Pop Quiz: Amy Kuchta

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.

January is National Mentoring Month and today we feature Amy Kuchta, Chief Executive Officer of Big Brothers Big Sisters. Whether it’s school-based mentoring or working together on initiatives like Bigs in Business, Big Brothers Big Sisters and Communities In Schools of Kalamazoo have been working together for over a decade to serve students in the Kalamazoo Public Schools. Amy has been involved in both sides of the partnership, having left Big Brothers in 2009 to serve as director of elementary sites for three years and then returned to Big Brothers Big Sisters in 2012 to serve as CEO. “CIS is critical to us. We have a powerful partnership and are able to provide services directly to the kids that need them. CIS is the link that makes sure we are able to reach the kids who are in the greatest needs of our services.”

Did you know that Big Brothers Big Sisters serves five counties and there are over 200 children waiting to be matched with a mentor? Amy says this number stays fairly steady as once a child is matched, another is then added to the waiting list. Think you might want to be a Big Sister, Big Brother, Big Couple, or Big Family? Click here for more information.

Amy Kuchta
Amy Kuchta

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


What is something interesting you’ve recently learned? 

This may sound geeky but I like looking at our program data, reflecting on 2015, and thinking about what we can do to improve in 2016.

What one thing did you learn in pouring over the data?

We expanded some of our programs. This made it more flexible for mentors and because of this we were able to serve more middle school and high school students. Traditionally, when people come in they want to be paired with an elementary student. People assume middle and high school students don’t want mentors—which isn’t the case at all. They want to be connected with caring adults, too.

What are you currently reading?

I’m re-reading a book by Barbara Ehrenreich called Nickel and Dimed. I love that book! I read it every couple years. I find it fascinating. Her book provides a striking picture of the challenges many individuals with minimum wage jobs face, that struggle to get by day to day.

What do you want to be when you grow up?

I see myself here for a long time. I love what I do and the impact we’re having on the kids we serve.

What did you want to be when you were little?

[Amy laughs.] A Supreme Court Justice or President of the United States.

You’d be good at either, but were glad you’re here in Kalamazoo. Tell us something more about you.

Hmmm. I do read a lot of books about list of post-apocalyptic fiction. I find them intriguing—all the survival scenarios. I guess I like books that focus on ways people creatively figure out ways to survive in challenging circumstances.

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

I had a teacher in sixth grade named Mr. Pierce. My father had died about a year before and Mr. Pierce really took me under his wing and looked out for me. He made sure I had everything I needed, including emotional support, to get through a tough time.

As you know, it’s Mentoring month. We hear that word a lot, mentoring. How do you define mentoring?

I’d say that mentoring is a consistent and caring relationship between two people. At Big Brothers Big Sisters, we call them ‘Bigs’ and ‘Littles’ but we know there is an impact on both.

Thank you, Amy!






Signing On For Life

Today we celebrate the work of Rosalie Novara who was honored at the seventh annual Champ celebration. CIS Board Member Stephen Denenfeld along with Stacy Salters, CIS Site Coordinator at Edison Environmental Science Academy, presented the award.

Kawyie Cooper (left) and Rosalie Novara (Right)
Kawyie Cooper (left) and Rosalie Novara (Right)

Rosalie Novara began her extensive volunteer commitment by signing on to become a mentor with the KAAAP initiative—the Kalamazoo Area Academic Achievement Program—when it was still part of the Chamber of Commerce. When Rosalie signs on, Rosalie signs on!  Not only did she embrace her role as a KAAAP mentor for the girl to whom she was assigned, she also became a key support person for the sister. Rosalie took seriously the importance of staying with her mentee from the beginning of the relationship at 4th grade throughout high school to graduation and entry to college.

When we say that there is a role for everyone in the community in improving the lives of our children and helping the whole community thrive, Rosalie sings our song. She began her volunteer stint while she was still a busy CEO of a large non-profit organization dedicated to improving the quality of life for people with disabilities. She could have easily been given a “pass” on volunteering. She now has six grandchildren in Chicago and Denver, another reason to be given a “pass” on a regular volunteer stint. Rosalie’s KAAAP mentee and sister are now adults and have their own children. Rosalie even served as a labor and delivery coach for one.  She has more than fulfilled her KAAAP obligation—and qualified to retire.

20140506-DSC_7635Fortunately for CIS, Rosalie is definitely not in retirement mode. Like Star Trek, the Next Generation, Rosalie has begun her commitment to another generation of children by tutoring in a kindergarten classroom at King Westwood Elementary School and serving as a mentor/tutor for two students. According to CIS Site Coordinator, Laura Keiser, Rosalie advocates for them relentlessly, implementing behavior and academic interventions. Rosalie connects easily to a variety of students, finding out what motivates them and what they are passionate about.

Whether it’s tutoring, mentoring, attending student conferences, stopping by to touch base with the CIS Site Coordinator, Rosalie understands and embraces the critical role that volunteers play in students’ lives and in the quality of life of an entire community.  In addition to volunteering with Communities In Schools, Rosalie serves a key role in the Great Start Early Childhood Action Network.

Rosalie Novara, we thank you for helping kids stay in school and achieve in life.


Happy Birthday, Blog!

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

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

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

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

Birthday Candles

Pastor Gets Real With Young Men

_DSC0843Today we highlight the work of Pastor James Harris. He was honored this past spring at the sixth annual Champ Celebration.  (This is the six installment of a nine part series.)

These days, the road to becoming a man is fraught with peril. The statistics are frightening. Throughout our nation, boys are suspended at roughly twice the rate of girls. Two-thirds of the Ds and Fs given out in school go to boys. Boys are one-third more likely to drop out before finishing high school. African-American males are particularly vulnerable; one in five receives out-of-school suspension compared with one in ten white males.

So when Principal Lisa Van Loo and some of her Kalamazoo Central Staff were reviewing student data and noticed young men with patterns of missing school, skipping classes, academics slipping—clear warning signs that these students were at risk of dropping out—they knew they needed to do something. But what? Principal Van Loo turned to her CIS Site Coordinator Deb Yarbrough who suggested a Men’s group. Researchers have learned from dropouts themselves that one thing that might have kept them in school was if they had someone within their school they felt comfortable talking to and seeking guidance for problems they facedoutside of the classroom.

This men’s group needed the right person for the job, but who? And then Deb thought of Pastor James Harris. As the former CIS Site Coordinator at Edison Environmental Science Academy, Deb had seen first hand the way in which kids had been transformed under his volunteer work as a tutor. So she approached him, and his response? “Let me round up a few others.” He recruited Chris Pompey and Thomas Taylor, III and took them to the CIS Connections training for volunteers.

_DSC0210In the meantime, Deb started meeting with each student to connect them to the group. “It’s no use,” some of them told her. “I’ve messed up too badly. What’s the point? The Promise isn’t for kids like me.”

“Just come once,” she said. “Promise me that.” And they did. Again and again. James and his team are surrounding these young men with love, speaking to each, as Nelson Mandela says, “in his own language, that goes not to his head but his heart.” So Deb wasn’t surprised, when one Thursday, Pastor James dragged a bag of trash into the group. “What’s this?” he asked the young men. “Trash,” they said. “You sure?” he replied. The young men realized that they couldn’t be sure, not until they searched through it. Turns out, mixed in with all that trash was a 100 dollar bill Pastor James had tucked inside an envelope. The lesson learned that day? Despite missteps along the way, value resides inside each of them and they do not need to throw their life away. Pastor James says humbly of his team, “We’re just here to remind them we’ve had those moments too. And we still have those moments. These young men need to know they can make a difference in their lives and they will go on to make a difference in others’ lives.”

_DSC0254-EditOnce skipping school, some on the verge of dropping out, seeds of hope are taking hold in these young men. All eight have improved their attendance and are passing their classes. They are staying in school, setting goals for their future, attending job fairs, arranging and going on college visits, talking about leaving a legacy. When their Site Coordinator asks them how it is going, they now say things like, “I want to be a better role model for my little brother. I’m doing better. I’m on time for class.” “I’m learning what it means to be a man, a father.” “The Men’s group has inspired me to be a better person. They lead me to do the right things. They really inspire me to do my best.” “I’m getting better grades and have eliminated my bad habits.”

“The men’s group,” writes Dariyon, “has pushed me to explore my interest in public speaking.” Dariyon is about to embark on something he once thought impossible, an internship with a radio station.

“I’ve changed,” says Elijah. “I barely went to school. They have motivated me to come back. They inspire me…I’m thinking I might go to Western after I graduate.”

We too have been inspired by James Harris, his passion for young people, his support of students from elementary to high school, his wisdom in bringing other committed volunteers—men like Chris and Thomas to the table, and his willingness to stand up to the silent epidemic that threatens the bright futures of our young men right here in Kalamazoo.

Pastor James Harris, we thank you for helping students stay in school and achieve in life.

Mentoring Magic: One Mentor’s Perspective

“We make a living by what we get, we make a life by what we give.”  Winston Churchill

It’s National Mentoring Month. Here’s a heartfelt piece from a mentor among us, Artrella Cohn, Director of Secondary Sites for Communities In Schools of Kalamazoo.

It was almost ten years ago. I was an eager, determined, yet green, Kalamazoo Communities In Schools Foundation (KCISF) social work intern at Milwood Elementary School. I was a fresh face, a newbie amongst more seasoned professionals (mostly from the field of Education). I knew my life’s purpose was to positively impact the lives of young people. How exactly I would fulfill this purpose was still unclear to me. But it was time to get started. It was time to meet my first student-client.

Then we met. A quiet, impressionable 9 year old in the fourth grade.  According to her teacher and others in the building, this young lady could benefit from one-on-one guidance. I was not convinced I could make a difference, but I can appreciate a challenge.

The relationship grew quickly and my fourth grade student-client became more like the younger sister that I never had, but sometimes longed for. We met multiple times a week and worked on coping skills, managing her feelings, self-image, and goal setting. I shared my experience as a college student and plans to apply to grad schools. She was as interested in my world as I was in hers. Neither of which were picture perfect. But the two of us together were truly a perfect match.

Grad school and a blossoming career away from Kalamazoo would keep us physically apart over six years. But, I would often speak with my friends in Kalamazoo and get an update and send messages to her from me through them.  I would never forget the young lady who represented my first opportunity to fulfill my life’s purpose.

As fate would have it, I decided to move back to Kalamazoo in late 2009 and take a Senior Site Coordinator position with the organization that gave me my first real experience as a future Social Worker, Communities In Schools of Kalamazoo (yes, there was a slight name change or two since I had been gone). My site would be Kalamazoo Central High School, a building of just under 1700 students.

Many months into my new experience at Kalamazoo Central, I found myself rushing from my office, trying to leave the building for a meeting without getting intercepted by a teacher, staff or student. Thankfully, I made it to the door.

But WAIT… Am I seeing who I think I am seeing?

Ricki: Ms. Trella?!?!

Me:  Oh my goodness!!! I cannot believe my eyes right now.

We give one another a tight hug and laugh about how I have been in the building for months and our paths have not (to our knowledge) crossed.  I promised to follow up with her the next day.

It is now three years later and it feels like a lifetime. As a mentor, I have been able to have difficult conversations, help to prepare her for prom, help with college applications, chat about her desires to go into the Navy, lose my voice screaming at her high school graduation as she finishes with honors, watch and record (with tears of joy) as she graduates from Navy Boot Camp, be on the other end of the call when she shares that she is being stationed in California, have breakfast with her the morning she headed to the airport for California and have lunch together and spend quality time with her during her visit back home for the holidays.

It is apparent to me that this young lady looked at her circumstances over the years as stepping stones to reaching her full potential. While CIS and other people have played a role in encouraging her and supporting her in many ways, she has done much of the work on her own. She is the optimal example of a resilient child.

I know that she has played an integral part and helped to shape the path of my career in the field of Social Work. I am now the Director of Secondary Sites for CIS of Kalamazoo and am therefore able to work with many more students who have difficult and often similar challenges that she has faced. But, I will admit, this one student has truly been the glimmer of hope that will forever positively impact my life’s purpose. I am thankful for having her in my life more than she will probably ever know.

My plea to the community at large, but especially the young adults and college students, is to consider committing your time to mentoring a young person. It will likely do more for you than you’d expect.