Trail Magic

McAfees Knob
McAfees Knob
Today’s moving post comes from James Hissong, a former teacher within the Kalamazoo Public Schools. James is our Quality & Evaluation Coordinator. He works within the downtown office and out at the CIS school sites, making sure we capture the right information. James assists us in using data to improve our programs, recording the services provided, and sharing the impact the community is having by working through CIS. This is his second appearance as a guest blogger.

For those of you who don’t believe in magic, all that I ask is that you keep an open mind for the remainder of this post. Admittedly, I’m a bit of a dreamer at times, but it wasn’t until a few years back when I truly started believing in magic. I’m not talking about a little sleight of hand or a disappearing card trick; the magic I am referring to is real. Let me explain…

In April of 2009, I set out on a trip that took me far away from the comforts of home. All of us have been on a journey of some sort in our lives and inevitably, we’ve all needed a little help along the way. This was definitely the case in my situation. You see, all through my childhood I was an avid lover of the outdoors, but I had never spent much more than a week camping or hiking at any one time. Somewhere along the line however, I became enamored with a hiking trail that ran from Georgia to Maine, covering almost 2,200 miles of some of the most beautiful scenery in the whole country – the Appalachian Trail. I’m the kind of person that, when I set my mind on something, I tend to dwell on it until eventually I find myself knee deep in whatever it was I was only dreaming about before. This was the case when I found myself on Springer Mountain, the southernmost point of the trail, with only what I could carry on my back and a guidebook in my pocket.

James (center) and fellow travellers
James (center) and fellow travellers

I must admit up front that I am not what people refer to as a “through hiker” or someone who hikes the whole trail in one shot. While I may believe in magic, even then I knew that the two and a half months I had that summer was not nearly enough time for such an undertaking. For those months I ate, slept, and breathed the life of a through hiker, but I did not set out to make it all the way to Maine in one trip. There are many reasons why people attempt to hike the Appalachian Trail. For some, they are looking for answers to a few of life’s harder questions; others do it for the physical challenge. If you would have asked me then, I probably could have come up with one of those reasons but the truth is I’m not really sure why I decided to hike. I believe I got caught up in the romantic notion of traveling across country by foot. I believe I was looking to get away, to experience something new and invigorating. Whatever it was, my initial intentions were thrown out the window somewhere around the third night of my trip.

On the third night, I learned a few hard lessons. Lesson one: although Georgia seems tropical compared to Michigan at times, the mountains can get snow in April. Lesson two: you can never pack enough to eat when you’re hiking. Lesson three: black bears are more active at night. However, the most important lesson I learned was: while it may be nice to hike alone at times, a little help from the people around you goes along way, especially when you’re cold, hungry, and there are bears in camp! That was one of the longest nights of my trip but with a little help from my fellow hikers, I made it through my first hurdle.

A little help–this was a recurring theme in my hike. I had a little help when it rained for two weeks straight and a kind stranger gave me a pair of dry socks. I had a little help when I was hiking on Easter Sunday (my first without friends or family) and a church group found me in what seemed like the middle of nowhere to give me a few chocolate eggs and some company. I had a little help when I came to a road crossing on a 100 degree day and there was a man handing out cold drinks to hikers as they went by, or when I had an omelet cooked for me one morning, or when I was given a knee brace by a fellow hiker as I was nursing a nagging trail injury. The immense kindness of the people I met along the way was truly magical. In fact, that’s what hikers call it, “Trail Magic.” Bags of food hanging from trees with a sign letting hikers know that we could help ourselves became a staple of the trail. Somehow, these seemingly small acts came at just the right times. Right when I was just about to really lose it, just when I thought I couldn’t take one more step, there would be a sign telling me someone was handing out ice cream only a few miles ahead (seriously, this happened!) From then on I was a believer, a believer in the magic and the impact that a simple act of kindness can have in the lives of others.

On-the-Road-300x198I eventually came to my stopping point, covering 1,200 miles in a little over two months. I was definitely excited to sleep in my own bed again and perhaps even gorge myself at the closest buffet restaurant, but there was also a part of me that knew I would miss the magic of the trail. I remember thinking that this culture of kindness could only exist in one place and unfortunately I was headed back to the “real world.” In the months following, I moved back to Kalamazoo and began teaching in the Kalamazoo Public Schools. I worked side by side with some pretty fantastic Hillside Middle School teachers and school staff who went above and beyond to ensure students were on the right path. And P.S. – If you think hiking for a few months sounds hard, try shadowing a teacher for a week.

I now find myself with Communities In Schools of Kalamazoo, an organization committed to removing all sorts of barriers for these same students. I get to see CIS site coordinators connecting students to a variety of community resources. I see volunteers passing out food packs each week to families in need, tutors not only helping students academically but also forming priceless relationships with the students they work with, community partners providing a range of services, from professional mental health services such as individual counseling and grief/loss services to dental and vision services, and lots more…

I guess what I’m trying to say is that trail magic is alive and well in Kalamazoo, it’s just the type of trail or journey that has changed. The Kalamazoo Promise® has given students the ultimate goal, the mountain off in the distance, but there is a long journey ahead for many students to get to the top. Fortunately, we have many trail angels in our community helping these students along their way. Hopefully our volunteers and staff will never have to step in front of a bear for our kids, but sometimes the obstacles for our students are just as scary. Thinking back on all of the people who helped me along my journey, I must admit that I don’t think I could have made it all that way on my own.

It’s a myth, really, to think we can succeed independent of others. Thanks to the generosity of the Kalamazoo community, our Site Coordinators are able to place just the right trail magic (resources and services) in just the right places for just the right kids. A little help, here and there, makes all the difference. I know it did for me.

Happy Birthday, Blog!

One year ago we launched this blog: Ask Me About My 12,000 Kids. There were over 181 million blogs when we began and there are probably more than that now. The blogosphere is bloated with lots of blogs (say this sentence 10 times). So thank you, dear readers, for choosing to read this blog. To celebrate our year together, I’ve made a delicious chocolate cheesecake (recipe can be found here) and if you want a slice, stop down to our office today. We’ll be offering them on a first come, first serve basis.) In addition, we’re whooping it up by sharing 17 blogtoids* about our one-year-old blog:

  1. In one year, we offered up 53 posts; that’s basically a fresh post every Tuesday.
  2.  Donna Carroll and I welcomed 11 guest bloggers, composed of CIS staff, board, and partners. Thank you Emily, Artrella, Bethany, Melissa, James, Dom, Sandy, Pam, Bonnie, Kaitlin, and Carly for contributing your voice to this blog. Thanks to all the kids, parents, school and community partners who shared their thoughts with us. We’re looking forward to hearing more from you as well as new voices this school year.
  3.  Over half of our 53 posts have highlighted individuals or entities in this community. If all our 12,000 plus kids are going to succeed in school and life, it’s going to take a lot of committed adults working together.
  4.  All 18 of the Kalamazoo Public School buildings that have CIS (we’re in 19 schools this new year, having most recently added Woodward School for Technology & Research) have been mentioned at least once in one or more posts. We love the Kalamazoo Public Schools!
  5. We named names. And we won’t stop. We’ll continue to tell you who is making a difference for kids through CIS.
  6.  You’re smarter because of this blog. You’ve read topics here ranging from literacy, mentoring, resiliency, and music. You’ve discovered what dental care and food have to do with academic success. You’ve read impressive phrases (thanks to guest blogger like CIS board member and partner Dom Pullo) such as “students mixed chemicals that created a chemiluminscent reaction…”
  7.  Three of our posts caught the attention of National CIS. Woo, hoo!
  8.  Most cried over blog post: Open Letter to A Father Who Will Never Read This.
  9.  Funniest post: Don’t Name Your Blog “The Blog.”
  10.  Post that received the most response from teachers and other school staff: Cast Your Vote for Kids.
  11.  Post that featured our hairiest school volunteers: Kaitlin Martin’s Paws for Stories.
  12.  Hardest post to write: Engineers of the Heart.
  13.  Funnest post to write: Six and a Half Things to Do While We’re Away.
  14.  Most fashionable post: Threads.
  15.  Post that featured one of our favorite student interviews: Pop Quiz: Lincoln International Studies Student.
  16.  Hardest thing about blogging? Coming up with a title for each post that is provocative without being too provocative. It needs to be something catchy that will make you want to read more than just the title.
  17. Most rewarding thing about blogging? Seeing and sharing CIS in action—with you, the partners, volunteers, donors, parents, staff, and learning about the wonderful students who are empowered because of your support.

We have only begun to introduce you to some of your 12,000 kids and the hundreds of caring adults who are helping to raise them. Stay with us this year and continue to get a behind the scenes glimpse of CIS in action. At Ask Me About My 12,000 Kids you will continue to meet the talented teachers, hard working principals, and dedicated community volunteers, partners, and CIS staff who are empowering our children to succeed. We look forward to turning two with you.

*A blogtoid is a term I made up just for this post. (I hope this makes you feel special!) A blogtoid is a fact or deeply held opinion about a blog.

Birthday Candles

Roots And Wings

Today’s post comes from James Hissong, a former teacher within the Kalamazoo Public Schools. James is our Quality & Evaluation Coordinator.  He works within the downtown office and out at the CIS school sites, making sure we capture the right information. James assists us in using data to improve our programs, recording the services provided, and sharing the impact the community is having by working through CIS.

Recently, I had the pleasure of visiting  Communities In Schools site coordinator, Deb Yarbrough, at Kalamazoo Central High School. Although our meeting was intended to be a data review session for Deb, I found myself on the receiving end of a lesson that day.  As we scrolled through logs of services she has helped facilitate at the school this year, our meeting had to be put on hold several times as she attended to the needs of multiple students. It was during these moments that I was able to witness the true motto of a site coordinator with CIS (and the title of another great book); “Whatever it takes.”  Upon leaving, Deb began telling a story about a young woman who had just received her acceptance letter to Michigan State University.  Her story was like so many I have heard since joining the CIS team.  Life has given this student every excuse not to succeed but with the support of her school, the Kalamazoo community, and those working incredibly hard to connect the two, a life filled with opportunity awaits.

This young woman’s story of overcoming obstacles, never giving up, and rising to new heights brought the theme of a book that I am currently reading full circle in my mind.  The book is titled “Building Resilience in Children and Teens: Giving Kids Roots and Wings,” by Kenneth Ginsburg.  Before I go any further I need to explain one important detail to someone who might be reading this.  Yes, I am reading a parenting book although I myself do not have any kids, and, no mom, I do not have any sort of related announcement to make!  Let me explain.  Part of the reason why I enjoy working for CIS is because  our focus is on the whole child.  I see the importance in the range of resources offered through CIS, from distributing basic needs items, providing services for the physical and emotional health of children, offering enriching experiences, and, of course, reinforcing academics as well. I believe all of these services can help contribute to build resiliency, or the power to overcome, in our students.

In his book, Kenneth Ginsburg focuses on what he calls the “7 C’s of resiliency.” He believes that competence, confidence, connection, character, contribution, coping, and control all form an interlocking web of skills that contribute to whether or not children are able to achieve success, even in the face of adversity.  In this book, he lays out both relatively simple and more complex ways to build these skills.  To sum up how a few of these “C’s” are interrelated, Ginsburg writes that, “Children need to experience competence to gain confidence. They need connections with an adult to reinforce those points of competence. They need character to know what they should contribute to their families and the world, and character is forged through deep connections to others. Contribution builds character and further strengthens connections.”  Many of these terms were exactly what I had the pleasure of watching take place in Deb’s interactions with her students.  As a community, I truly believe that if we can find ways to continue to impact these non-cognitive abilities, we will continue to hear more success stories like this one student from Kalamazoo Central.  I recommend this book to anyone interested in helping children succeed, not just the parents out there.

So while I may not have a child myself, as part of the CIS team, um, mom, I would like to take this opportunity to tell you about my 12,000 kids… just kidding (kind of).