Jessica Waller: From KPS to Kellogg (and back)

CIS Think Summer! is underway and Jessica Waller helped Communities In Schools of Kalamazoo (CIS) kick off programming—virtual this summer, due to COVID-19—by offering a fun, informative, and interactive presentation for our secondary students. CIS Think Summer! is organized by various career themes, the first of which is focused on food and food-related careers. As you’ll quickly discover, Mrs. Waller was the perfect person for the job.

Ms. Waller connecting with students through computer.

 

Jessica (Savage) Waller is a proud Kalamazoo native and graduate of Kalamazoo Public Schools (KPS); Mrs. Waller attended Northeastern Elementary, South Junior High School (currently known as Maple Street Magnet School for the Arts), and Kalamazoo Central High School. Mrs. Waller’s parents always stressed the importance of getting an education and served as examples for her through their professions. Her father was employed at the state of Michigan at the Michigan Commission for the Blind Training Center as a Mobility and Orientation Instructor and as an adjunct instructor at Western Michigan University in the Department of Blindness and Low Vision Studies and her mother owned a day care.

Upon graduating high school, Mrs. Waller earned a full scholarship to Western Michigan University. At first, she was not sure what she should major in and her mother suggested Business. Later, Mrs. Waller discovered the Food Marketing major. This would allow her to work in the food industry which is a plus because she loves all kinds of food!

Mrs. Waller has been employed with the Kellogg Company for 21 years. She started as an intern and has held several positions within the company along the way to being promoted to her current position of Vice President of the Salty Snacks Division. Mrs. Waller is proud to work for an organization that values Diversity and Inclusion. These two core company values can be traced back to the founder, W.K. Kellogg. For example, the company added love notes in braille to one of their signature products, Rice Krispie Treats; Mrs. Waller was instrumental in this project. Mrs. Waller stated “Inclusion is in our DNA. Everyone is important, and we want each child to be able to feel loved, supported and acknowledged.”

When Mrs. Waller is not busy developing exciting selling stories for customers, she is spending time with her family which includes seven children ranging from the ages of 24 to two years old.

Agenda Ms. Waller shared with students

Mrs. Waller also recently spent time with Ask Me About My 12,000 Kids. Her interview follows.

As part of your presentation—which, by the way, was extremely well received by the youth (and grownups) in attendance—you discussed product innovation. It seems that innovation has a natural relationship with diversity and inclusion. Love notes in braille on Kellogg’s Rice Krispy Treats is an excellent example of this. Innovation, like diversity and inclusion, just doesn’t magically happen. Kellogg’s obviously puts work into living out the values of diversity and inclusion. That effort involves creative thinking, listening, and strategizing. Can you speak more about this relationship of diversity, inclusion, and innovation?

Diversity and Inclusion (or D&I) is in the DNA of the Kellogg Company. It started with our founder, WK Kellogg, who was really the Father of the Cereal Category. His persistence resulted in a tremendous amount of innovation, products we now enjoy daily around the breakfast table. Despite many challenges along the way, WK did not give up, and that persistence clearly paid off after many decades of hard work and commitment. At the heart of his work, he solidly believed in changing the world for the better. As part of that, he believed in investing in others, often quoting, “I’ll invest my money in people.” And that he did.

Today, thousands of employees globally still live by the core value set forward by WK. Diversity and Inclusion efforts are at the heart of everything that we do. We have eight different Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) at Kellogg that represent different areas of focus, and these groups work to ensure that every employee can bring their best self to work every day. I served for the last five years as a Co-Chair for one such ERG, Kapable, which focuses on those employees that might be disabled (or differently-abled as we like to say) or might have family members who are. One of the initiatives we helped lead within Kapable was an inclusivity effort within the Rice Krispies Treats Love Notes campaign, which resulted in the release of Rice Krispies Treats Love Notes stickers for both blind and autistic children. These stickers can be placed on the top of Rice Krispies Treats and share a special message of love and recognition for children as they return to school. Because love and inclusivity are the most important school supplies, aren’t they?

Kelloggs Rice Krispies treats braille stickers (Kelloggs)

Yes, you are correct, innovation doesn’t just happen, and neither does diversity and inclusion. They all take hard work, persistence, and a determination to never give up. When paired together, they can change the world, just as WK aspired to do. Hope is not a strategy—we all have to get involved—and I am personally committed to pushing for a better tomorrow.

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

I am learning that I haven’t done enough. I was raised by socially progressive parents who always believed in community involvement, engaging in the service of others, and equality for all, and so all three of us kids have carried that forth as a way of living and representation within our own communities and families. I thought that I was doing my part by not being closed-minded and by engaging in work that encourages inclusion and diversity. As I have done some reflection over the past several months, I have recognized that simply isn’t enough. It’s a start, but in order to truly make the world a better place, it’s going to take aggressive action, activism, loud voices, persistence, teaching of our children, and most importantly…listening.

I’ve also learned that every challenge brings forth an opportunity for unity. COVID-19 presented an immediate challenge globally, one that quickly divided us all into our own separate homes and lives and significantly changed our former lifestyles as we knew them. Yet we saw the best of humanity rise up as people helped one another get access to food supplies, deliver groceries, tend to our children, visit the lonely, and countless other ways of uniting for good. Then we have the rising unemployment rate, which can quickly divide the Have’s and Have-Not’s. Again, another place where I have seen the best of people, rising up to help one another with the necessities for their families, extend arms of employment, sharing of resources, etc.

I would also point to the civil unrest this country has seen come to the forefront as of late with the horrific slayings of several black fellow Americans. While this is yet another example of terrible divide, we see the unity coming to life with people of all walks of life and ethnicities taking to the streets and demanding equality. It’s a pivotal point of change that is long, long overdue, and I will stand with my family to take a part in every one of those opportunities for unity. My prayer is that we all engage in unification opportunities within our own communities and drive to deliver a better world for us and for our children.

Do you have a sense that American’s snacking habits have changed as a result of the pandemic?

Absolutely—people are eating more and eating differently. We are constantly engaging consumers to understand this evolution. COVID-19 created this vertical upheaval in the American way of life that has greatly impacted how, when and why people are eating. We know that 89% of shopper buying habits have changed since the start of COVID. More people are buying online, perhaps having groceries delivered, perhaps shopping in another Channel (type of store) versus where they have traditionally shopped. They certainly stocked up more, at least for a period of time, than what they had in the past, and as a result, they are eating more. I know that’s true for me! Being home 24/7 with a house full of kids that would otherwise be so actively engaged in school and community activities has left us eating more food at home instead! We find that to be true broadly across the US.

What will be most interesting is watching what consumers do after this pandemic settles a bit…will they go back to their former ways or be forever changed? We will be anxious to see!

What is one of your favorite snacks?

Cheez-It Extra Toasty, hands down! I love them.

Thinking back to your days as a KPS student, can you tell us about a teacher(s) who influenced and inspired you?

There were so many that I would honestly feel bad if I called out any one in particular. I rattled off nearly a dozen in my mind as the question was asked. There are many excellent teachers in KPS, and everywhere for that matter. We don’t value them enough in this country, and that has to change. Without teachers, where would any of us be?

What are you currently reading?  

I just finished a book called Top Down Day about a family that lost a loved one and how they processed and coped. I lost my Dad nearly five years ago now to brain cancer, and there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think of him and struggle with that tremendous loss. That book really helped me recognize that many of the personal and painful things I have felt with the loss of my Dad are ‘normal’ feelings. One never knows what to expect in the face of tragedy I suppose, but I’m learning everyday how to cope. I miss him terribly, we all do. But at least I can hold onto the wonderful example and teachings he instilled in me of being kind to others always. As long as I uphold that, he lives on.

What is your favorite word or phrase right now?  

“Just do it.” A former leader in my church said that often, as does Nike, of course. We all need to get up off our couches and out from behind our computer and phone screens and get involved. Don’t overthink the ‘buts’ and ‘whats’…just do it. Do what you know is right.

Anything else you want us to know?

I’m so grateful for this opportunity to engage tomorrow’s leaders. So thank you for that.  If I can ever help in any way, count me in!

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

 

 

 

Reverend Morris “Mo” Brooks: In Schools for Kids

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 Reverend Morris “Mo” Brooks.

A Kalamazoo native and proud graduate of Kalamazoo Public Schools, Reverend Mo attended Northeastern Elementary School, Hillside Middle School, and “the great Kalamazoo Central High School.” He went on to graduate from Western Michigan University with a bachelor’s in social psychology. A number of summers ago, he also served as a youth development worker in CIS Think Summer!

Reverend Mo is the Director of Youth Ministries at Mt. Zion Baptist Church, a position he’s held for almost three years. He’s written a book, Unmasked: The Courage to Be You, and is working on another book, also geared to youth. And still, he makes volunteering with youth in the schools a priority. For the past two years, he’s volunteered with CIS at Kalamazoo Central High School, supporting young men in a group that meets on a weekly basis. The young men have named the group, KC Men of Change.

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

Pop Quiz

Thinking back on your years as a student in the Kalamazoo Public Schools, who was your favorite teacher?

I’d have to say my favorites were my English teacher, Mrs. [Sandra] Daam and Mr. [Topher] Barrett. He was a forensic coach and I was also in his drama class. Mr. Barrett was patient and challenged me to be a leader. Mrs. Daam was loving and hard. Oh, she was hard! But a loving hard. She helped me out a lot.

How would you describe the volunteer work you do with CIS?

For me, the work is really meaningful, especially because when I was their age, I wish that I could have been a part of something like this, to have someone help me make wise decisions, and challenge me.

Last year, I was able to meet with them twice a week and this year, we’re meeting once a week. I’m hoping that next year I’ll be able to go back to doing the group twice a week. When we meet, I’m able to ask the hard questions of them because of my experience growing up, and we have deep conversations. I like impacting them in a positive way.

I sense a great deal of respect for our youth, whether it is here at the church, in the schools, or in the community. Kalamazoo cares about its young men and women.

CIS Site Coordinator Deborah Yarbrough said one of the most impactful sessions for the students was one that had to do with self-love.

Yes, Deb wanted to have a few sessions that combined both the males and females [Young Women with a Purpose], so we did. I had them list five or more people that they love. I then asked them to name the things they do for them because they love them. They identified things like I protect them, I’m loyal to them, I make sacrifices, and so on. I asked them to list five more people they love and then asked, Now how long does the list have to be until you’re on it? It was an eye-opener for them. Too often, our young people aren’t taking care of themselves because they’re busy worrying about others. We then talked about loving ourselves and how that involves things like trusting one’s self and protecting one’s self.

When it comes to engaging our youth, what do adults often forget?

I think they forget that they were once a youth and, along with that, they forget their mistakes.

I can remember my mistakes vividly. In 2015, I wrote a book, Unmasked: The Courage to Be You. In it, I share my own struggles of when I was in high school, my mistakes and regrets, as well as being somebody who I wasn’t. Students often struggle with that.

Sometimes, adults do too!

Yes, and while the book is geared to youth, I’ve had adults who have read it tell me: I’ve needed this!

When it comes to working with young people and connecting with them, what’s your secret?

One, recall your own youth and know your own mistakes. Also, know that their emotions and feelings are real. Too often we can cast them aside or don’t recognize them. Youth don’t always share their feelings but just because they aren’t communicating them to the world, doesn’t mean they aren’t experiencing the feelings. They may be bottling them up, so offering them a safe space to bring out and express their feelings can help. When I share my story, my path, and the wrong things I’ve done, that helps get the process going. They see this guy wearing a suit and tie, and think, well, he has baggage and pain and if he can open like that, maybe I can too. And they start sharing, because now we’ve got this trust thing going on and are connecting on a deeper level, having real conversations.

Speaking of suit and ties, Deborah Yarbrough also mentioned that you implemented a “Dress for Success” day and that that too, was a huge hit and brought the group closer together, identifying even more as a team.

Actually, it wasn’t me but the young men who came up with the idea! Each week, I come wearing a suit and tie to group. We had a tie session last year and taught the young men to tie ties. Last year, the group decided to have a dress up day and it went so well we thought, why not keep this going? And so, this year we had another tie session and then another dress up day!

What are you currently reading?

I’m always reading and listening to books. Right now, I’m listening to Meet Generation Z. It’s written by James Emery White. He takes a look at this next generation that follows the Millennials, or “Generation Z.” He explores the trends, how culture is shifting, how we can reach these young people, minister to them, and serve them.

What is one way, according to the book, that we can reach this next generation?

Answer their questions. With the age we are living in, young people have a lot of questions. We need to listen to those questions and have answers.

James Emery White points out that we are living in a post-Christian world, one in which the norm is that people are no longer connected to a religion. More often than not, as a minister I’ll hear, I don’t have any religion. I’m spiritual, but I don’t belong anywhere. This generation is asking, Is religion necessary? Is it relevant?

What are some of your favorite Kalamazoo places?

Home, here [church], and Sweetwater’s Donuts. That’s about it…I’m really a home body!

Favorite word?

Self-assessment.

I feel like a lot of people have the inability to self-assess. I want to know, how can I grow? What could I have done better? We live in a blame generation. So, when things go wrong, it’s easy to point the finger and blame anybody but ourselves. But if we stop and assess ourselves, recognize hey, I could do this or that better, well, when we do that, we can move forward. If everybody did that, we could really move forward. We need to self-assess.

What is something interesting you’ve recently learned?

The importance of habits as well as practicing those habits. By training on whatever you’re working on, you can build upon good habits. While I’m always learning, that’s the big one right now: habits.

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

During my elementary years, I’d have to say it was Mr. Gary Vanstreain. He was our basketball coach at Northeastern Elementary School. He was so positive, caring, and challenging, and would give you the shirt off his back.

In middle school, there were quite a few. I’ll go with my coach at Hillside, Steve Dunning. He was a disciplinarian and made sure you were on track and what you needed to do to stay on track. Even outside of the court, outside of basketball season, he cared and was on me. He showed that tough love.

In high school, it was Pastor James Harris. I will never forget, I was in a low moment in my life and Pastor Harris came to my house, spoke with me and prayed with me. He set out on a notecard representing where I was and then set out another notecard showing me where I could be, my potential. I doubt he’d remember that, but that moment really impacted me.

Then, in my college years, it was my own pastor, Pastor Moore. He really poured into me, invested in me, mentored and disciplined me.

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

Pop Quiz: Missy Best

(From Left) Judy Moran (Title 1 Achievement & Behavior Support Specialist), Victoria Kiel (CIS Intern from WMU School of Social Work), and Missy Best (CIS Site Coordinator).
(From Left) Judy Moran (Title 1 Achievement & Behavior Support Specialist), Victoria Kiel (CIS Intern from WMU School of Social Work), and Missy Best (CIS Site Coordinator).

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 Missy Best, CIS Site Coordinator at our newest site, Northeastern Elementary School. Prior to her work with CIS, she lived in Mount Pleasant, Michigan and was a Human Resources Generalist for Fabiano Brothers, a wholesale beverage distributor. During this time, she got her associate’s degree from Central Michigan University. When her husband, John, was transferred to Kalamazoo, she and their daughter, Isabel (now an 8th grader in the Kalamazoo Public Schools), naturally followed. “My favorite aspect of human resources was working with people. I wanted to do more of that.” Approaching the move as an opportunity for growth, Missy applied to WMU School of Social Work. “I ended up doing an internship with CIS in 2010 and I never left you guys.”

In our most recent CIS Connections, Missy contributed a great article on the important skill of organization. You can read that here.

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

POP QUIZ

What is something interesting you’ve recently learned? It’s creepy. You still want to know?

Yes.

There are more living organisms living on your body than there are people in the world. [Missy shivers. So do I.] I have a happy one, too. I discovered that there is actually a radio station that plays Christmas music from October to New Year’s Day. It’s become my go-to. It’s hard to have a bad day if you listen to Christmas music, like Frosty the Snowman. I know it’s early and I might be burnt out on Christmas by the time it gets here, but right now it works for me.

The GiverWhat are you currently reading?

I’ve just finished The Silkworm. I can’t say enough good things about it. J.K. Rowlings—who wrote the Harry Potter series—wrote it under the pseudonym Robert Galbraithl. It’s part of her Cormoran Strike detective stories for grown ups. It is really good. Lots of humor. I now plan to read The Giver. My daughter, who attends Maple Street Magnet Middle School, is reading it for school right now.

What do you want to be when you grow up?

Wise.

You already are.

I wish. Every day I realize how much I don’t know. I rely on my instincts in a lot of situations. I wish I had all the answers.

What is your favorite word right now?

Tenacity. It’s fun to say. It’s fun to spell. I just have to keep reminding myself to be tenacious, to keep on chipping away at a problem until it erodes away.

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

My grandma. When I was young, I spent all my free time with my grandma. I can honestly say she is one of the few people who truly believed in me. Always. No exceptions. If I had an idea, she didn’t tell me it was stupid. She asked questions, she encouraged it. We had conversations; real conversations. My opinion mattered. Grandma Z—the Z stands for Zeoli—was a very unusual woman for her time. She contracted polio when she was young but still managed to become educated.  She worked as a teacher even though her parents wanted her to become a nun.

She sounds like she was a special lady. Who is your caring adult these days?

Without a doubt, my husband. He’s my best friend. He was my best friend before we married and someone who still is. I’m really lucky.

CIS—and the three hundred plus students at Northeastern—are fortunate to have Missy and a fabulous team of caring adults—like Principal Vanessa Carter, Secretary Tonya Orbeck, Title 1 Achievement & Behavior Support Specialist Judy Moran, the dedicated KPS teachers and staff, Kids Hope mentors from Second Reformed Church, parents, and many others. Go Northeastern!

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