No Time to Volunteer? You Still Can. Just Ask Jennifer Swan.

Jennifer Swan (center) congratulated by John Brandon (left) and Sara Williams (right) with Champ Award for Swan’s Snack Emporium.

As Senior Architectural Project Coordinator with TowerPinkster, Jennifer Swan’s work schedule makes it difficult for her to volunteer on a weekly, consistent basis. Yet, she wanted to help kids stay in school and succeed in life. She came up with a creative solution and developed the Swan Snack Emporium which supports CIS Kid’s Closet. True to her name, Swan is helping children connect with their inherent beauty and value by giving kids the basics they need to stay in school and learn with dignity. Swan Snack Emporium received a 2019 Champ award and earlier this summer we featured that here.

Today we bring you a conversation Ask Me About My 12,000 Kids had with this creative CIS volunteer (which originally ran back in 2017.)

Since 1953, TowerPinkster, a design firm, has been creating vibrant places for people to live, work and play. As you know, TowerPinkster has received a number of awards. TP was named one of the “101 Best and Brightest Companies to Work for in the Nation” (National Association of Business Resources). TP was also awarded “Best Firm to Work For in the Nation” (ZweigWhite). From your perspective, what makes TP the best and the brightest?  

What I think makes us the best are the people. We are like a family. We have two offices, in Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo, and although it’s a little harder these days—we’ve added quite a few new people to both offices and I don’t get up to the Grand Rapids office as much as I used—we used to know everybody and know everything that everybody is doing.

TowerPinkster is a family culture and we have a lot of fun. It’s not just coming to work. It’s coming in to work with your friends, what seems like brothers and sisters, more often than not. It’s a great environment and we have a ton of fun here.

What is something interesting you’ve recently learned?

I learn something every single day with my job. There are always new things happening in the construction industry, whether it’s new process or new people you work with. There’s not just one thing that I can give you that is something that I’ve learned because I learn every day on my job. Every single day I learn from contractors and learn from the construction managers on the project site. I learn from project managers here, even our interns that come in who know the new tech stuff that I don’t know, so I’m always learning.

What are you currently reading?

While I don’t have time to sit down and read a full book right now, I get on the internet and I read a lot of blogs and news articles.

Besides Ask Me About My 12,000 Kids, what are your ‘go-to’ blogs?

The type of blogs I turn to are ones that I can learn new things related to my work and to learn how other people are doing things so I can make myself better and faster at my job.

What is your favorite word right now?

My favorite word right now is strength, not like muscle strength but strength as in being a woman in a male-dominated field. You have to have a lot of strength and tenacity to go on job sites and be with a lot of men that are very experienced in the construction industry. I don’t build stuff, but I know how stuff is supposed to go together. It’s being able to hold my own on job sites and here in the office. I mean, the guys here are great and they’re very, very easy to work with and nobody’s ever like, You’re a girl and you don’t know what you’re doing. But it’s important to always have an understanding of what you’re talking about.

What’s your story behind getting into this line of work?

I think I got into this line of work because of my mother. When she was growing up, she and many women of that time were taught that women could be a secretary or go into teaching. I think she always wanted to be an architect because she was always, always sketching house plans at home. My dad was in the construction industry and in the summer he sometimes would take me with him and I would get to go to a construction site. I was always very interested in the construction architectural field just being around that growing up. So when I was in high school I took some drafting classes and just fell in love with it all.

I didn’t go to be an architect because growing up my family we didn’t have a lot of money so I didn’t go to U of M or any of the big colleges for that. I chose a smaller school—Baker College—as they had an architectural technical program.

What is something you love about Kalamazoo?

There’s so much to do! I come from a really, really, small town called Langston. There’s a party store, a church, and an ice cream place. So to come to Kalamazoo and there are restaurants, bars, festivals, and so many things to do and just so much to pick from…it’s wonderful!

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

My mom is definitely 100% my caring adult. She supports me with everything I do. I grew up in a single family household. My dad left when I was 11 or 12 so my mom raised my brother and me. She had a really strong work ethic and would work late nights and weekends because she was the only income that we had. She worked really hard and I pride myself on being like my mom because, like her, I have a very strong work ethic. Her being a single mom and raising two kids by herself; it’s just always been an inspiration to me. If she can do that, then I can do anything.

Jennifer, thank you for hanging out with us at Ask Me About My 12,000 Kids!

School is about to start and our kids need you. Consider becoming a volunteer today. To learn how you can help, go here.

Swan Snack Emporium Serves Up Dignity and Confidence

Jennifer Swan (center) congratulated by John Brandon (left) and Sara Williams (right) with Champ Award for Swan’s Snack Emporium.

At the 12th Annual Champs Celebration, presented by Kalsec, Swan Snack Emporium was honored with a 2019 Champ Award which was sponsored by Chase. CIS Board Member Sara Williams and CIS Partner Services Coordinator John Brandon presented the award.

TowerPinkster, a design firm, creates vibrant places for people to live, work and play. So it’s not surprising that when Jennifer Swan, a Senior Architectural Project Coordinator with TowerPinkster, set her design on helping children, she would come up with an ingenious and creative plan.

Jennifer Swan, Senior Architectural Project Coordinator with TowerPinkster

Jennifer’s work schedule made it difficult to commit to volunteering in a school on a consistent basis. How else, she wondered, could she get involved in a way that impacted kids and worked with her schedule? She dug around, asked questions, and determined the CIS Kids’ Closet would be the perfect structure to incorporate into her design. Jennifer will tell you that if you come up with an idea, the first thing you should do is give it a good name. So in 2015, the Swan Snack Emporium was born.

The foundation for the Emporium was poured years earlier, when Jennifer was just a child. I grew up not having a lot, she says. There were times it was hard for my mom to buy my brother and me some of the basic necessities. Knowing what it felt like to be in school without the basics, she rolled up her sleeves and got to work. She sketched out a plan that would funnel new items like socks, underwear, toothbrushes, toothpaste, deodorant, and soap to CIS Kids’ Closet. As she puts it, I want kids to have what they need and know they are okay, that they aren’t alone.

Just like designing a building, the Swan Snack Emporium relies on the collective support of the team. This is how it works: Jen purchases snacks on sale and makes them available in the office. Her colleagues can visit the Emporium and grab a bite for breakfast or pick up a snack, all the while feeling good knowing proceeds from the dollar or two they are putting towards that granola bar, microwave popcorn, or bag of Sunchips go to purchasing items for the CIS Kids’ Closet.

I know the burning question on everyone’s mind right now is: What is the number one, most in-demand snack at Swan Snack Emporium? Hands down: it’s Pop Tarts!

But seriously, Jennifer and her colleagues provide students in 20 CIS-supported schools with the basics they need to attend school every day with confidence and dignity, ready to learn. Thanks to Swan Snack Emporium, over the past four years, over 6,500 items have been donated to CIS Kids’ Closet.

Swan Snack Emporium, we thank you for helping kids stay in school and achieve in life.

What Do You Love?

We know you love seeing kids succeed. We do too! What else do you love? We polled a few CIS staff. Here is what they said: 

“I love my new apartment, my independence and all these new possibilities that come with that: with designing and laying things out just how I want. I get to be unapologetically me.”

-Laurin Mathis, Administrative Assistant

“I love spring board and platform diving. I was a diver in high school and college. I’m soon to be training for tower diving.”

-Phillip Hegwood, CIS Afterschool Coordinator

Musical theater!”

-Nicky Aiello, Volunteer and Development Coordinator

“Music and playing guitar.”

-John Oliver, Director of Quality and Evaluation

“A really good book. As I look over the course of my life, it is so enriched by reading.”

-Pam Kingery, Executive Director

“First of all… I love my daughter with all of my heart and soul and am very proud to be her mother. I love all of my family, even with our differences. I love my friends who have become part of my family. Last, but not least, I love each and every one of the students I have and continue to come in contact with and support through my work at KPS and with CIS.”

-Martha Serio, CIS Site Coordinator, Spring Valley Center for Exploration

 “The Great Lakes…still.”

-John Brandon, Partner Services Coordinator

 “I LOVE, my two daughters, Alyssa and Leila.”

-Felicia Lemons, Development Coordinator

 

Come back next week and meet Principal Amira Mogaji, KPS Principal of Northglade Montessori Magnet School. In the meantime, here’s what she shared with us when we asked her this same question:

“Oh, I love so many things! Learning. I know that’s such a principal thing to say, but it’s true. Anybody who knows me knows I love learning. Pizza, too, but I’m gluten-free now.”

Amira Mogaji, KPS Principal, Northglade Montessori Magnet School

As long as we’re on the subject of love, we love you, dear reader and CIS friend! Thank you for putting love into action by sharing your time, talents, and financial gifts with Communities In Schools. Thank you for working with us to help students stay in school and achieve in life.

 

Five Fun Fall Facts

Here’s a list of five fun fall facts to enjoy while you sip your pumpkin spice latte or other favorite fall beverage.

One.

This past September, the national organization of Communities In Schools welcomed NBA Hall of Famer Shaquille O’Neal as the newest member of its national board of directors. “Every kid, no matter where they’re from or how much money their parents make, deserves the opportunity to get a good education,” said O’Neal. “My education was critical to my success on and off the court. Being in school gave me self-discipline and showed me the importance of hard work. I always knew that when my playing days were over, nobody could take my education away from me.”  You can read more here.

Two.

Fall ushers in a number of opportunities for students to participate in sports. However, by middle school, 70 percent of students have dropped out of organized sports. The number one reason? It isn’t fun anymore. The good news is that there is a roadmap to fun. A study a few years back found that being a good sport, trying hardand positive coaching came in as the top three most important factors to having fun in youth sports. Winning ranks near the bottom (coming in at 48 out of 81 identified indicators of fun).

 

Three.

John Brandon, partner services coordinator for CIS of Kalamazoo shares this fact: “Fall is when most of our school supplies are donated, and what we receive during this time will be most of what we have to distribute throughout the school year.”

Four.

What does Michigan have in common with Alabama, New Mexico, Nevada, Idaho, Iowa, and Rhode Island? According to Candy Store.com, candy corn is our number one choice for Halloween candy. In Michigan, Starbursts ranks second, and Skittles third. To see the most popular Halloween candy state-by-state, check out their interactive U.S. map here. As long as we’re on this topic, did you know that candy corn hasn’t always been called candy corn? It was first called “Chicken Feed.” It came in a box with a rooster drawing and the tagline read: Something worth crowing for.

Five.

Here’s a fun fall fact worth crowing about: Communities In Schools is the nation’s largest provider of Integrated Student Supports. (To learn more about our unique model, go here.) That is a fun fact all year round!

 

Kids (and Their Closets) Count on Volunteers Like Sally

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 Sally Stevens, CIS volunteer and first recipient of the Gulnar Husain Volunteer Award.

A native of Kalamazoo, Sally attended Western Michigan University’s Campus School and University High through 10th grade. (These schools were once located on WMU’s East Campus.) After graduating from Kalamazoo Central High School, she attended Kalamazoo College for three years, then finished up her liberal arts degree at Western Michigan University.

Not long after retiring from Borgess Hospital in 2013, Sally began volunteering with Communities In Schools of Kalamazoo (CIS). She started out at Washington Writers’ Academy, distributing Friday Food Packs. Later, Sally, along with her superb organizational skills, moved to the downtown CIS office, helping the organization with volunteer efforts, large-scale mailings, and more. Then, in early 2016, she began applying her organizational skills to CIS Kids’ Closet. [You can read more about that, and her Gulnar Husain Volunteer Award, here.]

From left: Arcadia Teacher Debora Gant, CIS Volunteer Sally Stevens, and CIS Board Member Carolyn H. Williams

Like Gulnar Husain, the namesake whose award she receives, Sally makes her community better and stronger by giving her time to other great causes throughout Kalamazoo. In addition to CIS, Sally volunteers for the Oakwood Neighborhood Association, the Bronson Park Food Pantry, one of Kalamazoo Loaves & Fishes food distribution sites, located at First United Methodist Church, and she serves on the board of Warm Kids. [Warm Kids is in it’s 32nd year of providing new coats, boots, hats and mittens to elementary school kids in Kalamazoo County and Plainwell.]

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

 

Pop Quiz

 

How does it feel to be the first recipient of the Gulnar Husain Volunteer Award?

I don’t know…I wasn’t striving for any award. I wasn’t expecting to be noticed or awarded so it came as a complete surprise. I’m usually working behind the scenes and don’t get recognized, so I was surprised to learn I’d been selected for the award. It feels good, though, and I’m happy about it!

Given all you have done in your volunteer role with CIS Kids’ Closet, I know Gulnar would love that you have received this award, named after her. When she was the CIS site coordinator at Arcadia Elementary School she often turned to Kids’ Closet to meet student needs. How would you describe the volunteer work you do with CIS?

I support the CIS mission through Kids’ Closet. I generally volunteer four hours a week, sometimes more, depending on what’s going on. I inventory donations and see what additional needs we have that should be requested on the CIS website. I pull together items requested by CIS coordinators that John [Brandon, CIS partner services coordinator] then delivers to the schools. Or, when coordinators stop down to the closet, I assist them with gathering up what they need. I’m often cleaning up, folding clothes, sorting items, and basically doing anything John needs me to do!

I like volunteering with CIS, I like the people and the way it’s managed. It’s just a good organization, made up of people who really care about kids.

John Brandon says this of you: Sally can organize the heck out of anything! Can you share a tip about organizing?

It helps to be detailed-oriented; I am. It also makes it less overwhelming if you can break things in pieces and see how those pieces are a part of the big picture. I like how things look when they are organized and that I can easily find what is needed. When our site people come to Kids’ Closet, I want it to look neat and organized. It’s a good feeling when things look visually appealing and I can readily find things to fill an order. While CIS buys a few things most of it comes from donations, so it helps that I can easily spot when we’re low on a particular item and we can then ask the community for donations.

What item do you find the hardest to keep in stock?

There is so much that is hard to keep in stock! Clothing. And boots. We didn’t have enough winter boots this year. Boots can be expensive item to donate. Also, personal items like deodorant. Deodorant is flying off the shelves right now. We got a lot of school supplies this year thanks to the generosity of the community. And because of that, we were able to give out more school supplies than we ever have before.

What is your most favorite item you have in your closet?

Oh, gosh! I don’t know. I don’t know if I really like all that I have in my closet! There isn’t one favorite item that comes to mind. I have certain clothes and shoes that I like to wear, but not one thing that stands out.

What are you currently reading?

I just finished Grandma Gatewood’s Walk. Emma Gatewood was the first women to walk the entire Appalachian Trail alone. She did it back in the late 1950s when she was in her late 60s! She just took change of clothes, shower curtain (for rain), food, and a little money. The author, Ben Montgomery, is related to her. It’s because of her that the Appalachian Trail became popular. At the end of Emma’s walk, when she was asked about her experience, she was quite vocal about areas of the trail not being in good condition and poorly marked in places. Because of her comments, the trail and markings were vastly improved.

I’ve just started reading Elephant Company by Vicki Croke. It’s a true story about a man who went to work for a British teak company in Burma. During World War II, he used the elephants to help people get to safety in India. In reading the book, I am also learning about elephants. They are really something!

What are some of your favorite Kalamazoo places?

I like to go to bookstores, like Kazoo Books, Barnes & Noble, and Bookbug/this is a bookstore. I also like to go out to dinner with friends and we vary where we go. We recently went to the 600 Kitchen & Bar. It’s the new farm-to-table restaurant located downtown inside The Foundry and the food was really good.

I also like to walk. I’ll take walks at Asylum Lake, Kellogg Forest, Yankee Springs, and Fort Custer. Right now, I’m favoring places with steep hills as I’m trying to get in shape for an upcoming hiking trip in Yosemite National Park.

Favorite word right now?

Spring. If it ever comes. [This interview took place on a gray day that felt like late November, though it was actually April.]

What is something interesting you’ve recently learned?

I took a class this morning on how the states were formed. It was through OLLI [Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at WMU] and Randy Shaw taught it. I learned that there was a lot of negotiations that went on when state lines were formed. When it started out, lines were determined by the king or queen of England. When states gained independence, it was Congress that determined the lines, but, at times, arbitration was needed. Sometimes, disputes would even reach the Supreme Court. That class was really interesting and now I want to get the book, How the States Got Their Shape.

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

I’ve had so many people in my life that have been influential. My folks, so many teachers, my husband…a lot of wonderful influences in my life, too many to name!

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

Our kids are counting on us this school year. They need more volunteers like Sally. Go here to consider one of the several ways you can become a volunteer today.  Interested in finding out how you can support CIS Kids’ Closet? Go here.

SALLY STEVENS: FIRST RECIPIENT OF GULNAR HUSAIN VOLUNTEER AWARD

From left: Arcadia Teacher Debora Gant, CIS Volunteer Sally Stevens, and CIS Board Member Carolyn H. Williams

 

At the 11th Annual Champs Celebration, presented by Kalsec, Sally Stevens was honored with the Gulnar Husain Volunteer Award, a new recognition established by the Husain family to honor Gulnar’s long-time contributions to Communities In Schools and the community.

Gulnar immigrated from Pakistan in 1981 and for more than 38 years, she dedicated herself to volunteer work throughout the community of Kalamazoo. The award recognizes a CIS volunteer who emulates Gulnar’s desire to serve children with a consistent and unflinching passion. [To learn more about Gulnar and to reflect on her, read this post, “A Good Life.”]

CIS Board Member Carolyn H. Williams presented the Gulnar Husain Volunteer Award, sponsored by the Gulnar Husain Legacy Fund.

 

Gulnar Husain, in her 14 years with CIS, first as an AmeriCorps worker and then as CIS site

Gulnar Husain

coordinator at Arcadia Elementary School was not motivated by status or money or awards. She worked persistently, quietly, often invisibly behind the scenes for children. So it is fitting that Sally Stevens is the first recipient of the Gulnar Husain Annual Volunteer Award. She shares these same traits.

Sally is the invisible behind the visible. Quietly, without fanfare, she shows up each week for kids. When she retired from Borgess Hospital in 2013, Sally’s plan was to find volunteer work where she could give back and make a difference. And she has.

Visit any one the 20 CIS sites throughout the Kalamazoo Public Schools and you won’t find her. You won’t see her in a classroom or in the hallways. She’s not in the cafeteria or on the playground. And yet, every day, because of her volunteer efforts, she touches the lives of students in all 20 CIS school sites.

Children want to do their job: be the best student they can be. But they need their basics covered so they can focus on learning. Sally is helping them do that by literally lifting up the generosity of this community. As many of you know, your donations to CIS Kids’ Closet help kids attend school every day with confidence and dignity, ready to learn. When students or school staff connect with the CIS Site Team at their school to meet a basic need, it is most likely Sally who has already inventoried the items CIS gives out. She has folded the sweatpants with love, organized the underwear by size, sorted socks, folded tops, gathered up the pencils, markers and crayons, and backpacks and boots, preparing them for the schools.

“Sally can organize the heck out of anything,” says John Brandon, who, as CIS partner services coordinator, oversees Kids’ Closet. “Sally,” he says, is “an incredibly hard worker, extremely efficient, and jumps in every way she can to help.” Take, for example, November 2016. When the tiny closet in the basement of the CIS/Kalamazoo Promise office building was bursting with your donations, Kalamazoo Public Schools graciously accommodated our need for more space, providing a classroom-size, walk-in closet at their building on Westnedge. Sally—who also volunteers with the Oakwood Neighborhood Association, Warm Kids, and the Bronson Park Food Pantry—bumped up her four hours a week to over seven, to get Kids’ Closet settled and up for operation. At the start of school and over holidays—when larger quantities of donations come flooding in—Sally increases her hours to meet the demand.

With Sally’s help, we’ve been able to serve children better by expanding operations at Kids’ Closet, increasing both the donations coming in and items going out to the schools.

Gulnar Husain was a prolific user of Kids’ Closet, a fact her Arcadia Principal Greg Socha could attest to. We know Gulnar would be so thrilled that you, Sally, are the first to receive this special recognition.

Sally Stevens, thank you for helping kids stay in school and achieve in life.

Here’s the blessing bowl Sally received. The lip of it is rimmed with words Gulnar often said and believed: “Being able to serve others, especially children, is a blessing.”

Keep up with us at Ask Me About My 12,000 Kids. You can learn more about Sally in the weeks to come. We popped one of our quizzes on her!   

 

John Brandon Chats on Cats, Closets, & Cafes

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 Brandon.

We met up with John at Caffè Casa, in downtown Kalamazoo.

John grew up on the east side of Michigan, in Lexington, about 20 minutes north of Port Huron. John came to Kalamazoo to attend Western Michigan University and graduated with a degree in history. In 2014, he joined CIS as an AmeriCorps VISTA worker, supporting both Milwood Magnet Middle School and Kalamazoo Central High School. John now supports all 20 CIS sites in his role as partner services coordinator, a position he’s held for a little more than two years.

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

Pop Quiz

How would you describe your position as partner services coordinator?

I work as a representative of CIS with many of our partner organizations. I look over the day-to-day nuts and bolts of the partnerships, making sure services are running smoothly within the CIS model.

Part of your responsibilities also include overseeing Kids’ Closet. If you could use no more than five words to describe Kids’ Closet, what would say? Go!

Clothes. Hygiene items. School supplies.

But I have to say more because those five words don’t fully fit or complete the description of Kids’ Closet. CIS is able to distribute the basic needs items I mentioned and more to students thanks to the community. We collect and store items, we operate the distribution and delivery of these items to the schools, but it is the community that is 100% providing this resource to our kids.

We couldn’t operate Kids’ Closet without the support of community donations or the volunteers. Take Sally Stevens, for example. She volunteers five hours every week to helping with Kids’ Closet. Our kids really benefit from her organizational skills and dedication. Without her, we wouldn’t be able to accomplish one fifth of what we currently do when it comes to getting kids the basics they need. We’re able to do as much as we do because of volunteers like Sally.

What item do you find the hardest to keep in stock?

Adult sizes of [new] clothing items, like adult-sized sweatpants, especially in small and medium sizes.

What item(s) have been big in demand from school sites this year?

School supplies of all varieties. Notebooks, mechanical pencils, pocket folders, dry erase markers—all the elementary kids have a white board to do math on but they need replacement markers from time to time. That’s a new thing for us this year, the dry erase markers. We also have had many requests for sweatpants for all ages and underwear at the elementary level. This winter, boots, coats, and shoes have been in high demand, as have items like deodorant and feminine supplies. Basically, while the list of what we have in stock is long, the demand for these items is especially high. Fortunately, people in our community are good about donating them!

Also, what we need depends on the time of year. For instance, at the start of year we do great with school supplies, but towards the end of the school year, we’re in need of more of these supplies, like pocket folders, notebooks, and mechanical pencils, because the kids have already gone through them. [To see the most current list of needed items, check out the Kids’ Closet wish list here.]

What is your most favorite item you have in your closet?

Probably this sweater I’m wearing. See, it even has orange elbow pads.

You look like a history professor.

[John laughs.] I do pay attention to history. I read history books frequently and listen to a history podcast.

Podcasts are really a thing now, aren’t they? Any particular podcast you listen to?

Hardcore History. It is done by Dan Carlin and one of the more prominent history podcasts out there. Most podcasts last a half hour or so. This podcast comes in at six hours. You can’t listen to it all at once. He takes a topic in history and elaborates on it. You listen and think and then you listen some more.

What are you currently reading?

I’m reading three different books right now. One is a history book called The Age of Capital by Eric Hobsbawn. It’s about the blossoming of the capital system and the spread of industrialization as well as the political ideology of liberalism. I’m also reading A Feast for Crows by George R.R. Martin. It’s one of the books in the Game of Thrones series. And also, A Horse Walks into a Bar by David Grossman. It’s a novel about a comedian that is not very funny. It’s tragic, really.

Favorite word?

Thank you. Thank you is two words, though, so you can’t use that. So, how about just thanks!!

We know [from last year’s Valentine Post] that you love “The Great Lakes—all of them.” What else do you love about living in Kalamazoo?

Kalamazoo has such a unique collection of people. I’m from a small town, so it feels like a big city to me, but without being too big. I love all the historical buildings. It’s also hip.

I live in the Vine neighborhood. Just this weekend, I was thinking how I’m so lucky I can walk to a record store or a fancy sandwich shop or a pub. I like the mingling of small businesses along with residential areas. Those are the biggest hits for me when it comes to what I love about Kalamazoo. Oh, and of course that Kalamazoo is not too far from the lake!

Any favorite places?

I am a big fan of Fourth Coast Cafe. Also, the Lillian Anderson Arboretum which is just outside of town and owned by Kalamazoo College. I enjoy the nature trails winding through the pine trees planted in rows, off to either side. It’s a good spot. There are so many good spots and that’s why the city of Kalamazoo is so great. I learned that we even have a cat cafe!

You can bring your cat?

No. It’s called Kzoo Cat Cafe and they work with Kalamazoo Animal Rescue. Debi Newsome [CIS Senior Director for Finance, Human Resources and Administration] told me about it. You pay twelve dollars and can hang out, play with cats, drink coffee and tea, and have some snacks. The cats are all adoptable through the rescue center.

What is something interesting you’ve recently learned?

I attended a conference on foster children. I got the opportunity to listen to and speak with people whose focus is entirely foster children. In being exposed to an area of advocacy I had no real prior knowledge on, it was eye-opening. I’m constantly learning how little I really know about people’s struggles in this world.

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

For me, that would be my parents. Both of them. They’ve been role models for me in being a good adult. They’ve always done a good job of balancing, encouraging me to be who I am but also having a realistic view of what is possible. I’ve turned into a well-rounded person thanks to them, though. I didn’t always appreciate how awesome they are until I got older.

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

Millie’s Mittens

There is always a good reason not to give. We don’t have enough time or money or time. We think somebody else will step up or do a better job than us. The list goes on.

Millie Ellis has more than her fair share of reasons not to extend herself, particularly to kids in Kalamazoo. That’s because Millie lives 2,000 miles away, in Dripping Springs, Texas.

There, she is busy caring for her husband who recently suffered a stroke. She is also dealing with her own health issues. Yet, despite distance and her current struggles, Kalamazoo kids are on her radar.

She learned from her friend, Shirley Street, that during the cold Michigan winters, some kids didn’t have mittens to keep their hands warm. Shirley told her of the need and that, for the third year in a row, she was doing something about this by knitting mittens. Her mittens would go to CIS Kids’ Closet and from there, CIS staff in 20 Kalamazoo Public Schools would be providing them to students who needed mittens.

Shirley knew about the need thanks to her daughter, Sue Warner, who lives in Kalamazoo. A long-time CIS friend, volunteer, and partner, Sue is Kalamazoo Public Library’s Head Librarian of Youth Services. Sue Warner is a knitter too, and has been knitting mittens and hats for Kalamazoo kids over the years.

Back to Texas. When Shirley shared with Millie how she was helping kids in Kalamazoo Public Schools, Millie was moved. She wanted to figure out a way to “help those kids in Michigan,” too. The next time the friends connected, Millie said, “I found some yarn. I’m going to knit some mittens, too.” And she did.

When a box from Texas (mailed by Millie) showed up at Sue’s door, Sue was stunned. “I thought she might have managed to knit a few pairs of mittens, but Millie had knit 52 pairs!”

Some of Millie’s mittens

Sue dropped off the load of mittens, made with love from Texas, and some of the CIS staff tried on a few.

CIS staff modeling Millie’s mittens. (From left): John Oliver, Director of Quality & Evaluation, John Brandon, Partner Services Coordinator, Alonzo Demand, Human Resources Coordinator, and Michael Harrison, Associate Director of Site Services

Knitters make something beautiful—in this case mittens—by interlocking loops of one or more yarns. To knit is “to join closely and firmly, as members or parts (often followed by together).” Despite her own hardships, Millie made it her mission to make the lives of kids a bit better and a bit warmer this winter. Millie joined with Shirley, who connected with Sue who connected with CIS, who now gets these mittens into the hands of children.

Thank you, Millie. And thank you Shirley, Sue, and all you knitters (and non-knitters, too!) who join together with CIS to create a caring, loving community for our children.