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.]





How Do You Spell Excellent? K-A-L-A-M-A-Z-O-O

Today’s guest blogger is Pam Kingery, Executive Director of Communities In Schools of Kalamazoo. Read what she has to say. I think you’ll find it most excellent!

Who doesn’t like being selected for an award?  It feels great to have nominated Kalamazoo for a “Communities of Excellence” award, to learn Kalamazoo was chosen and that other winners are Charleston, South Carolina, Wayne County, Indiana, and Charlotte, North Carolina.  Pretty good company I would say.

Since being notified, I have been doing a lot of thinking about what it means to be a Community of Excellence.  Is it supposed to mean we are perfect—that we have no poverty, no homelessness, no kids who use illegal drugs, no gun violence, no prejudice?  Does it mean that we talk only about the great things—The Kalamazoo Promise®, two great hospitals, being a vibrant college town, getting a new medical school, having a great Symphony Orchestra, strong proponents of social justice, an exceptional non-profit sector, a diverse economy and a vibrant arts community?  I decided not. Part of our strength is a willingness to be honest about our challenges, and a determination to tackle them head on even when we may be tired.

Last week, I attended the swearing in of the new City Commission, Mayor, Vice Mayor and City Manager and the honoring of long-standing public servants, Hannah McKinney and Ken Collard. And there I got a glimpse of something key to being a Community of Excellence.  Earlier in the day I had listened to a story about a community in southern Illinois and felt as though I were sharing in their overwhelming sense of discouragement—they seemed to be succumbing to a sense of inevitable and profound decline, as though nothing could prevent the downturn. Either you left the town, or you bought 32 guns and taught every family member to use them and hunkered down in fear.

Listening to Jack Urban, Bob Cinabro, Stephanie Moore, Barb Miller, Don Cooney, David Anderson and Bobby Hopewell affirmed why Kalamazoo deserves to be selected for a Community of Excellence award. Knowing that Ken Collard’s legacy to the City is a commitment to telling the truth and doing what is right, regardless of what is popular or politically expedient, is excellence. Acknowledging in the most civil manner possible that they have disagreed with one another, that they will disagree with one another again in the future and that they will do so openly but with the utmost care and respect is excellence. Expressing profound admiration for the outgoing City Manager and strong support for the incoming one is excellence. Providing a preview of hard issues and decisions to come, and taking the long view rather than the short one is excellence.  Taking responsibility and assuring us that we shall positively overcome is excellence. I walked out of the swearing in ceremony feeling very proud of Kalamazoo and wondering if these public servants might teach a class in Lansing and Washington DC.

Kalamazoo will be celebrated as a Community of Excellence by the Communities In Schools National network at an awards ceremony in Charlotte, North Carolina in late January. And I have more than two months to think about all the additional reasons that Kalamazoo is totally deserving of the honor—hundreds of ordinary people who volunteer hours and hours each year to tutor kids in our schools or deliver meals to our elders, a public library committed to ensuring that the love of reading extends to all, a Community College determined that students embrace their strengths to find the right future, a community of outstanding teachers dedicated to helping even the most reluctant students to learn, even when we consistently fail to say thank you.

When the Community of Excellence Award is given, I will stand a little taller, understanding that the list of accolades that are recited, aren’t nearly long enough to do justice to the great place where I live. What can you add to the list?