Leslie Lami-Reed: Keeping Kids Warm for over Three Decades

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 Leslie Lami-Reed. A retired Kalamazoo Public Schools teacher, Leslie is the warm heart behind the Warm Kids Project, a non-profit dedicated to providing new winter outerwear to children in need within our community. We wanted to bring you more about Leslie and a behind the scenes glimpse of how this organization has been beating strong for 34 years. [More information about Warm Kids can be found on their website, here.]

Leslie was born and raised in a once thriving steel town near Pittsburgh, PA. She holds a Bachelor of Arts/Art Education degree from Indiana University of Pennsylvania. She also received a Masters in Education from Marygrove College. We popped this quiz on Leslie a few months back, just as she and Warm Kids were gearing up to provide over a 1,000 new coats and 1,000 new boots to kids throughout Kalamazoo County.

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

Pop Quiz

What brought you to Kalamazoo?

What brought me to Michigan 47 years ago, was my interest in alternative schools and cooperative education, which was a concept evolving in the 60’s and 70’s. I got my first job out of college at a co-operative summer camp, named Circle Pines Center in Delton, Michigan where I was the Arts Director. That led to my first KPS job as a teacher in the preschool and high school at CEYW (Continuing Education for Young Women) at Old Central High School on Westnedge. This was an alternative high school for pregnant teenagers, which supported pregnant teens who wanted to finish high school instead of dropping out. There they would learn parenting skills, nutrition, receive pre-natal care and continue their schooling while preparing to become a parent. I moved on to become an art teacher at Northeastern Junior High, then taught in many KPS elementary schools, usually traveling between two schools each week. Oh, the changes I’ve seen! Kalamazoo Public Schools is always innovating. I taught at Washington when it became a magnet Writers’ Academy, experienced “open classrooms,” and team teaching. I saw computers work their way into every classroom, and then, the Kalamazoo Promise!

It was during your years as a teacher that inspired you to start Warm Kids Project. Can you tell us more about that?

Every public school in every town has children who come to school without warm clothing in winter. They wear layers of sweaters and go out in the snow at recess wearing sneakers. I was teaching at Greenwood Elementary in 1984, when a friend and I decided to “adopt” a Greenwood family and purchase winter clothing for the children at Christmas time. The next year, we asked ten friends to give $100 to purchase clothing and the Project was born. I credit Nancy Mackenzie for having the initiative to start the Project and do the work of incorporating Warm Kids Project into a 501.c3 in 1986. I have been the person continuing Warm Kids Project with a small team for 34 years. I could not do this work for so long without the strong support of my working Board and my husband Bill. We are all dedicated volunteers.

What are you learning about yourself and/or the world during these challenging times?

Many people support Warm Kids Project because they know they are helping LOCAL children in need. I keep a close eye on the poverty rates for each of the 50 schools we serve in the eight school districts of Kalamazoo County and the amount of clothing each school receives is based on that number. In our county, 49% of school-age children qualify for free or reduced lunch! If we can help out a family that is having a rough time by providing a warm coat and boots for their kids, it is a blessing for everyone. I think of it as a big warm hug! I’m proud of the fact that schools can rely on Warm Kids Project to be there year after year, offering warm clothing. I can’t imagine a time when the Project would not be needed. Can you?

No! And we are so grateful for your commitment to kids. And to all those who support your mission to ensure that every child is warmly dressed and prepared to meet the bus or walk to school. [Even though many students in our area are learning virtually from home due to the pandemic, schools in our area, having quality outerwear has never been more important. If kids are dressed warmly, this winter they can take a break from their screens and spend some time outdoors, getting some sunshine and exercise.] Warm Kids is one of the critical “tools” CIS site coordinators pull out of their tool box of resources to help students meet their basic needs. [Two students, Charlotte (top) and Omar (bottom), happily trying on their new coats and boots from Warm Kids Project.]

What is your perspective of CIS working with Warm Kids over the years in the KPS elementary and middle schools?

There are only eight people (our Board) involved in the total operation of Warm Kids Project. The only way Warm Kids Project can provide 1200 coats and 1200 boots to county schools is because of the volunteers, such as CIS workers, at each site. Each site determines who will receive clothing, measures kids, contacts parents, gets the order forms in on time, distributes the clothing, exchanges the clothing. Your participation is the vital link we need to accomplish this important work. We are so glad that you, CIS, have taken that responsibility to heart. Our donors don’t get to see the look of happiness on a child’s face when they get their new coat, hat and boots, but you do. Thank you for being the important link between Warm Kids and the children you serve.

You’ve been engaged in this project for over 30 years now. When it comes to keeping kids warmly dressed, what have you noticed to be the biggest challenge? Or perhaps the most surprising?

I’ve been retired from teaching for ten years and it seems as though running Warm Kids Project is a part-time job. It is a lot of work during the fall. My challenge is pondering how the Project will continue if I can no longer do the work. Surprisingly, good people have always shown up when the need was expressed and currently, things are going smoothly. So, you can expect Warm Kids Project will be back in 2021. Right now, in November 2020, I am already deep into purchasing warm clothing for next year … Black Friday prices, you know!

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

Leslie and Bill

I’m so fortunate to have the support of family and friends. My husband, Bill, is on the Board and has helped so much in so many ways. My mother, who is 92 years old is very proud of my involvement in Warm Kids Project. She talks about it to all her pals at Friendship Village (in Pittsburgh). We have eight women who like to knit hats for us, one who sends boxes from Colorado! These personal relationships mean a lot to me and I am grateful for everyone who helps us get those coats and boots out to children. Thank you, CIS, for all the work you do to make it happen in Kalamazoo Schools. I hope it is rewarding for each of you, too!

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

John Oliver: Listening to that still, small voice

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 Oliver. When John joined the CIS support staff in August of this past year as Director of Quality & Evaluation, he became the second John in the downtown office (shout out to John Brandon!), so colleagues began referring to him as “Dr. John.”

John grew up in Lansing, Michigan, graduating from Everett, the same high school that Irving “Magic” Johnson attended. He then moved to Atlanta to attend Morehouse College. After graduating, he returned to Michigan and entered Marygrove College in Detroit, obtaining a teaching certification and a Masters in Educational Leadership. He taught for seven years at Gardener Middle School, the same building he had attended as a youth.

He then pursued his doctorate in Educational Leadership from Michigan State University. “I wanted to remove barriers,” he says. While there, John worked with his advisor who was the evaluator for a Kellogg project for community change. “That’s where I made the connection between community and the schools needing to work closely together. We looked at eleven different communities across the country and how they were doing change. My doctoral dissertation focused on the power of youth and adult partnerships.”

Around this time John also developed an interest in radio through involvement in “an offshoot” that grew out of his work on the Kellogg project. “We formed this learning exchange, beginning with the original 11 communities we worked with and it eventually grew to 75.” Radio, he says, can be a platform for communities to exchange ideas and can “bring together wisdom of place.”

Last year, after six years as an assistant professor at Texas State University, John, his wife Michele, and their daughter Joelle moved to Michigan to be closer to family.

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

Pop Quiz

You mentioned the phrase “wisdom of place” in referencing the radio project you were involved with in Texas. Talk more about that.

In thinking about place-based leadership, it’s important to never take for granted that someone who doesn’t have a title isn’t someone who should also be at the table…Too often it’s the people with credentials making decisions on behalf of those they represent. We miss out on a lot of capacity, on the wisdom of place, and the power of people when this occurs. To really learn and exchange ideas, we must check our credentials at the door. We learn more by asking than just by sharing or telling. That’s always the case when working with children.

You once taught at an African-centered charter school. Can you tell us more about that?

99% of the students were African American. We placed students at the center of their learning, asking them to consider Where am I in this topic? Where are my people in this? So, for example, let’s say students are learning about 1492 in history. What happens in 1492? Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue. Students would discuss things like, How do you/can you discover some place if people are already there?

Critical consciousness and centering is what we taught alongside each topic and the African-centered approach was embedded within everything and whatever benchmarks we covered. We always posed the question, Okay, where are you in this and how are you centered? We pushed students to get to that base, to consider African diaspora throughout their course work. The experience culminated in the eighth-grade class going on study tour up the Nile. I went with the students. It was an incredible experience.

You’re now the data guy for CIS. How would you describe what you do?

My role, the way I articulate my role to others, is that I’m trying to make sense of what the data says. To be clear, data is more than just numbers, graphs, and charts. It’s also the dialogue, the conversations and the responses with people. It’s about relationships and finding relationships between the numbers. What’s happening between relationships of people, organizations, and the community? What is the story?

Can you tell us one story?

The story I’m trying to understand now is how to ask a new question. The question we’ve struggled with as educators over the years has been how do we assess at-risk or marginalized student populations? To that end, we zero in on incarcerated youth, drop outs, etcetera. However, being here in Kalamazoo and learning how resource-rich this community is, as well as being a Promise community, that’s huge, right? So how do we look at this with fresh eyes, in a new way? When we do, it becomes not so much looking at “at-risk youth,” but looking at what is keeping students from not using the Promise.

CIS is focused on removing barriers that put students at-risk of not using the Promise. I have an appreciation for this multi-layered, multi-faceted approach to student success and am really pleased to be working here in a community invested in the CIS model of integrated student services.

Favorite word?

Positivity. It’s actually one of my top five words.

What are the other four?

Futuristic, adaptability, connectedness, and maximizer.

Are those all words you try to apply to your life?

Yes. Those are my identified strengths within the five domains of the Clifton StrengthsFinder 2.0 that we all took at our CIS orientation launch in the fall. It was both reassuring and a little creepy how accurate it was. But, wow, it really makes sense…I’m in the right place, doing the right things. Everything is aligned.

What are you currently reading?

Start With Why. It’s by Simon Sinek.

Sounds like nonfiction.

It is. I don’t do fiction. If I’m going to read something, I want to learn. I always like to increase my skills set. When I want to be creative, I explore that avenue through music, playing the guitar and listening to music.

What do you love about Kalamazoo?

Lot of things. It’s small but close enough to larger venues and cities. Most importantly, though, it’s a tight, close community.

Any favorite places yet?

The Farmer’s Market. That was a cool discovery!

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

My parents, of course. Especially my dad. He passed last year. We got here to Kalamazoo just before he passed. We arrived in September and he passed in December. It wasn’t expected.

What a difficult thing to go through. I imagine your mom must appreciate that you have been here in Michigan during this difficult time.

Yes. It helps to know that we were listening to what the universe was putting out there, listening to that still small voice that said, Get back to Michigan.

What is something interesting you’ve recently learned?

It’s important to follow that still, small voice. Listen and follow.

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

John Oliver, Director of Quality & Evaluation (far left) modeling Millie’s mittens (you can read that post here) with CIS staff John Brandon, Partner Services Coordinator, Alonzo Demand, Human Resources Coordinator, and Michael Harrison, Associate Director of Site Services.