Catching Up with Elissa Kerr: One Sweet Conversation

Born and raised in Connecticut, Elissa Kerr spent much of her childhood “playing under the shade of two massive maple trees.” Not surprising given this former CIS site coordinator has just written a book that features maple trees! We ran into Elissa a few months back during an author event at Kazoo Books, where she was introducing a children’s book she’s written. She said, “I am very excited to embark on this new endeavor as it will allow me to get back to my roots and what I am passionate about—encouraging a child’s love of learning.”

No matter what endeavor Elissa undertakes, she says her two biggest supporters are her husband Ian and their two young boys.

Since it’s National Reading Month and Michigan’s Maple Sugaring days are upon us, we think it’s the perfect time to catch up to Elissa Kerr and get the scoop on her new book.

What brought you to Michigan?

I moved to Michigan in 2008 because my husband attended Western Michigan University. We fell in love with the area and have been here ever since.

You first got connected with CIS by serving as an AmeriCorps VISTA with us, right?

Yes. I have a degree in elementary and special education. When we moved to Michigan I began working with CIS as an AmeriCorp VISTA. I supported both Arcadia Elementary School and Edison Environmental Science Academy. I then stepped into the site coordinator role at King Westwood for two years. And for the past eight years I have been employed by the State of Michigan and focused on supporting individuals and families.

What is one of your fondest memories from when you were working with CIS?

I think one of my favorite projects was setting up a publishing center at Arcadia. It was wonderful to have volunteers come in and support classroom teachers and promote the art of storytelling. The best part was watching kids find their voice by sharing stories they were passionate about.

What was your favorite childhood book?

It’s difficult to pick just one book! My favorite childhood author would have to be Beverly Cleary. I especially loved her character, Ramona. Her mischievous antics always sprung from a place of pure childhood curiosity.

What book are you currently reading?

I enjoy participating in Kalamazoo Public Library’s Reading Together event. I love the idea of learning and having a discussion on a topical subject as a community, so I will usually give their suggestion a try. I recently finished this year’s book, We are the Weather by Jonathan Safran Foer. [Jonathan Safran Foer’s presentation is tonight, Tuesday, March 10, 2020 at Chenery Auditorium at 7 pm.]

My guilty pleasures are mysteries, though, and I recently read The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware.

Describe your book in one sentence, or two, if one is too hard.

The Sweetest Season follows a young girl and her father as they journey through the forest and work to transform sap to syrup.

Elissa’s book on display at Kazoo Books.

For your book, you must have done some research. If so, can you talk a little bit about that?

We are members of the Kalamazoo Nature Center and have attended their annual maple syrup festival for the past eight years. We take a picture of my kids every year in the exact same spot! Their volunteers and staff do a great job in teaching guests about the process of identifying maples, tapping trees, and boiling syrup. I did additional research as well, again, turning to my local library for additional books. I am a strong supporter of libraries.

The title of your book, The Sweetest Season, is short and sweet and hits just the right spot. At what point in your writing process did you identify this title? Is there a story behind coming up with the title?

Coming up with the title was probably one of the hardest parts for me. It did not come naturally. The story was completely written and illustrations were started before I had a title I loved. I was using the working title, Sugar Season. While informational, it was certainly not catchy or very whimsical. I made the change late in the process and am much happier with the title.

Do you have real maple syrup in your house right now?

Not currently. My family was enjoying a lot of syrup and breakfast foods, but sadly, they might be starting to get a bit tired of it. I did just find a recipe for a maple hot coco that I want to try, so I will probably be picking up some soon enough.

Can you tell us one or two interesting maple syrup-related facts?

It takes 40 gallons of sap to make just one gallon of syrup. It’s not just sugar maples that can be tapped for sap. Many other varieties can be tapped, it’s just that their sugar content is not as high. I am really curious to try a syrup from another type of tree just to compare!

Are any of the characters based on or inspired by real people?

Though they aren’t based on real people, my characters have a love and connection to nature that I hope to inspire in others.

What was the most challenging aspect of working on this book?

Rhyming and meter. I always wanted to make a book that rhymes. Some lines came naturally, while others I would constantly rewrite.

What behind-the-scene tidbit in your life would probably surprise readers the most?

My husband has bright red hair and many people who know me assume that I chose characters who have bright red hair. In reality, it was completely the illustrator’s idea. Zoe Saunders felt the red hair would be a nice contrast to the melting winter snow.

What is your favorite word or phrase right now?

My favorite phrase right now is: Little seeds grow mighty trees.

Little seeds could be small acts of kindness, a smile on the street, or a simple idea. You never know what impact your small gesture makes in the lives of others. I hope this book is that little seeds that inspires others to go outside and connect more with the nature found right in their backyards.

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

I come from a family of educators and I would say my grandmother still embodies that teaching and nurturing spirit. I would certainly consider her one of the most caring adults in my life. She always has inspired a love of learning and encouraged me to share my gifts and skills. She turned 95 this year and seems really delighted to see my work on this project. I am thankful that it’s brought her so much joy.

You can find Elissa’s book, The Sweetest Season, at Kazoo Books. It’s also available for purchase on-line at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

 

Meet Teresa Miller

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 longtime CIS volunteer Teresa Miller.

More than a decade ago, Teresa, who has a background as a veterinarian technician and holds a Bachelor of Science in Zoology from Michigan State University, walked into Edison Environmental Science Academy and started volunteering once a month with the Science Club. At that time, in 2007, she worked with Zoetis in Animal Health. Since 2017, she’s been employed with Stryker as an Associate Sourcing Manager. “I loved doing my volunteer work with the fourth and fifth graders. I thought I might have to give it up, though, when I started my new job, but I didn’t! I’m so lucky that Stryker allows me to continue to do this!” she says.

In fact, Teresa loves working with the students so much that she convinced her hairy, 105 pound friend, Cash, to volunteer as well. A Bernese Mountain Dog, Cash is considered part of the volunteer team who makes Science Club so successful. [Since we’ll be featuring some of the Science Club volunteers, we’ll bring you Cash’s interview this spring when he comes to visit the students at Edison.]

Born in Taylor, Michigan, Teresa, along with her husband, two children, two dogs, three cats, and two horses, now lives on a 10-acre property in Plainwell. “I love Kalamazoo and I love Plainwell. And, of course, Plainwell has the best ice cream!”

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

Pop Quiz

As you know, the Science Club has been going strong since 2004 when Zoetis scientist [and current CIS board member] Dom Pullo started the club. It’s such a fantastic way to enhance students’ learning of science, through inquiry and hands-on activities.

It’s fun volunteering with Dom and other volunteers, like Paul. [Paul Runnels will be featured in an upcoming post, so stay tuned.] The kids are great. They ask lots of question and they are amazing questions. We encourage that. Asking questions is how you learn. They are just so inquisitive. Science, for these kids, is like magic.

What have you found to be the most rewarding aspect to volunteering?

Seeing the change and growth in the students. It’s rewarding to see the kids change from the beginning of our time together to the end. In the beginning, some are just there to get out of class, maybe wanting to do something different. At some point, that changes. They want us to come every week. When we do the slime project, there are always some kids who don’t want to touch the slime, but by the end, they are picking it up and playing with it.

What is a question you’ve asked recently?

When I started with Stryker, I had no manufacturing experience, so I asked a lot of questions. In particular, What are the different types of processing of materials?

So, for instance, when it comes to a hospital bed, part of the metal is bent metal. You do that by heating the metal to form it. And then, you have to use a different process to do another section, say with a laser to cut the holes where you want them.

Since I have gone from animals to manufacturing, I’m constantly learning something new every day and I love that. I never get bored!

What is something interesting you’ve recently learned?

I recently asked Alexa (my Amazon Echo) about dolphins.

Another question!

Yes! And I learned that their skin is so thick. I didn’t realize that but it makes sense as it would help them with body warmth. Orcas are dolphins and not whales. Because we call orca’s killer whales, I didn’t realize that either.

What are you currently reading? 

The last book I read was Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein. I read it before I saw the movie. I cried through the entire last chapter. The book before that was A Dog’s Purpose by Bruce Cameron. That’s a movie, too, about a dog who is reincarnated. Are you sensing a theme here?

What is your favorite word right now?

Service.

What’s something you looking forward to in 2020?

I’m going on a ten day cruise this spring to celebrate my daughter’s graduation. She just got accepted into Michigan State University (MSU)!

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

My dad. The support he gives me and how he teaches. He’s the kind of person who is always teaching, telling you why he is doing something a certain way.. When he was 19 he had started working for Ford and worked for them his whole life. With no real formal education after high school, he felt it was important to get an advanced education. So when I was growing up, he was always pushing me to go to college. It wasn’t an option. In fact, he was the one who got me to consider going into the animal field.

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

Teacher Andrea Walker: An Open Book

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 KPS teacher Andrea Walker, known as Miss Walker by her fifth grade students at Woodward School for Science and Technology.

As a single parent, Miss Walker worked hard and raised her two children. Both are graduates of Kalamazoo Public Schools, having attended the very school their mother has been teaching at for the past 12 years. Now grown and in college, one attends Kalamazoo Valley Community College and the other, Western Michigan University.

When you walk into Miss Walker’s homey and welcoming classroom, you can’t help but notice how she decorates her room with Nemo. She knows that the kids who swim through her class each year aren’t that different from Nemo, the adorable clownfish, and his friends who have challenges to navigate in life. As one of the many fantastic teachers at Woodward and throughout the Kalamazoo Public Schools, Miss Walker is showing up each day for kids and helping them learn and grow.

She compares herself to an open book. Her life, as you will soon learn, is filled with interesting chapters, with pages yet to be written.

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

Pop Quiz

What is a question you’ve been asked recently?

[Laughing.] You don’t want to know that answer, especially the day after a full moon. [Note: We interviewed Miss Walker during her lunch break, the day after a full moon.]

Tell us, then, a question you recently asked.

Just yesterday, I asked my students, Where’s the empathy?

I want them to understand feelings and when someone is being mean to someone else, what is the appropriate response? It’s not to laugh, as that can hurt feelings. I want them to connect to each other and express understanding and empathy for what someone else may be going through.

What are you currently reading?

I just finished the book, Mermaid. I didn’t really like it and was surprised because I love Jodi Picoults’ other works. This just wasn’t an amazing read like her other ones.

What is your favorite word right now?

Seriously.

Seriously what?

That’s my word. Seriously. That’s what I often say to the kids, Seriously?

What are you curious about?

The overall depression and anxiety in our kids these days. It worries me.

Have you seen an increase in this over your 12 years as a teacher?

Yes, it’s been growing. There’s a lot of trauma kids are dealing with, as well as a lot of anxiety these days.

Does having CIS in your school help you as a teacher?

Oh, God, yes! CIS helps me tons as a teacher. And not only with the basics [school supplies but CIS provides that emotional and social backing that our kids need. During the day, CIS helps with such a range of things, from personal hygiene issues we might have with a student to tutoring support, and whatever else they may need. Oh, they just do so much. And having CIS after school as well extends the learning day and keeps students safe. I have a hard time remembering what it was like before, when we didn’t have CIS.

You’re also the leader teacher in CIS after school. What does that entail?

Yes, I’m the core teacher for the third, fourth, and fifth graders during CIS after school. That means I meet with the students for one hour on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I’ll reiterate the facts in math or ELA [English Language Arts] that they have been learning during the school day. We’ll go over strategies and skills and do pre-test preparation. We’ll also do some book studying. I also like to have them play learning games; they don’t realize they’re learning because it’s in the form of fun games.

When you were a kid, where did you grow up?

In Indiana, Portage. I’m originally from Hobart, Indiana and went to Hobart High School and then we moved to Portage, Indiana.

What brought you to Michigan?

I got a job working at Spencer’s Gifts. This was the one in St. Joseph, Michigan. And it was around that time I then started back to school. I was working nights at Lakeland Medical Center in the OB unit as a clerk.

Is that what brought you to Kalamazoo?

The Promise brought me to Kalamazoo. As a single mom, I knew it would be hard, if not impossible to pay for my children’s college education. So when I graduated with my associate degree from Lake Michigan College, my kids saw me walk across the stage. And then I packed them up, and we moved to Kalamazoo so they could get the Promise. I started working at the Kalamazoo Valley Museum as an interpretation specialist, assisting with tours and such. And then I started back to school to get my teaching certification at Western. I interned at Washington Writers’ Academy.

Poetry isn’t part of the American childhood education that it once was. Yet, poetry is important to you. You make a concerted effort to incorporate it into your classroom each year. Why?

I’ve always liked poetry. And you’re right, curriculums touches on it very little.

I love the awakening that occurs in my students when we do poetry. I love seeing the lights go on for them when, in doing and seeing things differently, pieces fall in place and start fitting together for them. I like bringing the work of Dr. Seuss into the classroom. I’ll tell them the story of his whole life and how things progressed for him. It’s an exciting way to engage them in learning. They’re interested in that and take it all in.

I really do love that awakening in the kids…the joy that goes with listening to and creating their own works of poetry,  that this is something they can create for themselves…you see it on their faces as they light up.

What is something interesting you’ve recently learned?

Math! I’ve only taught ELA for the past ten years. Because we don’t have our students switching classes this year, I teach it all to them. So I’ve been relearning math with the new curriculum.

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

I’m the only one in my immediate family who has gone to college. The person who pushed me to go to college was a nurse, Barbara Davis. She’s still a nurse and a friend of mine to this day. You’d be better as a teacher than a nurse, she told me. I’m a late bloomer.

At the hospital, we had this chalkboard up at work for noting announcements. I drew all the Sesame Street characters on it. Barbara said to me,  I think your calling is to be a teacher.

Huh, I thought. I had never even considered that possibility until she mentioned it.

She was right! From just the little I’ve been able to see you in action with your students, you are clearly born to teach. Yet, you didn’t see that in yourself until someone else pointed that out. Thank goodness she did!

You know, until talking about all this now, I didn’t realize how many different types of jobs I’ve held along the way to get there!

In the CIS Annual Report [recently out and can be accessed here] you are one of the people who shared what you are made of. You said you’re a book.

That’s right. Don’t judge a book by its cover.

What books have helped shaped who you are?

Are you ready?

Uh, hope so.

All the Nancy Drew books, The Box Car Children, Are You There God? It’s me Margaret by Judy Bloom. Oh, I could go on.

The books I enjoy now with my students, oh, there are so many of them. But one of my favorites is Flush by Carl Hiaasen. It’s one of my favorites for school here because it is relatable and teaches about bullying. I also read aloud to them Wonder by R.J. Palacio. We had a “Wonder party” for our fifth graders. We closed down the hall, had a party, and cake. The kids loved it.

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

Third Grader Ysabel: I’m a better student because everybody helps me

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 Ysabel, a third grader at El Sol Elementary School.

CIS After School Coordinator Viridiana Carvajal had the pleasure of first working with Ysabel when she became involved in CIS after school as a first grader. “She’s got such a positive attitude and is willing to try new things,” says Viridiana (known as “Ms. Viri”). It’s students like Ysabel who inspire me go beyond and work even harder.”

We met up with Ysabel at Arcadia Elementary School during the 2019 CIS Think Summer! program. Ysabel says she enjoys school and learning. She loves being part of CIS After School, making new friends, and is looking forward to the new school year. [Ysabel is featured in the fall 2019 CIS Connections, found here.]

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

Pop Quiz

During the school year, you attend El Sol Elementary. What has your CIS experience been like as a student there?  

I like it. All the teachers, [CIS] coaches, and everyone in after school. Ms. Viri is special…She is kind and helps me with my homework in after school. I’m a better student because everybody helps me.

Speaking of Ms. Viri, she says you are enthusiastic and actively involved in CIS after school and many of the special activities. What else should we know about you?

I like to bake a lot. I like to make breakfast for my family. I like to bring them eggs and milk and coffee and waffles.

Favorite word? Fun!

What are you currently reading?

My Life in Pictures [written and illustrated by Deborah Zemke]. It’s about this little girl who is drawing pictures of her life.

Just like the title of the book!

Yes!

Favorite things about being a student in KPS?

I get to learn a lot of stuff. I like gym and math.

Would you rather be a dinosaur or a whale for one day?

A whale.

Why a whale?

Because they are really big.

Behind every successful student is a caring adult. Who is one of your caring adults?

My family. My mom and dad, aunts and uncles, and grandmas and grandpas….Also, my cousins, baby brother, big sister and little sister. And Ms. Viri.

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

Be sure to read the CIS Connections and find out more about Ysabel, including what one thing she would change about the world, if she could.

Fifth Grader Growing & Learning Every Day

Marcell with CIS Coach Ms. Rana Holmes

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 Marcell Jones. He is a fifth grader at Arcadia Elementary School.

In July, we met up with Marcell at Arcadia Elementary School while he was participating in the 2019 CIS Think Summer! program. [Marcell is featured in the fall 2019 CIS Connections, found here.]

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

Pop Quiz

Favorite word?

June. Because that means it’s summer and my birthday is in June and I get to do lots of stuff. This year, for my birthday I went roller skating and got to see my grandma, and she bought me a new bike. It is kind of too tall for me right now, but will be perfect when I’m a little bigger.

What are you currently reading? 

One of the Beast Quest books [series written by a collection of writers using pen name, Adam Blade]. It’s two animals and two kids and they are on a quest.

I like reading adventure books about castle and nights. Superheroes, too. DC comics. Batman and Superman are my favorites.

What is one of your favorite things about being a student in KPS?

I get to pick my favorite books to read, but sometimes we have to get a book that doesn’t have pictures in it.

I am doing well in math. I also have some really good teachers during the school year. One of my goals is to be a better reader. I know how to read, of course, but I want to get better at reading concepts, like how to summarize a story. I learned a lot when I was in fourth grade. I’ve had really good teachers, like Ms. [Kelly] Dopheide and Ms. [Donna] Judd. Oh, and my science and handwriting has improved, too.

Would you rather be a dinosaur or a whale for one day?

A whale. Whales eat yummy stuff, but if I was a dinosaur, I’d be eating people, so I’d rather be a whale. I think they eat fish. And I like fish, especially shrimp from Popeyes because it’s crunchy.

Behind every successful student is a caring adult. Who is one of your caring adults?

My mom. She’ll remind me about doing be homework and she helps me with writing prompts. She’s intelligent and got good grades in schools, so she knows how to help me. Also, my mom’s friend, Darell. He’s a preacher and he tells me stuff that helps me grow, too.

Hey, these questions you’ve been asking me, this is kind of like an “About the Author” but it’s about me… Do you want to know who my favorite author is?

Yes.

Andrew Clements is my favorite author. Also, Beverly Clearly and Mary Hope Osborn. Oh, and Jonathan Rand. I love his books!

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

Be sure to read the latest issue of CIS Connections and find out more about Marcell, including what one thing he would change about the world, if he could.

 

 

James Devers: The Conversation Continues

James Devers

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 Communities In Schools of Kalamazoo’s New Executive Director James Devers. When the CIS board selected James Devers to lead Communities In Schools of Kalamazoo, we introduced him briefly to you back in June with this post. And if you read our most recent back to school issue of CIS Connections, you know even more about James, such as what book changed his life. Here’s some of our conversation that, due to space issues, didn’t make it into the newsletter.

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

Pop Quiz

What is a question you often ask yourself? Or perhaps it’s a question you’ve only been recently asking yourself?

I’ve been gone from Kalamazoo for 23 years. Since coming back in September of 2017, in processing the reality of my journey, I’ve been thinking about this play on the question, Why me? I’ve been thinking about how skill, talent, ability, and circumstances don’t always line up. The reality is that, where I’m at now and the place that I’m going as executive director is a result of something bigger than me. I believe I’ve been preparing for this journey all along even though I didn’t know it was coming.

…I come from a family of laborers. I was not introduced to the corporate world or much of any of the experiences I have encountered. All of it is a discovery. I’m grateful and humbled by the journey and where I now find myself.

What is something interesting you’ve recently learned?

I was at the Douglass Community Association recently and noticed the “1919” imprint on the corner of the building. It’s a good reminder that the black community has had a presence in Kalamazoo, and it goes far back. For instance, in 1968 Judge Pratt, a native of Kalamazoo became the first African American judge in Kalamazoo County. And, of course, Douglass Community Association is celebrating its 100th birthday!

What are you currently reading?

The Bible. That’s my go-to book….I like that the stories illustrate the human experience and show the flaws of people as well as their triumphs. Despite their flaws—despite our flaws—we can do great work.

Do you have a pet peeve?

The thing that bothers me most is when people are mean to other people. That really gets me.

Can you tell us about a person who opened a door for you and impacted you as a leader?

I was planning to obtain my Masters in social work. While working at Ohio State, I had just finished my first year working towards that degree and contemplating taking a year off to complete the second year (clinical work). A Ms. Rivers reached out and invited me to talk with her. I thought I was just going to meet with her for a conversation, not realizing it was an interview, at the end of which she offered me the principal position within the school that she had helped to found. I really had to think about that. Here I was, working for The Ohio State University and did I want to give that up and risk doing something I’d never done before, working as a principal in a small school? I’m so glad I accepted her offer to be principal. Even though I was working in the field of education, Ms. Rivers brought me into the public school sector in a deeper way, and it changed the trajectory of my life.

I appreciated working under somebody who had her passion. She was a former school counselor—had served in that role for 30 some years before “retiring.” She had so much energy and passion at that stage of her life. She could have chosen to ride off into the sunset, but she didn’t. And though she was in her mid to late 60s, I had a hard time keeping up with her!

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

My mother has always been that caring adult for me, but I must say that I did not come to appreciate the significance of her influence until a lot later in life.

While there have been a number of caring adults along my path, those relationships were not so much a sustained and consistent over time. Rather, it was moments of influence from different caring adults that helped shape my thinking and my actions. During my childhood we did lots of moving around. I went to a number of different KPS schools: Woodward, Woodrow Wilson Elementary School [the school is gone now, replaced with the Wilson Recreation Area, an open field and playground on Coy Avenue], Spring Valley Center for Exploration, and Washington Writers’ Academy. After that it was Milwood and Hillside Middle Schools. Even when I attended Kalamazoo Central High School and KAMSC [Kalamazoo Area Mathematics & Science Center], we still moved around.

What is your favorite word right now?

It’s not so much a word as an expression, I consider myself a made-man versus a self-made man. There is a verse in the Bible that says, “By the grace of God I am what I am.” …I, like anybody else, had no control over my family that I was born into. I’ve had my share of crazy experiences as well as opportunities that have been presented along the way. So that expression is an acknowledgement that there lot of things are bigger than me, and that I don’t necessarily deserve the credit for who I am or what I have accomplished to this point in life.

For instance, my mother didn’t have experience in a lot of the areas I was going to walk into when it came to high school and college. She had dropped out of high school at age 16 [she later went back to school and earned her GED]. But she gave me responsibilities that, in looking back on it, shaped me. In her own way, she guided me. I was the oldest of five and would often be in charge of caring for them. Also, we were always moving around and going to different schools and thus found ourselves being around different people. Those childhood experiences made me and helped me become who I am today.

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

Be on the lookout for the CIS newsletter to learn more about CIS Executive Director James Devers. Also, James was recently interviewed by Encore Editor Marie Lee for the September issue of the magazine. Pick up a copy at one of these locations or read it on-line here.

Conversation with Julie Davis

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 Julie Davis. As we’re on the heels of Administrative Professionals Day and on the cusp of our 12th Annual Champs event, we thought it would be fun to meet up with this former KPS secretary and Champ (once a Champ, always a Champ as we say at CIS) of ten years ago and see what she’s up to these days.

“The sound of men playing horseshoes was part of the soundtrack of my childhood,” Julie Davis says, recalling her “idyllic years” spent growing up in the farming community of East Lynn, Illinois. She smiles as she recounts formative years spent driving tractors and “helping” with baling hay. “And I was watching—without knowing I was watching—equipment break down and seeing someone use some random thing that had been laying on the ground to make it work.”

Without realizing it at the time, Julie was learning to make do with whatever tools you have—or don’t have—in any given situation. Her knack for making things work—no matter what life throws at her—has served her well, both in her personal and professional life. As a single parent, she raised two beautiful daughters, Jodie and Abby, and happily watched as they got degrees from University of Michigan and Syracuse University, respectively. Throughout her 33-year career as a school secretary for Kalamazoo Public Schools Julie made things work on a daily basis; eight years at Loy Norrix High School and then 25 years at Arcadia Elementary School.

Julie retired in June of 2017. Three months later she was diagnosed with two different kinds of cancer, one in each breast. She underwent two different kinds of treatment and is doing fabulous now (as you’ll see, she did fabulous even then). She enjoys traveling often to Washington, D.C. to play with her two grandchildren, Sam, seven, and Norah, four.

We almost didn’t meet up with Julie at Anna’s House. In fact, we walked right by her. While her trademark shoulder-length blond hair has been replaced by short, white hair, her smile, joyous spirit, and laughter haven’t changed a bit.

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

Pop Quiz

It’s so different to see you sitting and just relaxing. In your role as secretary at Arcadia Elementary School you were always non-stop.

I loved every second of every day! I have so many fond and funny memories of working at Arcadia. And so many stories!

Will you tell us a story?

Sure. I’ve got thousands of them!

There was this first grader who zipped his neck into his coat. Thankfully, it was a plastic zipper. I told him, “I’m going to get this unstuck for you but it’s going to hurt. But I’ll do it really fast.” He gave me the okay and I grabbed a bit of his neck and the coat and we did it. And off he went. We were best friends after that. I still remember his name. Eric.

And here’s another story. A third grader wanted me to pull her tooth out. This was in the 90s. ‘It’s not ready, honey,’ I told her, but she wanted that thing out. She was adamant and wouldn’t go back to class until I pulled it. I know anticipation can drive kids crazy. So I put on a rubber glove, pinched as hard as I could and out came the tooth. It made that cracking sound when it came out, the kind of sound that says it wasn’t quite ready to come out! The next day, I received a percentage of what the tooth fairy brought her—a dime and three pennies.

And then there was a time….

Here’s a 2002 award Julie received from appreciative parents for “going beyond the call of doody.” Let’s just say it involved helping with a search effort per doctor’s orders. Julie found the quarter.

Okay, bear with me. It’s going to take a minute, but there is a question at the end of this.

Okay.

You received a Champ award back in 2009. Gulnar [Husain, who served as CIS Site Coordinator at Arcadia at that time] rightly described you as kind and compassionate. She wrote: “Her patience has no limits…when all the phone lines are ringing simultaneously, a deadline for a report has to be met, a sick child has to be taken care of, a dose of medicine, ice pack, or band aid has to be given to a student, visitors have to be greeted, or a teacher’s question has to be answered, Julie is there to take care of everyone’s needs. It would be understandable if she lost her cool, but she doesn’t! She remains calm and composed and has the uncanny ability to keep everything under control.” So, what’s your secret?

I think it’s not really even a secret. I’m just thankful I was in a job that I was designed to do. If only everybody could be in that position! That is a wish of mine. That everyone could get up, brush their teeth, go out and behave as themselves, and accomplish something for others at the same time. I was designed for my job. I loved my job. I was just out there being myself and it seemed to work for everybody. [She laughs.]

CIS partners would often comment how you always made them feel at home. I won’t ask you what your secret is, but how do you do that, make people feel at home?

I think, by nature, I’m relaxed most of the time. However, at a fairly young age, about 14, I learned that if you act at ease, it puts others at ease. Having learned to be relaxed in any situation has served me well throughout my life, including my time at Arcadia, especially with regard to the daily interactions I enjoyed with families whose language I could not speak.

As you know, Arcadia is a wonderfully diverse school. I’m so thankful I got to be with people of diverse cultures because getting to know these families changed my life. It changed me for the better. When you are relaxed, it opens you up. Because I was relaxed I could embrace and feel those differences. I loved how those differences moved within me—and moved me.

I grew up in a farming community where the only diversity was the age of the farmer. To have the chance to meet people from other countries and cultures was so enlightening. How I grew! That is something I miss, not having an opportunity to be in regular contact with these enriching relationships.

From your perspective as a former secretary, what was it like to have CIS in your building?

I can’t separate what CIS does from the people. People like Gulnar, of course, who was CIS. I think of Gulnar, and even before and after Gulnar—of the character you need to have to be really committed to the CIS mission. The CIS people worked with students who had needs. Their time and energy spilled over to everybody, not just those on a “list.”

Everyone I know whose been involved with CIS has fit. They’ve shown a commitment and dedication to children and their families, and that stood out to me. I’ve seen that commitment in those who didn’t have to be there, such as the college students volunteering through CIS. When I was their age, I couldn’t imagine being committed to something other than trying to get through my classes. These young people could have been home and enjoyed spring break, but instead they wanted to stay and work with kids. I loved seeing that kind of dedication in the CIS staff and all the volunteers and partners. They were in school with us wanting to do this because of their love for children and watching them succeed.

What have you found to be the most surprising about retirement?

I’m really good at being lazy. I was so busy every day at Arcadia; who knew that lazy would work for me so well! So lazy is what I’m doing at the moment.

Do you have a pet peeve?

Oh, yea! Tailgaters. And let me tell you, pet peeve isn’t the word for it. Because I wouldn’t say to a pet what I would say to a tailgater.

What are you curious about?

[Starts laughing.] I’m curious about thousands of things, but a funny one, just sprang to mind. I was working at Loy Norrix. This was before cell phones. I had to be there at seven. And there was a girl at the payphone every morning. Back then, Loy Norrix had a phonebooth inside the building, in the hall just down from the office area where I worked. I was always curious about who she was calling.

Maybe your curiosity can finally be satisfied. Maybe there is someone reading this right now who knows something!

Wouldn’t that be something? Let’s see, it would have been between 1984 and 1992 that this happened, practically every day during the school year.

What is something interesting you’ve recently learned?

[Laughing.] I’ve learned that after a certain age you can come across something that is really interesting, something that you didn’t know, and a few day later, somebody asks you, “What is something interesting you’ve recently learned?” and you can’t recall what it is. I’ve learned lots of interesting things since I’ve retired, but can’t recall one of them now!

Can we talk some about your experience with cancer?

Sure. I’m open about it. You know, when I received the diagnosis, the first thing out of mouth was, “Lord, I’m pretty sure you’re going to get some glory out of this somehow.” I tell you, when you have peace and joy, life is good. It doesn’t matter what comes your way. With faith, you can say, “Well, this is unexpected” and you move forward.

I was going to ask, “How and in what ways did the cancer diagnosis change your perspective?” But it sounds like this experience hasn’t changed your outlook on life in any way.

My outlook has remained the same. It didn’t rock my faith foundation. I thought, “Okay, so I have cancer. That’s what’s happening now.” I knew God was going to walk me through it. The biggest challenge came with handling the side effects of some chemicals and that gave me insight into other people’s experiences and I’m thankful for that empathy.

What are you currently reading?

I’m reading my Bible in the book of Acts. I’ve read it a billion times, but now, suddenly going through it this time, it’s like oh, my gosh! I’m relating to what the first Christians experienced… We come at it knowing how it ended. When you know the ending, you don’t get all anxious. But they didn’t know the ending.

Although I’m reading the Bible exclusively right now, I really enjoy reading a variety of genres. I think my all-time favorite is Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee.

What is your favorite word right now?

Since you want just one word, it would be content. If you wanted to know why I’m content, that would take lots and lots of words.

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

My parents, George and Helen.

Here’s one story about them. Everybody that crossed their path was drawn to them. They married in 1933 and lived in a little house in the country…Dad had a job with A&P in their warehouse, He went to work one day and the owner pulled him and the one other employee, Joe, aside and said, “I have to cut you both back to half time.”

Dad came home that evening and told my mom, who was pregnant at the time, that he lost his job. He had given his half to Joe so he could have full-time work. How he explained it to her: “Joe has two kids. We have a cow, chickens, and a garden so I feel we’ll be okay.”

That’s who they were. That story is as much about my mother. They just both shook it off, said okay, and went on.

Sounds a lot like you!

[Julie laughs.]

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

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