

Like Diether, this talented couple has a gift for poking holes in assumptions and challenging us to a truer, deeper understanding, always with an eye towards improving the lives of young people and improving the quality of life in Kalamazoo. Diether would be especially delighted that this year’s award goes to Fran and Von Washington.

This couple and their company, Washington Productions, provide an accurate and in-depth view of the African American experience through the performing arts. These two truth tellers extend the dialogue of race, culture, identity, and what it means to be American. By creating and bringing works to life that celebrate a variety of world views and not simply through the lens of the dominant culture, the Washingtons stir the dreams and imaginations of our young people. They have directly influenced thousands of young people and how they view themselves and the world around them. That is no small feat.

The Washingtons, giving an incredibly creative acceptance speech, one which, to the delight of the audience, showcased their storytelling talents.

 

For decades now, the Washingtons have known what research is now telling us: that a child’s sense of self and an understanding of their place in the world is linked with school attendance, graduation, and academic achievement, particularly for youth who are members of non-dominant racial/ethnic groups. Master storytellers, the Washingtons use their theater skills to conjure living moments from history for our youth. Moments that could easily have become forever lost, are lifted up and become wondrous, real, and exciting, right before children’s eyes. For many students, this is their first exposure to live theatre and the art of storytelling.

Education for the Arts Director, Bryan Zocher considers their presentations as the bedrock of EFA’s Arts For All school programming. He says, “By reaching 5,000-7,000 students annually over 20 years, Von and Fran may very well be the single, most powerful means of introducing African-American history and spreading a message of inclusivity and respect in our community.”

“Community leaders struggle every day to fill in gaps, gaps of every kind,” says their nominator, Mayor Bobby Hopewell. “As Mayor of Kalamazoo, in this city of promise, I stand in awe of Von and Fran Washingtons’ work as truth tellers and gap fillers, particularly when it comes to tackling history. They help all of our children learn and integrate the African American story into the American story.”

Just as Diether asked tough questions, always with the intent of challenging us to be the best we can be, the Washington’s work helps us challenge our assumptions and consider alternative, and too often overlooked, points of view. By making it their life’s work to tell stories that would otherwise go untold, the Washingtons break myths that limit understanding of who we are and feed truths to our young people—as well as those that are educating and nurturing them. Sharing a vision of the African American experience allows all of our youth—regardless of color—to fill that yawning gap of understanding and develop a bigger, truer identity of who they are and what it means to be an American.

Along with the limited edition art print of James Huff’s “(Harriet) Underground Railroad” (held by Von Jr., center), the Washingtons also received a special tribute from the State of Michigan.

Von and Fran Washington, we thank you for tirelessly sharing your passions and gifts with our kids and this community. Congratulations on being selected as this year’s recipients of the Diether Haenicke Promise of Excellence!

Checking In For Children At The Checkout Lane At Meijer

Pam Kingery, Executive Director of Communities In Schools of Kalamazoo, has returned from Charlotte, North Carolina. She, along with a Kalamazoo delegation, joined the national CIS board for a reception to celebrate the 2013 Awards of Excellence recipients. Kalamazoo was one of four communities from across the country honored as a community of excellence. Pam wrote the below post a few days before she left. You can find out more about Kalamazoo’s award by clicking here to read Julie Mack’s Kalamazoo Gazette/MLive article.

Kalamazoo receives Communities of Excellence Award! (Pictured, from left) Founder & Vice Chairman of Communities In Schools Bill Milliken, Kalamazoo Mayor Bobby Hopewell, Executive Director Emeritus at The Kalamazoo Promise® Dr. Janice M. Brown, CIS President Dan Cardinali, CIS of Kalamazoo Executive Director Pam Kingery, CIS of Kalamazoo Board President Carolyn H. Williams, and KPS Superintendent Dr. Michael Rice
Kalamazoo receives Communities of Excellence Award! (Pictured, from left) Founder & Vice Chairman of Communities In Schools Bill Milliken, Kalamazoo Mayor Bobby Hopewell, Executive Director Emeritus at The Kalamazoo Promise® Dr. Janice M. Brown, CIS President Dan Cardinali, CIS of Kalamazoo Executive Director Pam Kingery, CIS of Kalamazoo Board President Carolyn H. Williams, and KPS Superintendent Dr. Michael Rice

On Sunday I did my usual run to Meijer for a few groceries and felt compelled to look at the children’s winter coats to see if they were marked down any more. The Communities In Schools Kids’ Closet still had need for some specific children’s sizes and as usual, we are trying to stretch our dollars as far as we possibly can. When I discovered that the coats and snow pants were marked down to between $11 and $15 per item, I couldn’t resist.

As I stood in the check-out line with a cart piled well over my head with my rainbow of boys and girls jackets and pants, a gentleman approached me with a rather mischievous grin, asking “Are those for all of your grandchildren?” I grinned back, explaining that probably if I had that many grandchildren, I’d be rather crazy. He got a bit more serious and said knowingly, “You are getting those for other kids who really need them, aren’t you?” I confessed that I couldn’t resist such bargains and also explained that I work for Communities In Schools of Kalamazoo, and that we provide all kinds of support for kids so that they can concentrate on doing well in school. I indicated that having a warm coat is one of the many ways we in the community can help.

He listened attentively for my entire explanation and with the kindest, most sincere look on his face, reached into his wallet and handed me $20 and said, “I want to help, too.”  Mr. Owens was his name. As he walked away, I could see a woman standing in line on the other side of me, looking my way with curiosity. She made almost the same inquiries as Mr. Owens, confirming that my piles of coats were going to be shared with children who really need them. Her name was Joan and she handed me $50 and she insisted, remarking that she has been fortunate herself, making it especially important to contribute.

image001And then there was Crystal, the Meijer’s check-out employee who helped me—with patience and kindness that seemed to border on joy. She too wanted to know about Communities In Schools and how CIS helps the community help kids. I think there may have been tears in her eyes as she handed me the next pile of coats she scanned to put in the extra cart she retrieved.  When I make these large purchases, the Crystals of the world can make things immensely easier. As I made my way to the door, keeping the two carts going in forward motion and making sure not to crash into the penny pony ride, the beeping started as I passed the security “gate.” Meijer’s greeter, Kathy, looked at the open piles of multi-colored puff on hangers rather quizzically. I reassured her with a smile that I was not trying to steal 43 children’s jackets as I dug in my purse for the receipt I had just neatly tucked away. She smiled back. We never did figure out why I continued to beep but Kathy, too, learned about Communities In Schools and added her sincere thanks and encouragement. When she added that she makes occasional donations at Spring Valley Center for Exploration, I sent those thanks right back at her.

Just another day in our Community of Excellence!

IMG_2103Do you, like Pam, have a moment where excellence—the generous, caring nature of this community—percolates through an ordinary, everyday activity? If so, we’d love to hear about it.

Students Tell Kalamazoo: “Keep the Lights On!”

20131021-_DSC4027Over 1,000 children throughout ten Kalamazoo Public School buildings benefited in the 2012/2013 school year from after school programming through Communities In Schools of Kalamazoo. This resource has been available thanks to the support of the Michigan Department of Education (21st Century Community Learning Centers). CIS is in the fifth year of this five year federal grant.

“Afterschool programs are vital to creating healthy outlets for students during this critical time of day, says Artrella Cohn, CIS Director of Secondary Sites. “We cannot expect young people to make healthy decisions in life such as attending school regularly and improving their academics when we are not willing to invest our time and resources to support them.”

In conjunction with Lights On Afterschool 2013 events across the nation, Kalamazoo Public School students who participate in CIS afterschool programming have been coming up with their own unique ways to shine the spotlight on quality, afterschool programming. Throughout October, students have been posting facts and research regarding afterschool programming, creating public service announcements, working on special projects with school personnel, and more.

20131021-_DSC3968And just this past Monday evening, close to 80 students, parents and CIS staff filled the Chamber of City Hall. The students present were representing all students from CIS afterschool sites: Edison Environmental Science Academy, Lincoln International Studies School, Milwood Elementary School, Washington Writers’ Academy, Woods Lake Elementary, Milwood Magnet Middle School, Maple Street Magnet School for the Arts, Linden Grove Middle School, Hillside Middle School and Loy Norrix High School. They came together at city hall to share with the Kalamazoo City Commission the importance of extending the learning day through afterschool programming. Commissioner Don Cooney, on behalf of the Kalamazoo City Commission and Mayor Bobby Hopewell, read aloud a proclamation announcing October as “Lights On Afterschool Month” in Kalamazoo and committed to engaging in activities that ensure that the lights stay on and the doors stay open for all children after school.

Surrounded by children and parents, Melissa Holman, the CIS Afterschool Program Coordinator accepted the proclamation. Reflecting upon the experience, Melissa says, “I was extremely proud of our students for having the courage to advocate for their after school programs to our public officials. I believe that we are helping to develop world changers, who will first start by creating a better community through after school programs.”

Sure enough, one by one, students stepped up to the microphone to speak to their elected officials.

“The afterschool program provides us with food, clothes, and other things we need,” fifth grader Antonio said before a packed audience. “The afterschool program helps us stay away from drugs and off the streets. The staff help us with our homework and any issues we struggle with. The staff will do anything to make sure we are respectful, responsible, and safe so we can grow up to be anything we want to be and treated equally. This helps us so we can do the same for others who need help and think they can’t find it.”

Leasia Posey, a 7th grader at Maple Street Magnet School for the Arts, said, “I have been in Communities In Schools afterschool program since elementary school at Washington Writers Academy.  I think the afterschool program is amazing because of the staff, the clubs, and the transportation home.” Leasia told Commissioners that her favorite clubs are art, drama, and gardening.

Tiara Blair
Tiara Blair

Loy Norrix High School student Tiara Blair spoke up as well, “Communities In School has made a huge difference in my life. It has helped me to maintain my grade point average at a 3.7 average.” [Applause errupted in the chamber.] “Not only has it helped me with my academic studies but also with community building and networking. Communities In Schools connects me with a lot of resources, such as dental, vision, and food pack services. Also, because of CIS, I am provided a room with materials and the needed space to complete my homework. I appreciate the team staff that are hired here, they really take the time to help me succeed in my education.”

Rather than citing a bunch of research demonstrating that students who regularly attend afterschool programs are more likely to improve their grades, tests scores and overall academic behavior (there is a lot of it!), we’ll let Shediah, a fifth grader from Milwood Elementary School wrap up this post. Here, in her own words:

What Does the CIS Afterschool Program Mean to Me?

To me, afterschool program means to always be loved and helped. Afterschool program is a place that I can let my feelings go and be myself. I will always be safe and cared about.

To me, afterschool program is a place I can go to and calm down. I know I can always go the CIS staff when I need help. I can always be comforted when I’m going through a hard time.

When my [Site Coordinator] Ms. Abby left, I was very sad. After a while she came upstairs and comforted me. So did all of my classmates and my teachers.

I still miss Ms. Abby but Ms. Korrine who has taken her place is really nice. CIS is still fun.

Check out the inspiring City Hall photos (taken by Don Kingery) on our facebook album.

If you missed any of the WWMT coverage that aired on these recent events, not to worry. Just check out the following links:

What CIS Executive Director, Pam Kingery says about afterschool programming can be found here.

Students speaking out for afterschool programming during city commission meeting can be found here.

20131021-_DSC4061

What’s In A Name

Don’t let April slip away without writing a poem. It’s poetry month after all. Not sure how to start? Be a part of building our group poem on facebook or try your hand at a “My Name Is” poem. Don’t think too hard, just fill in the blanks by writing the word or phrase that comes to mind:

Today my name is ________________________. Yesterday my name was ______________________. Tomorrow my name will be ___________________. In my dream my name was ____________________. My _______ thinks my name is ________________.

Below is Donielle Hetrick’s version of a My Name Is poem. Donielle is an AmeriCorps VISTA with CIS and has been working out at Linden Grove Middle School and Northglade Montessori Elementary School since October 2012. She completed the poem as part of a warm-up exercise we did as part of VISTA training last week. Stop down to City Hall today between noon and one and you can meet Donielle and our six other AmeriCorps VISTAs who will be with Mayor Bobby Hopewell and former NFL player and Loy Norrix graduate, TJ Duckett, for Ready, Set, College! For one hour these folks will all be sharing the same name: “one who is collecting college gear for students soon graduating from high school.”

My Name Is

Today my name is drank expired milk for breakfast.

Yesterday my name was lover of pj’s.

Tomorrow my name will be sunshine lady.

In my dream my name was henchman #3.

My grandma thinks my name is Katie, Pat, Deb, Donielle.

What’s your name? Who will you be tomorrow?