Beyond the Backpack

As Kalamazoo Public School students prepare to step into their second month of school, they have a community of support that launched them into a successful year of learning.

On Saturday, August 17th, the Beyond the Backpack School Readiness Fair took place at Bronson Park. Hosted by Collaboration Kalamazoo, the fair, designed to increase school readiness for students, was a huge success. More than 1,100 in attendance, families were able to learn about community resources available in literacy, dental and other health supports, and more. From free glasses to free backpacks and supplies, with the support of our community and collaborating together, more students are on the path to success this school year.

Collaboration Kalamazoo is composed of Bible Baptist Church, Charlie’s P.L.A.C.E., Communities In Schools of Kalamazoo, The Kalamazoo Promise, and Kalamazoo Public Schools. “This year’s event,” said CIS Senior Director of Community Engagement & Student Investment Artrella Cohn, “was a tremendous showing of what it looks like when the community brings its knowledge and resources together for the betterment of students and their families.”

The Collaboration Kalamazoo team members: Alexia Jones of The Kalamazoo Promise, Nkenge Bergan of Kalamazoo Public Schools, Artrella Cohn of Communities In Schools of Kalamazoo, TaKarra Dunning of Charlie’s P.L.A.C.E., and Yolonda Lavender and Kandace Lavender of Bible Baptist Church.

With more than 1,100 individuals in attendance, families were able to learn about literacy supports in the community, access dental education and additional health resources, including mental health education, immunizations, sign up for health insurance, and more. In partnership with Hiemstra Optical and VSP Vision Care, 34 students were served on the Mobile Vision Unit, with 27 receiving glasses. Students also benefited from free haircuts and fresh hair styles from area barbers and stylists. The event provided free and much needed backpacks for students, but certainly went “Beyond The Backpack” to prepare students for a successful school year.


The 2019 financial sponsors for this event included: Communities In Schools of Kalamazoo (CIS), Kalamazoo Community Foundation, The Kalamazoo Promise, Kalamazoo Public Schools, Old National Bank, and YWCA Kalamazoo.

In-Kind Donors included: The Presidential Blend Suite, Charlie’s P.L.A.C.E., City of Kalamazoo, Exquisite Hair Design, First Baptist Church of Kalamazoo, First Congregational Church, First United Methodist Church of Kalamazoo, GQT Kalamazoo 10, Gordon Water Systems, Hiemstra Optical, Johnny Jackson (barber), Kalamazoo Promise Scholars, Life EMS, Marshall Music Company, Rentalex, Terry Watson (barber), UncLee’s Barber Shop, and VSP Vision Care.

Thanks to each and every one of you for surrounding students with support and launching them into a successful school year.

Check out this short video capturing some of the 2019 Beyond the Backpack School Readiness Fair:


Open Letter To A Father Who Will Never Read This

Dear Father of That Six-Year Old Girl Whose Name I Can’t Remember:

Eleven years ago our paths crossed for a few minutes. I’m sure you’ve long forgotten me. I, however, can’t shake you out of my head, especially around this time of year.

As my husband and I took our son to start his first day of second grade the image of you—walking up the sidewalk to Edison Environmental Science Academy—burned in my mind. I happened to be one of Kalamazoo Public Schools “Celebrity Greeters” back in 2001, one of many people sprinkled throughout the district to welcome students to their first day of school, help them line up, and find their way.

Remember taking your daughter to kindergarten? It was a warm day and you wore a flannel shirt and frayed, long pants two sizes too big for you. Your daughter’s hair was neatly combed and she was wearing a small but nervous smile. You were sweating. You looked uncomfortable, like you wanted to be anywhere else but at a school. Your little girl was tightly holding your hand. She looked scared but you looked even more scared.

Someone in the crowd of parents, students, and teachers must have directed you to the student list of names posted to wall outside the school. I lost track of you and then saw you again. I don’t know how long you were standing there but you were moving your finger up and down the list. The list fluttered to the ground. Without letting go of your daughter’s hand, you bent over and picked it up. With your fingers, you slowly pressed the four corners of the taped list to the wall. Again, you stood in front of the paper, then shrugged your shoulders, turned to your daughter and said, “You aren’t on the list.” Her face crumpled. You both turned away from the school. I approached you, glancing at the list. I realized then why you looked so scared.

You couldn’t read.

I removed the paper you had taped upside down. I crouched down and asked your daughter her name. Her name has left me but I remember her voice was like a soft wind, a whisper really. I had to ask her two more times before I could make it out. It turned out, she was on the list.

I’ve wondered over the years about your daughter. She should be in high school now. How is she doing? Is she on track for graduating soon? I hope you don’t take this the wrong way, but before she had even set foot inside a school she already had a huge obstacle to overcome. Adult illiteracy.

I know you love her. It was obvious that day. You even loved your daughter enough to walk her into a world which you could not fully participate in. When did she stop trying to hand over that book she wanted you to read to her? (A girl can only take so much shoulder shrugging and being turned away.) When she entered third grade, could you read and sign that form that would have allowed her to be in Girls on the Run? You probably couldn’t help much with homework, filling out school forms, reading her school and classroom communications, all things important to your daughter’s ultimate success. You missed out on one of the greatest joys in life—reading with your child.

My heart ached for you and your daughter that day. It still does. I wonder, are you still one of the 31,000 adults (13%) in Kalamazoo County who can’t read? I hope you don’t mind me asking, but have you unknowingly passed down your illiteracy to your daughter? Illiteracy is like a disease. It spreads. Children whose parents are illiterate are twice as likely as their peers to be functionally illiterate. The good news is that it is treatable and there are organizations like The Kalamazoo Literacy Council that are working to combat adult illiteracy.

I’d like to think that you can read now because you eventually got connected with them. It takes a brave man to walk his child into a place of learning, bursting with words and books that he can not read. It takes an even braver parent to admit that he is illiterate and to do something about it.

If you happen to read this, will you write back and let me know how your daughter is doing?