John Brandon Chats on Cats, Closets, & Cafes

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 John Brandon.

We met up with John at Caffè Casa, in downtown Kalamazoo.

John grew up on the east side of Michigan, in Lexington, about 20 minutes north of Port Huron. John came to Kalamazoo to attend Western Michigan University and graduated with a degree in history. In 2014, he joined CIS as an AmeriCorps VISTA worker, supporting both Milwood Magnet Middle School and Kalamazoo Central High School. John now supports all 20 CIS sites in his role as partner services coordinator, a position he’s held for a little more than two years.

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

Pop Quiz

How would you describe your position as partner services coordinator?

I work as a representative of CIS with many of our partner organizations. I look over the day-to-day nuts and bolts of the partnerships, making sure services are running smoothly within the CIS model.

Part of your responsibilities also include overseeing Kids’ Closet. If you could use no more than five words to describe Kids’ Closet, what would say? Go!

Clothes. Hygiene items. School supplies.

But I have to say more because those five words don’t fully fit or complete the description of Kids’ Closet. CIS is able to distribute the basic needs items I mentioned and more to students thanks to the community. We collect and store items, we operate the distribution and delivery of these items to the schools, but it is the community that is 100% providing this resource to our kids.

We couldn’t operate Kids’ Closet without the support of community donations or the volunteers. Take Sally Stevens, for example. She volunteers five hours every week to helping with Kids’ Closet. Our kids really benefit from her organizational skills and dedication. Without her, we wouldn’t be able to accomplish one fifth of what we currently do when it comes to getting kids the basics they need. We’re able to do as much as we do because of volunteers like Sally.

What item do you find the hardest to keep in stock?

Adult sizes of [new] clothing items, like adult-sized sweatpants, especially in small and medium sizes.

What item(s) have been big in demand from school sites this year?

School supplies of all varieties. Notebooks, mechanical pencils, pocket folders, dry erase markers—all the elementary kids have a white board to do math on but they need replacement markers from time to time. That’s a new thing for us this year, the dry erase markers. We also have had many requests for sweatpants for all ages and underwear at the elementary level. This winter, boots, coats, and shoes have been in high demand, as have items like deodorant and feminine supplies. Basically, while the list of what we have in stock is long, the demand for these items is especially high. Fortunately, people in our community are good about donating them!

Also, what we need depends on the time of year. For instance, at the start of year we do great with school supplies, but towards the end of the school year, we’re in need of more of these supplies, like pocket folders, notebooks, and mechanical pencils, because the kids have already gone through them. [To see the most current list of needed items, check out the Kids’ Closet wish list here.]

What is your most favorite item you have in your closet?

Probably this sweater I’m wearing. See, it even has orange elbow pads.

You look like a history professor.

[John laughs.] I do pay attention to history. I read history books frequently and listen to a history podcast.

Podcasts are really a thing now, aren’t they? Any particular podcast you listen to?

Hardcore History. It is done by Dan Carlin and one of the more prominent history podcasts out there. Most podcasts last a half hour or so. This podcast comes in at six hours. You can’t listen to it all at once. He takes a topic in history and elaborates on it. You listen and think and then you listen some more.

What are you currently reading?

I’m reading three different books right now. One is a history book called The Age of Capital by Eric Hobsbawn. It’s about the blossoming of the capital system and the spread of industrialization as well as the political ideology of liberalism. I’m also reading A Feast for Crows by George R.R. Martin. It’s one of the books in the Game of Thrones series. And also, A Horse Walks into a Bar by David Grossman. It’s a novel about a comedian that is not very funny. It’s tragic, really.

Favorite word?

Thank you. Thank you is two words, though, so you can’t use that. So, how about just thanks!!

We know [from last year’s Valentine Post] that you love “The Great Lakes—all of them.” What else do you love about living in Kalamazoo?

Kalamazoo has such a unique collection of people. I’m from a small town, so it feels like a big city to me, but without being too big. I love all the historical buildings. It’s also hip.

I live in the Vine neighborhood. Just this weekend, I was thinking how I’m so lucky I can walk to a record store or a fancy sandwich shop or a pub. I like the mingling of small businesses along with residential areas. Those are the biggest hits for me when it comes to what I love about Kalamazoo. Oh, and of course that Kalamazoo is not too far from the lake!

Any favorite places?

I am a big fan of Fourth Coast Cafe. Also, the Lillian Anderson Arboretum which is just outside of town and owned by Kalamazoo College. I enjoy the nature trails winding through the pine trees planted in rows, off to either side. It’s a good spot. There are so many good spots and that’s why the city of Kalamazoo is so great. I learned that we even have a cat cafe!

You can bring your cat?

No. It’s called Kzoo Cat Cafe and they work with Kalamazoo Animal Rescue. Debi Newsome [CIS Senior Director for Finance, Human Resources and Administration] told me about it. You pay twelve dollars and can hang out, play with cats, drink coffee and tea, and have some snacks. The cats are all adoptable through the rescue center.

What is something interesting you’ve recently learned?

I attended a conference on foster children. I got the opportunity to listen to and speak with people whose focus is entirely foster children. In being exposed to an area of advocacy I had no real prior knowledge on, it was eye-opening. I’m constantly learning how little I really know about people’s struggles in this world.

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

For me, that would be my parents. Both of them. They’ve been role models for me in being a good adult. They’ve always done a good job of balancing, encouraging me to be who I am but also having a realistic view of what is possible. I’ve turned into a well-rounded person thanks to them, though. I didn’t always appreciate how awesome they are until I got older.

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

In Step with John Curran

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 John Curran, Executive Director of First Day Shoe Fund (FDSF). We met up with John a few weeks back at Walnut & Park Cafe in downtown Kalamazoo.

A lifelong resident of Southwest Michigan, John grew up in St. Joseph and then came to Kalamazoo to attend Western Michigan University. He graduated with a degree in political science.

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

Pop Quiz

Tell us a shoe story.

When I think of First Day Shoe Fund stories, one memorable moment that comes to mind is of a young man who got shoes with Batman on the sides. He put them on and started running circles around the gym. That’s how it works, right? Oh, and then there were these twins who each got a pair of shoes, different colors. Their teachers were grateful as, not only did they have shoes that were comfortable and fit them, the different colors made it easier to tell them apart!

Can you talk some about the partnership FDSF has with CIS in the Kalamazoo Public Schools?

I’m glad you asked that. I really want to put in a plug for your site coordinators!

CIS is really a special partner. We were, as you know, founded by Valerie Denghel. It was in volunteering with CIS at Edison that she was inspired to start this organization. In a way, First Day Shoe Fund grew out of CIS. And our partnership with CIS and KPS over the last twelve years, the help we’ve received with both identifying students in need and making sure they got the shoes that were right for them has been critical to our growth and success. Having CIS site coordinators in the school building dedicated to facilitating resources from the community to connect them to children who can use them makes our program possible and makes sure no child is left out.

We know [from last year’s Valentine Post] that you love “Lake Michigan and the bike trails that can get you there from Kalamazoo.” What else do you love about Kalamazoo?

I love that this town puts its collective focus on education. That is unique and one of the things that attracted Sakhi and I to live here and buy a home here.

Any favorite places?

Walnut & Park Cafe, of course. And Kleinstuck. It’s a hidden gem, a 48-acre nature preserve right in the neighborhood.

In 2016, First Day Shoe Fund celebrated its tenth anniversary. Tell us more about your organization and what’s happened since then.

Photo courtesy of FDSF.

We are now in our 12th distribution of providing shoes to elementary school-aged children. This past year, in 2017, we distributed 4,687 shoes! That a record high for us. The shoes were distributed across all the districts we now serve: Kalamazoo Public Schools, Comstock Public Schools, Paramount Charter Academy, and KRESA’s WoodsEdge Learning Center. Also, in 2017 we introduced a pilot program to serve Vicksburg’s students at their ‘Back to School Bonanza.’ That was organized by South County Community Services and Generous Hands, Inc.

As a grassroots organization, we depend on hundreds of volunteers to get this work done. We welcome new volunteers throughout the year. Those interested in volunteering with FDSF, can just fill out a form on our website. [You can do that by clicking here.]

One question we get a lot: Where do the shoes come from? We buy them. They don’t just come out of nowhere! A truck from Adidas doesn’t just pulls up and drop them off. We raise the money and buy the shoes.

What is the connection between shoes and academic success?

We are a piece of the puzzle. I mentioned that collective focus on education. First Day Shoe Fund is a part of that. We are doing everything we can do so students are ready to learn when they enter the classroom. When they have comfortable, correct fitting shoes, they are one step closer to that opportunity to be successful. Oh, I just said a shoe pun, one step closer, but it’s true!

We also believe shoes are important to a child’s self-esteem, feeling a sense of belonging and self-worth. Having the appropriate shoes leads to a healthy and active lifestyle. Students can participate in activities both inside and outside of school, they can be part of gym class, a school or community sport, and feel like they belong.

A pair of shoes put the young person on equal footing with their peers, providing them the same opportunity to walk into their classroom, feeling comfortable and good about themselves, ready to learn.

Favorite word?

Process. As in the process of how we do things at First Day Shoe Fund and in my personal life I’m a big believer that if you’re doing the right thing, if you commit to the process, it may not always turn out right, but in the long term the outcome will be good.

What is something interesting you’ve recently learned?

I was doing some research on the depth of need throughout our county. I learned that there are over 9,000 kids that would qualify for our program in Kalamazoo county. Throughout every community, in every corner of our county, there are children that could really benefit from a pair of new shoes.

What are you currently reading?

I’m a grad student—I’m in the MBA program at Western—so I’m reading a lot for school, much of which I find particularly helpful in my work as an administrator of a non-profit. When I have the pleasure of reading something that hasn’t been assigned, I read a few pages of Hard Labor by Sam Smith. It’s about the history of organized labor in the NBA. It combines my interest in social justice, worker’s rights, and basketball. Those are the topics I tend to gravitate towards for my leisure reading.

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

I’ve had a lot of them, but perhaps the person who has been the most impactful is Professor Don Cooney. He set me on the course that my life has followed for the last decade. I’d always had a vague idea that I wanted to make a difference in the world. Don showed me how. He gave me—as he does other students–a wealth of information as well as how to apply my energy. He introduced me to a great deal of learning and opportunity. He’s the best…such a decent human being.

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

[You can read more about First Day Shoe Fund in this 2016 post, First Day Shoe Fund: A CIS Partner with Sole.]





Mirror, Mirror On The Wall, What’s The Ugliest Lie Of All?

uglysweaterOne of my colleagues kept suggesting I write an ugly post to remind folks to come out to our Ugly Sweater Party with the Young Professionals that is going on later this afternoon, Tuesday, December 9 at Old Burdicks Bar & Grill. 5-7pm. I told them no. “Admission is free with minimum $10 donation or a new item from the Wish List,” they’d remind me.

“I’m coming to the party,” I said. “But I DO NOT WANT TO WRITE AN UGLY POST.” But they didn’t seem to take the hint and kept nudging. I must admit, we’re all pretty good about that at CIS.  About not letting go or giving up when we believe in something. Especially when it comes to kids. (There must be something in the water here because it is a trait we share with Kalamazoo Public School teachers, staff, administrators and countless community partners and volunteers.) So, buckle up.

Here comes ugly.

That’s what he said. It feels like I heard that a thousand times as a young girl. For the first two of my school age years, I walked to my friend’s house, waited while she finished breakfast so we could walk safely together to school. My friend’s father would regularly tease me, say, “How are you doing, Ugly?” Or “Hey, everyone, here comes Ugly!” I didn’t say anything to my parents or teachers. I was embarrassed because a part of me believed him. I did have a huge gap in my front teeth. So big it felt like a car could drive through it. And why did I agree to that stupid shag haircut in first grade? What other classmates looked like Mrs. Brady?

Kindergarten picture, pre-shag haircut


Fortunately for me, my friend and her family moved after a few years. I also have a pretty strong ego. (My husband complains that it’s too strong.) And it didn’t hurt that I was accidently born into a family that could pay to close my gap with braces, that I had opportunities outside of school to feel good about myself. Mostly, I got over the ugly because of caring adults. This experience, though, is one of the things that drew me to CIS. It took a while to believe in myself, for a host of caring adults, like my parents, an orthodontist, two piano teachers, and a slew of fine school teachers to wipe away the ugly. It left a scar I’m content to bear—it’s made me hyper-focused on all the ugly things children hear along the way. The messages we send—intentional or not—that seep into their psyche until they believe the ugly.

Here is the ugliest truth of all: too many of our kids lose hope in themselves every day. Kids  who have come to believe they are nothing but a bad grade, who feel as empty as their tummies, and begin to believe that theKalamazoo Promise® isn’t for kids like them.

It’s hard to take in all this ugly. But we owe it to our kids to hang in there with them and give them hope. Every day, our CIS Site teams along with hundreds of volunteers and school and community partners are doing just that. Here’s just one great example of the kind of beauty that cuts at ugly:

When Kalamazoo Central High School identified some young men with patterns of missing school, skipping classes, academics slipping—clear warning signs that these students were at risk of dropping out—CIS Site Coordinator Deborah Yarbrough jumped into action and started meeting with each student to connect them to a men’s group. Some of them told her: “It’s no use. I’ve messed up too badly. What’s the point? The Promise isn’t for kids like me.”

“Just come once,” she said. “Promise me that.” And they did. Again and again because CIS partner, Pastor James Harris and his team were surrounding these young men with love, speaking to each, as Nelson Mandela says, “in his own language, that goes not to his head but his heart.” So the site coordinator wasn’t surprised, when one day Pastor James dragged a bag of trash into the group.

“What’s this?” he asked the young men.

“Trash,” they said.

“You sure?” he replied.

The young men realized that they couldn’t be sure, not until they searched through it. Turns out, mixed in with all that trash was a 100 dollar bill Pastor James had tucked inside an envelope. The lesson learned that day? Despite missteps along the way, value resides inside each of them and they do not need to throw their life away.

This is the kind of beauty that CIS Site Coordinators are orchestrating every day. Putting just the right resources—volunteers like Pastor James, Kalamazoo College students, or a grief therapist from Hospice Care of Southwest Michigan—with the right kids at the right time. They do an awesome job of it and kids can’t help but stumble into their own beauty.

But the ugly side of this same coin is that we need more people to step up. Todonate, volunteer, and partner. To advocate for both integrated student services and stable and adequate school funding.

So, if you have survived this ugly ride, thanks for hanging in there. Come on down to Burdick’s and hang out with us from 5-7pm. Bring a donation of $10 or some newclothing item for CIS Kids’ Closet (packs of underwear, winter boots, and sweats especially needed). They’ll be plenty of food, fun, and prizes for the ugliest sweaters. (I even hear that Burdick’s is making a signature drink for CIS!)

And, if you didn’t like this ugly post, I don’t want to hear it. Stop downtown at Burdick’s and let my colleague know. (You can’t miss her. She’ll be the one wearing an ugly sweater.)

Can’t make it? We understand. It’s a busy time. We just ask that you take a moment to consider making a donation to CIS. No matter the amount, your contribution takes a bite out of ugly. ‘Tis the season after all. No matter what form of action you choose to take, it reminds our children—and all of us—that they are a treasure worth fighting for. That is one beautiful message that will never go out of season.