We may not have the annual holiday parade or the Holly Jolly Trolley this year, but Kalamazoo has a parade of ugly sweaters! If you follow this blog or have walked around downtown enjoying the Christmas lights, you probably already know about the 2020 Ugly Sweater Contest and Exhibit.
“Given these challenging times, we had to reimagine this event,” says Communities In Schools of Kalamazoo (CIS) Executive Director James Devers, in referencing the ugly sweater party that CIS has hosted for the past five years. The event brings awareness to the CIS “whole child” approach of supporting students, which includes providing essentials that—when missing—can get in the way of learning. “We had to figure out a new way to raise both awareness and funds for the work we do throughout 20 Kalamazoo Public Schools.”
Reimagine, indeed. Toss in loads of creativity, a handful of mannequins, and a host of elves, er, sponsors, and you have one friendly, yet ugly competition and exhibit to help support the 12,000 students CIS works with throughout the year.
Kalsec is the presenting sponsor helping to transform this Ugly Sweater event into a new and beautiful thing. Kalsec CEO Scott Nykaza says, “There is, quite simply, no better way to support the success of students in Kalamazoo than through supporting efforts performed by everyone at CIS.”
Thanks to in-kind sponsors PlazaCorp (providing the storefront window) and Memories Bridal & Evening Wear (providing the mannequins), the community can visit these unique sweaters in person now through December 18th. The window display is located downtown at the Exchange Building, on the southeast corner of W. Michigan and S. Rose, across from Bronson Park. These ugly creations are also being featured on the CIS Facebook page during “12 Days of Sweaters.”
The sweaters are also on virtual display, here on the CIS website through the end of December. You can visit the sweaters virtually or in person and then cast your vote for the ugliest sweater. Each dollar donated in support of a sweater is considered a vote. The first $2,500 raised will be kindly matched by Kalsec. Voting concludes on the last day in December and, at that time, the sweater with the most in donations/votes will be crowned the winner.
“The sweaters may be ‘ugly,’ but the cause is beautiful,” says Devers. “Every vote, which translates into every dollar given, supports students in our community, empowering them to stay in school and succeed in life. It doesn’t get more beautiful than that.”
[You can catch this recently aired video of Devers speaking about the event with Fox 17 here.)
For the past five years, the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) at Western Michigan University has been working through CIS to funnel six to eight volunteers from their society to support Kalamazoo Central High School students. Two times a week, these engineering students consistently share their time, talents, as well as their stories with our students. Together, they build upon each other’s work, constructing something bigger than themselves.
Principal Valerie Boggan loves seeing the positive impact they have with students. We share her appreciation for this partnership. These engineering students create enthusiasm around learning and shine a light for our kids. The National Society’s mission is: to increase culturally responsible black engineers who excel academically, succeed professionally and positively impact the community. To see this mission in action is powerful and shines a light for our students.
Working with young people is like building a very important building, something bigger than the Empire State Building and more impressive than the Eiffel Tower. Through their very presence and listening, these engineering students are inspiring our kids to be the best students and people they can be. A young person realizing their full potential is a more impressive sight than even the great pyramids of Egypt.
At the 12th Annual Champs Celebration, presented by Kalsec, Gary Heckman was honored with a 2019 Champ Award which was sponsored by Humphrey. CIS Board Member Rex Bell presented the award and Milwood Magnet Middle School’s CIS Site Coordinator Missy Best and CIS After School Coordinator Shannon Jones were on hand to congratulate Gary.
Upon retiring three years ago as the plumber, electrician, and steam operator for Manchester University, this grandfather of four plunged himself into a new campus of learning as a CIS volunteer at Milwood Magnet Middle School.
Gary Heckman has rolled up his sleeves and gotten to work: helping students build positive relationships with adults, building their confidence, and developing their curiosity as to how things work. CIS Senior Site Coordinator Missy Best says Gary has quickly “become an irreplaceable part of the team, sharing his time, talents, and tools to help both students and staff.”
“I just do a little bit here and there,” Gary modestly says.
One of the biggest ‘little bits’ Gary does is serve as a push-in tutor for Ms. Alexandria Hopp’s strategic math class and Ms. Jamie Ottusch’s seventh grade science class. A champion of hands-on activities, Gary’s been known to dig into the tool box he’s carted into the school, extracting baking soda, vinegar and cups, magnets and paperclips, and popsicle sticks to reinforce the classroom learning.
Missy says his enthusiasm, positive attitude, and sense of humor has endeared him to students who look forward to his visits each week. One of those students, Areona, says “Mr. Gary has a way of helping me understand math. He’s patient and kind.”
So what are some of the ‘smaller bits’ he does at Milwood Magnet?
When CIS partner Family Health Center pulled up to the school in their dental van, Gary was there, assisting the site coordinator by escorting students to and from their scheduled dental appointments. Another day, CIS After School Coordinator Shannon Jones tapped Gary to help with an upcoming STEM project that involved soldering a drone.
Another ‘bit’ involved helping to hang a bat house in the school’s courtyard. He used a clamp system he devised to safeguard the building. And while he was at it, he built a post for the school’s bird house.
Here’s one final ‘bit.’ He’s in the hallway, noticing a student struggling in a “worn out, beaten up wheelchair that was too large for her.” Later, he connects with Lucinda Stinson, Executive Director of Lending Hands. Thanks to their joint efforts, the student now has a brand new wheelchair, complete with foot rests that Gary adapted to comfortably fit the student.
Construction is a team effort. Along with CIS staff, Principal Mark Tobolski and teachers like Ms. Hopp and Ms. Ottusch, Gary is sharing his expertise and empowering students to build their academic success.
Gary Heckman, thank you for helping kids stay in school and succeed in life.
Pfizer is committed to applying science to improve health and well-being at every stage of life. A global company with a local heart, Pfizer also works with CIS to ignite hope and help our young people become the prosperous citizens of tomorrow. As a CIS partner, they play an important role in supporting students on their path to using The Kalamazoo Promise®. From encouraging their employees to volunteer to providing career exploration opportunities, Pfizer is making it their business to ensure our children fulfill their promise.
When businesses go all in for kids, everyone profits. A few years ago, in 2015, two Pfizer colleagues reached out to see if CIS would be interested in working together on their Community Art project. Along with other community groups tapped by Pfizer, sixty-five students participating in the six-week CIS Think Summer! program, created artwork for Pfizer’s Global Supply facility on Portage Road. Organizers Julie Righter and Laura Martin said that collaborating with CIS on projects like this “is mutually beneficial to both Pfizer and the students.” The artwork, they say, “inspires our colleagues every day as we manufacture safe medicines for the community.”
The students’ art graces the walls of a company they could very well work for one day. That’s because Pfizer is helping students envision a future beyond high school by offering career exploration opportunities. Through hands-on activities developed by enthusiastic Pfizer colleagues, students explore science, technology, engineering, math, and skilled trades-related careers and learn about the education and training needed for these jobs. Through these career exploration opportunities, Pfizer plants seeds of hope, inspiring students to envision their future, perhaps even a future that includes a career with Pfizer.
While there is much to admire about our partner, one of the qualities CIS staff appreciates most is how student-focused Pfizer is: They want to know what students are interested in and what they’re working on. They are receptive to input from staff and always seek feedback so they can continue to improve what they offer to students.
Pfizer’s commitment to excellence—to listening to the views of all people involved in health care decisions and using that to focus on improving the way they do business—readily translates into the work they do in the schools. For instance, when Pfizer site leader, Bob Betzig, attended the CIS Think Summer! celebration, he listened closely to a CIS Youth Development Worker—and a Promise scholar— who wondered how she could get an internship with Pfizer. The result of Bob’s listening? The local Pfizer site revived their internship program. And in 2016, when Pfizer returned to CIS Think Summer!—they came with their college interns and even “bigger and better” career exploration activities for students.
Pfizer, we thank you for helping kids stay in school and achieve in life.
A few days earlier, we had a chance to meet up and interview Dave at Humphrey Products, a Kalamazoo, Michigan-based manufacturer. Founded more than 100 years ago, Humphrey’s innovations date back to the commercialization of gaslight products in 1901.
Today, with over 250 employees, Humphrey is recognized as a leading producer of pneumatic products, serving organizations worldwide.
Dave grew up here, moving to the area when he was in elementary school. He graduated from Portage Northern High School and then obtained a degree in economics from the University of Michigan.
Dave first started working for Humphrey in the assembly department. It was his summer job in 1984. “By the end of that summer, they needed help in sales and in the marketing department. They knew I went to U of M and asked if I knew about spreadsheet programs. These were relatively new back then. I had learned about them so I started doing life cycle data entry and analysis for Humphrey. I did this over both summer and Christmas breaks, and they offered me a job upon graduation in the marketing department.” Today, Dave is President of the company.
What is something interesting you’ve recently learned?
Not so much learned, but has been dramatically reinforced. History repeats itself. The book I’m currently reading really brought this home to me. I guess the older I get, the more I understand the ebb and flow of things.
What are you currently reading?
Right now, I’m reading Arthur Herman’s Freedom’s Forge: How American Business Produced Victory in World War II. This book really reinforces the cycles we go through in terms of both industrial and military strength, and especially emphasizes how atrophied we became as a country after World War I. It’s amazing when you realize the effort that was required to assist Great Britain prior to entry into World War II.
We generally had excellent leadership at the time, but many of the industrial leaders who had participated in the buildup for World War I were persecuted in post-war society. With tensions in Europe building leading up to World War II, most of the country felt we should remain neutral. “Don’t get involved; don’t pick a horse, don’t engage in helping either side of the battle.” Yet, with all the atrocities that came to light, we really couldn’t ignore it. Pearl Harbor ultimately sealed our involvement. Regardless, we had some phenomenally gifted leaders that took this country from being unable to produce a single aircraft engine to producing thousands a year. It’s just amazing to consider the supply chain that had to be created and sustained. This book is a good reminder that those cycles go back forever and how critical the role of a strong manufacturing base is in maintaining pre-eminence in the world. It’s very easy to get complacent…or even feel that manufacturing is some type of vestigial appendage of the U.S. economy.
What is your favorite word right now?
What is something you love about Kalamazoo?
There is a lot of variety in terms of things to do here! Almost certainly driving that is the fact that we also have a lot of people that are willing to get involved. I work in some organizations at the state level and see just how blessed we are in this community with thoughtful individuals who are willing to roll up their sleeves and get involved. There are many communities that don’t have a very deep bench for this type of work. It sets us apart.
I like to fish. I like to hunt. I like to read. I like to cook. I’m a little bit of a current events junkie.
What dish are you known for?
We love the U.P. and have a cottage there. We have an outdoor, brick smoker that my late father custom built. I love to load it up with beef brisket, pork butts, and chickens and let it go all day. We’ve also done cedar-planked white fish in it. It tastes great!
Behind every successful person is a caring adult. Who has been your caring adult?
I had wonderful parents. My dad was very active, served on a number of boards, served in the church and was a good mentor and model. So was my mom, in addition to being an outstanding cook. She was involved in the Institute of Arts, the church, and a number of other groups. They were both excellent role models. I learned good balance from them: community service, family care, self-care, and faith.
What advice do you have for our 12,000+ students—the up and coming generation of workers—to prepare themselves for obtaining a job in the manufacturing industry?
Do not give up on math and science.
They can be difficult concepts, sometimes, but they are cumulative. You have to go through one discipline to get to the next. And once you give up, it’s very difficult to get back on the escalator of math and science understanding. It breaks my heart when this happens. It often feels like this is a problem in the United States more than any other country and I sometimes wonder if that is because our kids are given the flexibility to check out of the most rigorous disciplines in these areas…I’m afraid we’ve lowered some of our expectations and provided weak alternate paths.
Particularly in some of the Asian countries I travel to it seems like there is a much higher level of expectation with regard to persistence through advanced STEM curriculum. As a student, you are expected to persist through these disciplines. At the same time, I also witness their interactions with their parents and see first-hand that the kids are often more stressed about achievement—so it’s not 100 percent healthy either. There has to be some “happy medium” out there we can aspire to. Lowering our expectations cannot be the answer. Our kids are going to have to compete against these folks and we aren’t doing them any favors if we’re lowering our expectations.
What one thing can parents do to help prepare their child for today’s labor force?
I think we have a generation of parents who didn’t necessarily persist through these disciplines either, so they feel a little at a loss as to how best to help their children do so. It’s especially hard for parents who aren’t very comfortable asking for help. They want to help and yet, they can’t provide the help themselves. Finding resources to do that is not so easy. I did persist and, still, it can be challenging to help my kids. I once had a half hour argument with my son about the proper way to do long division. A half hour…and I have a degree from U-M.
But it’s important to send that message: persist. Help your child persist.
You joined the CIS board over six months ago. As you know, there are many great organizations throughout the Kalamazoo area that support kids. Why CIS?
One of my previous favorite reads is The Coming Jobs War by Jim Clifton. [Dave pulls a dog-eared book off the shelf in his office and opens it to Chapter 10: “K-12 Schools—Where Entrepreneurs are Created.”] This is one of my favorite chapters.
One of the fundamental principles of the book is that we, as business leaders, must take an active role in the day to day nurturing of schools—be a face that these kids see—and be an active part of the community that is supporting them. CIS helps with this. As business leaders, we are in a unique position to give them hope, let them see what is available for them when they are done with their K-12 education. We can be a role model, help them make that connection from where they are today to where we are today. We can also sometimes offer some degree of job and financial security where none exists today. But if we don’t create opportunities to connect with the kids, that connection never happens.
We tend to really like life-long learners. But, it’s difficult to assess this in an interview, in that short window of time. So we try to proxy that, find ways to ask questions that indicates how they might be a life-long learner and see if that is a fundamental part of who they are. Do they have that willingness to learn and advance?
Eighteen years is the average tenure for folks at our company. Well over half of our management team here at Humphrey have come up through the ranks. If we’re not hiring people eager to learn new things, we can get stale. We need to constantly bring in new ideas from the outside world even if we’re not bringing in new people.
It seems like you’re doing a pretty good job with this. Your company has been around since 1901.
The Humphrey family deserves credit for that. I have to give them phenomenal kudos. As a fifth generation family business, they have persisted through the years. There are ups and downs in business and there are always companies who desire to purchase us. The Humphrey family has the patience to persist. They understand all this and are happy being in this community and feeding a couple hundred families. They see this as part of their role.