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 Leslie Lami-Reed. A retired Kalamazoo Public Schools teacher, Leslie is the warm heart behind the Warm Kids Project, a non-profit dedicated to providing new winter outerwear to children in need within our community. We wanted to bring you more about Leslie and a behind the scenes glimpse of how this organization has been beating strong for 34 years. [More information about Warm Kids can be found on their website, here.]
Leslie was born and raised in a once thriving steel town near Pittsburgh, PA. She holds a Bachelor of Arts/Art Education degree from Indiana University of Pennsylvania. She also received a Masters in Education from Marygrove College. We popped this quiz on Leslie a few months back, just as she and Warm Kids were gearing up to provide over a 1,000 new coats and 1,000 new boots to kids throughout Kalamazoo County.
Alright, Leslie: pencil out, eyes on your own paper. Good luck.
What brought you to Kalamazoo?
What brought me to Michigan 47 years ago, was my interest in alternative schools and cooperative education, which was a concept evolving in the 60’s and 70’s. I got my first job out of college at a co-operative summer camp, named Circle Pines Center in Delton, Michigan where I was the Arts Director. That led to my first KPS job as a teacher in the preschool and high school at CEYW (Continuing Education for Young Women) at Old Central High School on Westnedge. This was an alternative high school for pregnant teenagers, which supported pregnant teens who wanted to finish high school instead of dropping out. There they would learn parenting skills, nutrition, receive pre-natal care and continue their schooling while preparing to become a parent. I moved on to become an art teacher at Northeastern Junior High, then taught in many KPS elementary schools, usually traveling between two schools each week. Oh, the changes I’ve seen! Kalamazoo Public Schools is always innovating. I taught at Washington when it became a magnet Writers’ Academy, experienced “open classrooms,” and team teaching. I saw computers work their way into every classroom, and then, the Kalamazoo Promise!
It was during your years as a teacher that inspired you to start Warm Kids Project. Can you tell us more about that?
Every public school in every town has children who come to school without warm clothing in winter. They wear layers of sweaters and go out in the snow at recess wearing sneakers. I was teaching at Greenwood Elementary in 1984, when a friend and I decided to “adopt” a Greenwood family and purchase winter clothing for the children at Christmas time. The next year, we asked ten friends to give $100 to purchase clothing and the Project was born. I credit Nancy Mackenzie for having the initiative to start the Project and do the work of incorporating Warm Kids Project into a 501.c3 in 1986. I have been the person continuing Warm Kids Project with a small team for 34 years. I could not do this work for so long without the strong support of my working Board and my husband Bill. We are all dedicated volunteers.
What are you learning about yourself and/or the world during these challenging times?
Many people support Warm Kids Project because they know they are helping LOCAL children in need. I keep a close eye on the poverty rates for each of the 50 schools we serve in the eight school districts of Kalamazoo County and the amount of clothing each school receives is based on that number. In our county, 49% of school-age children qualify for free or reduced lunch! If we can help out a family that is having a rough time by providing a warm coat and boots for their kids, it is a blessing for everyone. I think of it as a big warm hug! I’m proud of the fact that schools can rely on Warm Kids Project to be there year after year, offering warm clothing. I can’t imagine a time when the Project would not be needed. Can you?
No! And we are so grateful for your commitment to kids. And to all those who support your mission to ensure that every child is warmly dressed and prepared to meet the bus or walk to school. [Even though many students in our area are learning virtually from home due to the pandemic, schools in our area, having quality outerwear has never been more important. If kids are dressed warmly, this winter they can take a break from their screens and spend some time outdoors, getting some sunshine and exercise.] Warm Kids is one of the critical “tools” CIS site coordinators pull out of their tool box of resources to help students meet their basic needs. [Two students, Charlotte (top) and Omar (bottom), happily trying on their new coats and boots from Warm Kids Project.]
What is your perspective of CIS working with Warm Kids over the years in the KPS elementary and middle schools?
There are only eight people (our Board) involved in the total operation of Warm Kids Project. The only way Warm Kids Project can provide 1200 coats and 1200 boots to county schools is because of the volunteers, such as CIS workers, at each site. Each site determines who will receive clothing, measures kids, contacts parents, gets the order forms in on time, distributes the clothing, exchanges the clothing. Your participation is the vital link we need to accomplish this important work. We are so glad that you, CIS, have taken that responsibility to heart. Our donors don’t get to see the look of happiness on a child’s face when they get their new coat, hat and boots, but you do. Thank you for being the important link between Warm Kids and the children you serve.
You’ve been engaged in this project for over 30 years now. When it comes to keeping kids warmly dressed, what have you noticed to be the biggest challenge? Or perhaps the most surprising?
I’ve been retired from teaching for ten years and it seems as though running Warm Kids Project is a part-time job. It is a lot of work during the fall. My challenge is pondering how the Project will continue if I can no longer do the work. Surprisingly, good people have always shown up when the need was expressed and currently, things are going smoothly. So, you can expect Warm Kids Project will be back in 2021. Right now, in November 2020, I am already deep into purchasing warm clothing for next year … Black Friday prices, you know!
Behind every successful person is a caring adult. Who has been your caring adult?
I’m so fortunate to have the support of family and friends. My husband, Bill, is on the Board and has helped so much in so many ways. My mother, who is 92 years old is very proud of my involvement in Warm Kids Project. She talks about it to all her pals at Friendship Village (in Pittsburgh). We have eight women who like to knit hats for us, one who sends boxes from Colorado! These personal relationships mean a lot to me and I am grateful for everyone who helps us get those coats and boots out to children. Thank you, CIS, for all the work you do to make it happen in Kalamazoo Schools. I hope it is rewarding for each of you, too!
Thank you, Leslie, for hanging out with us at Ask Me About My 12,000 Kids.