High School Student Follows Through on Volunteer Commitment

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 Kohler Briggs. Kohler will be a senior this fall at Loy Norrix High School and Kalamazoo Area Math & Science Center.

This past spring, Kohler reached out to Communities In Schools of Kalamazoo to see if there was a project he could help with, as part of his volunteer work with the National Honor Society. Since launching Ask Me About My 12,000 Kids in August of 2012, we’ve racked up hundreds of posts. We wondered if Kohler could use his organizational and technical skills to create one document that could systematically capture all the posts published in Ask Me About My 12,000 Kids. We were ecstatic when Kohler agreed to help us.

A month into the project, the pandemic struck and school buildings physically closed. Despite these challenges, Kohler continued to work on the project. He recently provided us with an 18-page document that will allow us to easily access past posts. This archived information holds a wealth of information, from students overcoming obstacles to succeed in school, to the school and community members who volunteer and partner with CIS to support our 12,000+ kids, to innovative programming making a difference for students, and much more. We are so grateful to Kohler for sharing his time and talents with us!

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

Pop Quiz

You went through and chronologically organized and hyperlinked almost nine years of blog posts for Communities In Schools of Kalamazoo. [At the bottom of this post is an example of the work Kohler did for us.] Thanks to you, we now have hundreds of blog posts at our fingertips. What did you get out of doing this project?

I loved learning about the variety of different ways CIS assist students and families in our schools. I also loved learning about the many individuals, including teachers and other students, that are working to improve our communities both inside and outside of school.

The pandemic disrupted school and life. How have you been holding up? What was your experience of doing distance learning?

I am doing well, but I was extremely busy during distance learning. I missed seeing all my classmates and teachers and missed receiving in-person instruction. I did like how I was able to learn at my own pace and had the time to give extra attention to subject areas that needed it.

In navigating these challenging times, what have you learned about yourself? 

I have learned that it is very important for me to take breaks while working. When we were still doing in-person classes, I never had much time to step away from my work. When I had more opportunities to take a bit of time off during online school, I found that I was much less stressed and more productive when I returned to working.

With summer upon us, what are you currently reading?

I am about to start reading Stamped by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Xendi.

What is one of your favorite school subjects?

I love almost anything involving science, especially dealing with the environment.

We know there are probably many, but can you share with us one teacher who has inspired/influenced you throughout your years with Kalamazoo Public Schools?

This year, I took AP Language and Composition with Ms. [Brianna] English at Loy Norrix. Ms. English did a great job with helping me improve my writing skills.

Behind every successful student is a caring adult. Who has been one of your caring adults?

The most important caring adults in my life are my parents. They are always open to questions and support for my academic endeavors.

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

 

Here’s an example of Kohler’s work. If you missed any of these posts, you can easily access them by clicking on the titles he has hyperlinked to the published post.

2020 Posts

June 9              Jerrell Amos: Learning to Adjust When Life Throws a Curve Ball

June 2              In Schools, and Now Beyond

May 19            Nazlhy Heredia-Waltemyer: Finding Ways to Connect With Students During Time of Physical Distancing

May 12            CIS Supporting Students Through This Pandemic

May 5              #GivingTuesdayNow – Together We…

April 21           Take Care of Yourself and Read

April 15           Celebrating Our Community of Support

March 31         Connectedness During a Time of Social Distancing

March 24         The Community is Here With You

March 17         A Time to Read

March 10         Catching Up With Elissa Kerr: One Sweet Conversation

March 3           Meet Paul Runnels

February 25     Meet Teresa Miller

February 18     Teacher Andrea Walker: An Open Book

February 11     Courage is Contagious

February 4       Fifth Grader Passes Pop Quiz With Flying Colors

January 21       Tribute to Moses L. Walker

                          Communities in Schools of Kalamazoo 2019 Annual Report

                          2018-19 Gifts of Kindness

January 14       Sara Williams: Rolling Up Her Sleeves for Kids

 

 

Nazlhy Heredia-Waltemyer: Finding Ways to Connect with Students During Time of Physical Distancing

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 Nazlhy Heredia-Waltemyer, CIS Success Coach for Loy Norrix High School.

Born in Salem, Massachusetts, Nazlhy moved to the Dominican Republic–where her family is originally from–when she was around three years old. She holds a bachelors degree in Industrial Psychology (equivalent to a Human Resources Administration/Management degree in the United States). In 2005, she returned to the United States with her children.  She lived in Grand Rapids, Michigan until 2018, when, as she puts it, “Love brought me to Kalamazoo.” She’s been with CIS since the summer of 2018.

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

Pop Quiz

First off, how are you and your loved ones holding up during this pandemic? 

These had been difficult days. I’m a people person by nature and those that know me would say that I’m a hugger.  Since physical contact is not allowed, I’ve been trying virtual connections as much as possible. Talking with family and friends keeps me grounded and reminds me that we are all in this together. I heard something the other day that I really liked and I quote: “We must to practice social distancing but that doesn’t mean that we need to be socially distant.”

What are you learning about yourself (and/or the world) in all this? 

I have learned that we needed to stop! We were running a race against the truly important things in life. Humans were showing a lack of human feelings and humanity… Just waiting for the next reason to spend money, whether it was a holiday, a birthday, or just any sale…worried about giving “things” to our loved ones instead of giving love and time, forgetting about people and relationships… Our daily lives turned into calendars and schedules, and our eyes did not look beyond a screen. We forgot about essential things like love, compassion, care, goals, and dreams. We stopped dreaming and enjoying the little things.

Yes, we needed to stop. Unfortunately, we have been forced to stop. Now I look outside through my improvised home office and I can see nature smiling at these crazy times that we are living. Maybe that means something, just maybe.

What is one of the best parts about being a CIS success coach? 

Relationships. The opportunity to be a resource for our students, to meet them where they are, to look beyond the struggles and help them realize that planning for the future starts today and that every day is a new opportunity to move forward and closer to reach their goals and dreams, to be better for themselves, their families, and their communities. 

As you know, your role as a success coach allows CIS to delve more deeply into a school, to meet student needs. Within the school you provide that one-on-one coaching support a student needs to help them succeed in school and life. Now, given all the challenges we face during this time—school buildings closed and all of us practicing social distancing—what does your CIS work look like now? How as a success coach are you continuing to support students during this time? 

During this time of insecurity when so many things are out of our control, human connections and relationships are extremely important. Making myself available for my students has been my priority. I’m providing information, answering questions, and sharing community resources. I’m saying happy birthday or just texting with them about anything–including TV shows, cooking, and baking. I’m helping them to stay focused on what’s next. Fall is around the corner and they need to be reminded that we will get back to “normal.”  My hope is that they learn from what we are going through and come out of this crisis more resilient, focused, and stronger.

The students you coach had already been dealing with other stresses in their lives before this pandemic. And now, this pandemic layers on additional stress for both these young people and their families. How are students coping? Are you seeing any common threads as to how students are responding?

Students are coping and dealing with this pandemic in very individual and particular ways depending on their own realities. I fear for some of them that have too many struggles to deal with on a regular basis during normal times. Not having the safety net that the school provides is the biggest challenge. At school, students are guaranteed learning, food, care, attention, support, relationships, and safe spaces… I don’t want to think about how it looks like now for our more vulnerable students, but I’m still reaching out and doing everything I can to connect and be there for them.   

What are you currently reading?

I just started re-reading The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. The book tells the story of a young shepherd named Santiago who is able to find a treasure beyond his wildest dreams. Along the way, he learns to listen to his heart and, more importantly, realizes that his dreams, or his personal legend, are not just his but part of the soul of the universe.

What is your favorite word (or phrase) right now?

My word is vulnerability. My phrase is “This too shall pass.”

When we re-emerge from this pandemic, where is one of the first places you will go? 

OMG! I will drive up to Grand Rapids to see my kids and hug them. I miss our hang out times with great music and cooking Dominican food together.

Then I’ll go for some good sushi at Ando in Grand Rapids or Maru in Kazoo.

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

Without a doubt, my parents. Both of them!  I’m 50 years old and we still touch base regularly, several times a week, actually. I still ask for their input before I make a decision. Unknowingly, my parents equipped me with a tool box full of values that has become my “survival kit.” I didn’t know it until I came to the US in 2005 and faced a million struggles as a single mom, raising two kids in a totally unknown and different culture.

A funny note, my mom and I regularly have coffee dates. We both brew a cup of coffee at the same time and video talk like if we were together.

Anything else we should know about you?

Hmm. I have never watched any of the Star Wars movies and I don’t like superhero movies, either. Except for Batman. I like Batman. 

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

Nazlhy (far left) at the 2019 Champs Celebration.

Conversation with Julie Davis

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 Julie Davis. As we’re on the heels of Administrative Professionals Day and on the cusp of our 12th Annual Champs event, we thought it would be fun to meet up with this former KPS secretary and Champ (once a Champ, always a Champ as we say at CIS) of ten years ago and see what she’s up to these days.

“The sound of men playing horseshoes was part of the soundtrack of my childhood,” Julie Davis says, recalling her “idyllic years” spent growing up in the farming community of East Lynn, Illinois. She smiles as she recounts formative years spent driving tractors and “helping” with baling hay. “And I was watching—without knowing I was watching—equipment break down and seeing someone use some random thing that had been laying on the ground to make it work.”

Without realizing it at the time, Julie was learning to make do with whatever tools you have—or don’t have—in any given situation. Her knack for making things work—no matter what life throws at her—has served her well, both in her personal and professional life. As a single parent, she raised two beautiful daughters, Jodie and Abby, and happily watched as they got degrees from University of Michigan and Syracuse University, respectively. Throughout her 33-year career as a school secretary for Kalamazoo Public Schools Julie made things work on a daily basis; eight years at Loy Norrix High School and then 25 years at Arcadia Elementary School.

Julie retired in June of 2017. Three months later she was diagnosed with two different kinds of cancer, one in each breast. She underwent two different kinds of treatment and is doing fabulous now (as you’ll see, she did fabulous even then). She enjoys traveling often to Washington, D.C. to play with her two grandchildren, Sam, seven, and Norah, four.

We almost didn’t meet up with Julie at Anna’s House. In fact, we walked right by her. While her trademark shoulder-length blond hair has been replaced by short, white hair, her smile, joyous spirit, and laughter haven’t changed a bit.

Alright, Julie Davis: pencil out, eyes on your own paper. Good luck.

Pop Quiz

It’s so different to see you sitting and just relaxing. In your role as secretary at Arcadia Elementary School you were always non-stop.

I loved every second of every day! I have so many fond and funny memories of working at Arcadia. And so many stories!

Will you tell us a story?

Sure. I’ve got thousands of them!

There was this first grader who zipped his neck into his coat. Thankfully, it was a plastic zipper. I told him, “I’m going to get this unstuck for you but it’s going to hurt. But I’ll do it really fast.” He gave me the okay and I grabbed a bit of his neck and the coat and we did it. And off he went. We were best friends after that. I still remember his name. Eric.

And here’s another story. A third grader wanted me to pull her tooth out. This was in the 90s. ‘It’s not ready, honey,’ I told her, but she wanted that thing out. She was adamant and wouldn’t go back to class until I pulled it. I know anticipation can drive kids crazy. So I put on a rubber glove, pinched as hard as I could and out came the tooth. It made that cracking sound when it came out, the kind of sound that says it wasn’t quite ready to come out! The next day, I received a percentage of what the tooth fairy brought her—a dime and three pennies.

And then there was a time….

Here’s a 2002 award Julie received from appreciative parents for “going beyond the call of doody.” Let’s just say it involved helping with a search effort per doctor’s orders. Julie found the quarter.

Okay, bear with me. It’s going to take a minute, but there is a question at the end of this.

Okay.

You received a Champ award back in 2009. Gulnar [Husain, who served as CIS Site Coordinator at Arcadia at that time] rightly described you as kind and compassionate. She wrote: “Her patience has no limits…when all the phone lines are ringing simultaneously, a deadline for a report has to be met, a sick child has to be taken care of, a dose of medicine, ice pack, or band aid has to be given to a student, visitors have to be greeted, or a teacher’s question has to be answered, Julie is there to take care of everyone’s needs. It would be understandable if she lost her cool, but she doesn’t! She remains calm and composed and has the uncanny ability to keep everything under control.” So, what’s your secret?

I think it’s not really even a secret. I’m just thankful I was in a job that I was designed to do. If only everybody could be in that position! That is a wish of mine. That everyone could get up, brush their teeth, go out and behave as themselves, and accomplish something for others at the same time. I was designed for my job. I loved my job. I was just out there being myself and it seemed to work for everybody. [She laughs.]

CIS partners would often comment how you always made them feel at home. I won’t ask you what your secret is, but how do you do that, make people feel at home?

I think, by nature, I’m relaxed most of the time. However, at a fairly young age, about 14, I learned that if you act at ease, it puts others at ease. Having learned to be relaxed in any situation has served me well throughout my life, including my time at Arcadia, especially with regard to the daily interactions I enjoyed with families whose language I could not speak.

As you know, Arcadia is a wonderfully diverse school. I’m so thankful I got to be with people of diverse cultures because getting to know these families changed my life. It changed me for the better. When you are relaxed, it opens you up. Because I was relaxed I could embrace and feel those differences. I loved how those differences moved within me—and moved me.

I grew up in a farming community where the only diversity was the age of the farmer. To have the chance to meet people from other countries and cultures was so enlightening. How I grew! That is something I miss, not having an opportunity to be in regular contact with these enriching relationships.

From your perspective as a former secretary, what was it like to have CIS in your building?

I can’t separate what CIS does from the people. People like Gulnar, of course, who was CIS. I think of Gulnar, and even before and after Gulnar—of the character you need to have to be really committed to the CIS mission. The CIS people worked with students who had needs. Their time and energy spilled over to everybody, not just those on a “list.”

Everyone I know whose been involved with CIS has fit. They’ve shown a commitment and dedication to children and their families, and that stood out to me. I’ve seen that commitment in those who didn’t have to be there, such as the college students volunteering through CIS. When I was their age, I couldn’t imagine being committed to something other than trying to get through my classes. These young people could have been home and enjoyed spring break, but instead they wanted to stay and work with kids. I loved seeing that kind of dedication in the CIS staff and all the volunteers and partners. They were in school with us wanting to do this because of their love for children and watching them succeed.

What have you found to be the most surprising about retirement?

I’m really good at being lazy. I was so busy every day at Arcadia; who knew that lazy would work for me so well! So lazy is what I’m doing at the moment.

Do you have a pet peeve?

Oh, yea! Tailgaters. And let me tell you, pet peeve isn’t the word for it. Because I wouldn’t say to a pet what I would say to a tailgater.

What are you curious about?

[Starts laughing.] I’m curious about thousands of things, but a funny one, just sprang to mind. I was working at Loy Norrix. This was before cell phones. I had to be there at seven. And there was a girl at the payphone every morning. Back then, Loy Norrix had a phonebooth inside the building, in the hall just down from the office area where I worked. I was always curious about who she was calling.

Maybe your curiosity can finally be satisfied. Maybe there is someone reading this right now who knows something!

Wouldn’t that be something? Let’s see, it would have been between 1984 and 1992 that this happened, practically every day during the school year.

What is something interesting you’ve recently learned?

[Laughing.] I’ve learned that after a certain age you can come across something that is really interesting, something that you didn’t know, and a few day later, somebody asks you, “What is something interesting you’ve recently learned?” and you can’t recall what it is. I’ve learned lots of interesting things since I’ve retired, but can’t recall one of them now!

Can we talk some about your experience with cancer?

Sure. I’m open about it. You know, when I received the diagnosis, the first thing out of mouth was, “Lord, I’m pretty sure you’re going to get some glory out of this somehow.” I tell you, when you have peace and joy, life is good. It doesn’t matter what comes your way. With faith, you can say, “Well, this is unexpected” and you move forward.

I was going to ask, “How and in what ways did the cancer diagnosis change your perspective?” But it sounds like this experience hasn’t changed your outlook on life in any way.

My outlook has remained the same. It didn’t rock my faith foundation. I thought, “Okay, so I have cancer. That’s what’s happening now.” I knew God was going to walk me through it. The biggest challenge came with handling the side effects of some chemicals and that gave me insight into other people’s experiences and I’m thankful for that empathy.

What are you currently reading?

I’m reading my Bible in the book of Acts. I’ve read it a billion times, but now, suddenly going through it this time, it’s like oh, my gosh! I’m relating to what the first Christians experienced… We come at it knowing how it ended. When you know the ending, you don’t get all anxious. But they didn’t know the ending.

Although I’m reading the Bible exclusively right now, I really enjoy reading a variety of genres. I think my all-time favorite is Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee.

What is your favorite word right now?

Since you want just one word, it would be content. If you wanted to know why I’m content, that would take lots and lots of words.

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

My parents, George and Helen.

Here’s one story about them. Everybody that crossed their path was drawn to them. They married in 1933 and lived in a little house in the country…Dad had a job with A&P in their warehouse, He went to work one day and the owner pulled him and the one other employee, Joe, aside and said, “I have to cut you both back to half time.”

Dad came home that evening and told my mom, who was pregnant at the time, that he lost his job. He had given his half to Joe so he could have full-time work. How he explained it to her: “Joe has two kids. We have a cow, chickens, and a garden so I feel we’ll be okay.”

That’s who they were. That story is as much about my mother. They just both shook it off, said okay, and went on.

Sounds a lot like you!

[Julie laughs.]

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

.

Chris Werme: Giving Back and Giving Grace

CIS volunteer Chris Werme

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 CIS volunteer and 2018 Champ recipient, Chris Werme. (We popped this quiz on him at the end of the 2017/18 school year.) If you missed the post about his 2018 Champ award, you can find it here.

Chris grew up in Portage, Michigan and earned his degree in accounting and management from Nazareth College. An employee benefits advisor at Rose Street Advisors, Chris has been a CIS volunteer since 2016, when CIS senior site coordinator at Loy Norrix High School Montrell Baker connected him to two young men.

CIS senior site coordinator Montrell Baker, DeAndre, and Chris

Chris also serves on the CIS Volunteer Leadership Advisory Council (VLAC), advising CIS on such things as volunteer recruitment and retainment.  Most recently, Chris joined the CIS work group on Engaging Male Students. As part of this all male workgroup, Chris meets monthly with other CIS volunteers, partners, staff, and community members, to review data and develop initiatives and strategies for CIS to better engage our young men and support them in academics, behavior, and school attendance.

Alright, Chris Werme: pencil out, eyes on your own paper. Good luck.

Pop Quiz

You are a busy guy. Yet, you carve time out of your schedule to work with students. Why? And why CIS?

Why do I do it? You could say I felt a calling. Why CIS? A CIS newsletter ended up in my mailbox for no particular reason—I think somebody threw the newsletter in my box, probably because they know I do stuff with my church—and I happened to see a picture of O’Neal Ollie on it. We used to play basketball together. It actually had a picture of Montrell [Baker], too. At the time, I had no idea I’d eventually be working with Montrell!

Well, the newsletter turned up in my mailbox at the same time I had been giving some thinking as to, What am I going to do next? I’d done the board thing. I wanted to be boots on the ground, and work with young men.

So, I called O’Neal up and we met for lunch. I wondered aloud about volunteering and O’Neal said I should do it. So, here I am!

In addition to working directly with young men, you also serve on the CIS work group, Engaging Male Students. When it comes to working with young men, do you have a philosophy?

I believe that young men need to hear from old men how to act in certain situations. Lacking hearing from experienced, more mature men on how to handle things, they will handle things how they see fit.

To be clear, I don’t tutor or teach the young men anything. I talk with them and make sure they are achieving the goals they’ve set for themselves. I try not to make them be my goals.

…I’ve raised four children, two of them boys. I didn’t always do things right. I found I talked to my dad way more later in life than when I was a younger man. I discovered older men have real wisdom—and that wisdom is important.

What are you currently reading?

Nothing at the moment. The book that I’m looking to purchase is Emotional Intelligence 2.0 by Travis Bradberry and Jean Greaves.

What are some of your favorite Kalamazoo places?

We live in Shelbyville—my wife works in Grand Rapids—and I commute to Kalamazoo for work, so I’d say that it would be the golf course. I’m looking forward to golf season.

Favorite word?

Grace.

That’s a big word.

I’m working on giving it every day.

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

My dad. He obviously taught me about growing up, and most importantly, how to deal with people.

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

Come fall, our kids will need many more volunteers like Chris. Go here to consider one of the several ways you can become a volunteer today to help the kids of tomorrow. 

What is it about Werme?

From left: CIS Board Member Steve Denenfeld, CIS Volunteer Chris Werme, Humphrey Products Chairman & CEO Bob Humphrey, and Humphrey Products President Dave Maurer.

At the 11th Annual Champs Celebration, presented by Kalsec, Chris Werme was honored with a 2018 Champ Award which was sponsored by Humphrey. CIS Board Member Steven Denenfeld presented the award.

 

Loy Norrix’s Senior CIS Site Coordinator, Montrell Baker says of this Champ: “Our young men need more men like Chris Werme who’ll step up and be there for them. He’s one of my most consistent, reliable volunteers, always here each week unless a business trip requires him to be away.”

Chris is a health benefits advisor at Rose Street Advisors. Back in 2016, when Montrell connected him to two male students, he was pleasantly surprised. “Usually,” Montrell says, “when you connect kids with a resource or support person there is a grace period. ‘I don’t know about this, Mr. Baker,’ they’ll say, shaking their heads. “In my role as site coordinator, I’m encouraging students to stick with it, to give it time. This didn’t happen with Chris. The students connected with him right away.”

So, what is it about Werme? “It’s about trust,” explains DeAndre, who has been mentored by Werme for the last year and a half. “I can talk to him about anything. He shows me I can trust him…he’s only steered me to make the right decisions.” One example of how Werme’s guidance has kept him on track? “My grades were slipping and he encouraged me to go and meet with each of my teachers after school. It never occurred to me to do something like that. I did it, and I passed my classes!”

“I put a lot of trust in Werme,” he says. “When something comes up that bothers me, I can set those concerns aside and focus on school” because he knows later in the week he can count on Werme to listen and offer sound advice. As DeAndre puts it, “Werme’s kind of old. He’s got a lot of experience built up in his bones.”

Chris Werme imparts that built-up wisdom not only with the young men he mentors, but impacts dozens more by serving on the CIS Volunteer Leadership Advisory Council, advising CIS on such things as volunteer recruitment and retainment.

Most recently, Chris joined the CIS workgroup on Engaging Male Students. As part of this all male workgroup, Chris meets monthly with other CIS volunteers, partners, staff, and community members, to review data and develop initiatives and strategies for CIS to better engage our young men and support them in academics, behavior, and school attendance.

Chris Werme, we thank you for helping kids stay in school and achieve in life.

Al Heilman congratulating Chris Werme on his Champ Award.

High School Graduate: CIS Helped Me Find My Voice

Dreon Smith recently graduated from Loy Norrix High School. In May, he reflected on his CIS experience at the 11thAnnual Champ Celebration. Dreon has given permission for us to publish his remarks here, at Ask Me About My 12,000 Kids.

PNC was the Student Spotlight Sponsor and Steve Powell, on behalf of PNC, presented Dreon with an Apple iPad Pro as a gift to help him continue his education this fall as a Kalamazoo Promise scholar

I still remember that day. I was a fourth grader in Ms. Clawson’s class at Washington Writer’s Academy. I was nervous and scared as I made my way to the CIS office. I got there and saw my cousin, Dalanna. She is the CIS site coordinator at Milwood but back then she was at Washington. Well, Ms. Hoskins—that’s what Dalanna told me to call her at school—she introduced me to this tall dude. Turns out he was Mr. Larry Manley, the CIS after school coordinator.

Thinking back on that moment, it was like I was a young branch that became planted in CIS. I became a part of something that was bigger than me. I also became part of the first group of students who got to be part of the CIS after school program at Washington.

Not only did my grades begin to improve, but I grew in ways I didn’t know I could. Sports has always been important to me. So it really helped that Mr. Manley liked basketball just as much as me. He used basketball to help us kids grow. It was a way for us to talk and learn and dream. He taught me how to be a young man and how to be a gentleman. You know, like at lunchtime, let the ladies go first.

With CIS, there’s always been people there to catch me. Like Ms. Melissa [Holman], who worked with CIS Think Summer. It was a time when, as a branch, I had to learn to grow a different way. See, I’d had some surgery and my dream of a sports career over. There I was, a middle school student with a pin stuck in his hip, in a wheelchair. I’d wanted so badly to be part of CIS in the summer but now I didn’t even know how I could make that work. It was Ms. Melissa [Holman] who caught me then. She helped me to get there. Literally. If I didn’t have that ride, I would never have been able to go.

CIS helped me find my voice by giving me opportunities I might not have had otherwise. I’ve been able to explore my passion for poetry and music. My grandma loves music and can sing and I wanted to get into that too. I believe putting poetry and music together really gets your voice out there. One CIS partner that especially helped me with that: Bangtown Productions. We wrote and performed songs and to this day, you can find some of them on YouTube, songs like “Rise Above It”—we performed that one at Bronson Park.

CIS helped me find my voice by helping me speak up about things that are important to me, like funding after school programs. Back in 2013, when I was in 7th grade, I was one of the student representatives who went to City Hall. We wanted the Kalamazoo City Commission to help us: keep the lights on! Thanks to our voices—and those of you who advocate for after school funding to remain a priority, the lights have stayed on. At least for another year.

 

Back in 2013, Dreon (far right) advocating for after school funding before the Kalamazoo City Commission.  (Ms. Melissa is at the podium.)

When you find your voice, you can do things you never thought possible. Just this year, I wrote a poem called “We have something to say” and it was a finalist for the MLK Courage to Create Poetry contest. I read it on the campus of Western Michigan University. That was really special, to think that people came to hear my voice…

Now back to when I left eighth grade. There wasn’t an after school program at Loy Norrix; it kind of hurt. It had really helped having the structure, the homework help, and all the enrichment activities. Monday through Thursday it had been a big part of my life. So, in 9th grade, I found myself going home after school and struggling to get homework done. And even though my mom and dad were on me, I didn’t always make the best choices, like choosing to sleep over doing homework.
In 10th grade, things started to look up. Ms. Trella [Artrella Cohn], who I knew through CIS Think Summer caught me and connected me with Mr. [Montrell] Baker, who has been my CIS Site Coordinator ever since.

One thing I’ve learned along the way is that I like helping people. A lot of freshman look up to me. Being tall helps! They literally look up to me. So, by connecting me to a lot of opportunities, Mr. Baker has helped me with being able to give back to my peers and other, younger students. Because I’m really good at math, I’ve been able to tutor students that need help with math. I volunteer with the food pantry we have at my school, thanks to CIS partner Kalamazoo Loaves & Fishes. I do a lot of the heavy lifting and sorting, and stacking the food items. I’m working Tuesdays and Thursdays at Parkwood Upjohn Elementary School. Through Literacy Buddies, I support students in their reading.

Most recently, I have become involved with the Men’s group which is led by Dr. [John] Oliver. Young men meeting with older men. We talk about our futures, current events—important things that need to be talked about for us to grow. Some of my good friends are a part of the group and for some of them, I never knew their stories until we had that group. It’s meant everything to me, to hear from those higher branches. I’m going to be that higher branch some day. And I’ll be passing that wisdom they poured into me, down to the next branch.

I’m grateful to CIS for catching hold of me, nourishing me, and feeding my desire to help others. Thanks to CIS, I am the young man I am today. And I’ve made great friends along the way. We have all came together as one through Communities In Schools.

As for my future plans? I have a few ideas. I’m thinking about going into business or communications, or maybe I’ll pursue teaching and coaching in a sports area. What I know for sure is that thanks to all those of you who have nourished me, I am using the Kalamazoo Promise to go to college because I’ve been accepted to KVCC!

I’d like to close with a poem I wrote for this occasion. But first, thank you all for doing your part. Know that when you work and volunteer and partner and donate to CIS—you’re making sure the kids that come after me will have the “Mr. Manley’s,” the “Ms. Melissas,” the “Ms. Trellas,” and the “Mr. Bakers” they need to grow strong, so they can be there for the next group of branches that have yet to even bud.

Thank you.

Dreon Smith with Dr. John Oliver

Why Not Let Poetry Take the Wheel?

“We all need poetry,” says Tracy K. Smith, current U.S. poet laureate. Since it’s Poetry Month, here are two poems for you to consider.

Lexi Weeden is in tenth grade at Loy Norrix High School and Jayca Gill is in the eleventh grade at Kalamazoo Central High School. Both Kalamazoo Public School students wrote their poems on the campus of Western Michigan University during the 2018 “Courage to Create” poetry workshop offered as part of Kalamazoo’s annual MLK Day Celebration.

Dear Spite,  

Please pull over and stop driving.
I think it’s time to let Kindness take the wheel.
Maybe Courage or Empathy could take a turn as well.
You’re frustrated, not like Rage or Fear may be.
You’re driving us forward but someday you are going
to forget to shift out of reverse.
You’re going to drive us forward, yes,
but you’re pulling out the stops as well.

-Lexi Weeden

 

Dear Courage,

I wish I had more of you. I hold my tongue for too many people, I refuse to say and do things
to please other people, but most of all, I feel like I’m not making a change because I lack you.
I find myself and others complaining about the things we go through and want to change,
but only getting as far as that, complaining about it. I don’t have the courage to speak my mind,
to fight for things I want and know are right. I wish I had more of you so I could do that.

Sincerely,

Jayca Gill

 

What do each of these poems offer you? Does Lexi’s poem urge you to consider questions like, “When was the last time I let kindness take the wheel?” “What drives me?” “Do I need to pull over and take a break?” After reading Jayca’s poem, is there something you realize you should say or do, but out of fear, you don’t? What quality do you wish you had more of? Do you find yourself complaining about something, but then do nothing about it? What behavior(s) can you engage in to make a positive change?

Rotary Club of Kalamazoo: Living Out Service Above Self

Today we highlight Rotary Club of Kalamazoo, honored with a 2017 Champ Award. The team’s Champ award was sponsored by Miller-Davis. CIS Board member and Bronson Healthcare Vice President Terry Morrow presented the award.

Where to begin? We could go back to 1914, when this next Champ was born right here in Kalamazoo. But let’s just go back 17 years, when Communities In Schools first had the pleasure of partnering with The Rotary Club of Kalamazoo and seeing, first hand, Rotarians living out their club’s motto: Service above Self.

STRIVE working together at Hays Park.

It was in 2001 that Rotary kicked off its STRIVE program, in which Kalamazoo Central High School students are paired with a Rotarian who serves as a STRIVE mentor. Having this one-on-one relationship with a caring adult helps students at risk of dropping out, to stay in school and on track for graduation.

In 2015, Rotarians expanded its STRIVE program to Loy Norrix High School and also initiated a Career Connections program. A national survey released in 2014 by Achieve showed that approximately 50% of recent high school graduates reported gaps in preparation for life after high school. The Kalamazoo Rotary is working to bridge this gap. CIS Senior Site Coordinator Montrell Baker says that through Career Connections, juniors and seniors have the opportunity to meet and build relationships with Rotarians or other career professionals in Kalamazoo. “Connecting with these professionals and having a chance to interview them is a fun and exciting way to learn what it really means to work in the career that has captured their interest.

While supporting high school students, they haven’t forgotten about our elementary students. Because promoting literacy is one of the club’s goals, they joined forces with CIS as part of their Rotary Is For Reading Campaign. They know that research shows that students who read proficiently before fourth grade are far more likely to finish school and pursue higher education. So, for the past eight Aprils, they have worked with the school district and CIS to foster College Awareness Week, where Rotarians pair up and step into second grade classrooms throughout Kalamazoo Public Schools. Wearing college gear and armed with the book, I Know I Can, they promote literacy, a college-going culture, and inspire students to take advantage of the Kalamazoo Promise. Each student receives their own copy of the book, in which young animal characters share their dreams and career aspirations and commit to preparing for college. Each student also receives a bracelet inscribed with “I Know I Can” to remind them that they too must prepare for college, even as second graders.

Whether it’s reading to thousands of elementary students, adopting a CIS family for the holidays, or making personal and career connections with high school students, Rotarians are truly united in the ideal of Service above Self.

Rotary Club of Kalamazoo, we thank you for helping kids stay in school and achieve in life.