A Parade of Ugly For a Good Cause

We may not have the annual holiday parade or the Holly Jolly Trolley this year, but Kalamazoo has a parade of ugly sweaters! If you follow this blog or have walked around downtown enjoying the Christmas lights, you probably already know about the 2020 Ugly Sweater Contest and Exhibit.

“Given these challenging times, we had to reimagine this event,” says Communities In Schools of Kalamazoo (CIS) Executive Director James Devers, in referencing the ugly sweater party that CIS has hosted for the past five years. The event brings awareness to the CIS “whole child” approach of supporting students, which includes providing essentials that—when missing—can get in the way of learning. “We had to figure out a new way to raise both awareness and funds for the work we do throughout 20 Kalamazoo Public Schools.”

Reimagine, indeed. Toss in loads of creativity, a handful of mannequins, and a host of elves, er, sponsors, and you have one friendly, yet ugly competition and exhibit to help support the 12,000 students CIS works with throughout the year.

Kalsec is the presenting sponsor helping to transform this Ugly Sweater event into a new and beautiful thing. Kalsec CEO Scott Nykaza says, “There is, quite simply, no better way to support the success of students in Kalamazoo than through supporting efforts performed by everyone at CIS.”

In addition to presenting sponsor Kalsec, the following sponsors have each designed and hand-crafted ugly sweaters for CIS virtual and storefront exhibits to help raise vital funding for students: Abraxas/YMCA of Kalamazoo, Edwards Garment, Fifth Third Bank, First National Bank of Michigan, Friends of Poetry, Humphrey Products, Husted’s Farm Market, Rotaract of Kalamazoo, Unifab Corporation, VIP team at CIS, and WMU Office of Diversity and Inclusion.

Some of the ugly sweaters on display at the Exchange Building.

Thanks to in-kind sponsors PlazaCorp (providing the storefront window) and Memories Bridal & Evening Wear (providing the mannequins), the community can visit these unique sweaters in person now through December 18th. The window display is located downtown at the Exchange Building, on the southeast corner of W. Michigan and S. Rose, across from Bronson Park. These ugly creations are also being featured on the CIS Facebook page during “12 Days of Sweaters.

The sweaters are also on virtual display, here on the CIS website through the end of December. You can visit the sweaters virtually or in person and then cast your vote for the ugliest sweater. Each dollar donated in support of a sweater is considered a vote. The first $2,500 raised will be kindly matched by Kalsec. Voting concludes on the last day in December and, at that time, the sweater with the most in donations/votes will be crowned the winner.

“The sweaters may be ‘ugly,’ but the cause is beautiful,” says Devers. “Every vote, which translates into every dollar given, supports students in our community, empowering them to stay in school and succeed in life. It doesn’t get more beautiful than that.”

[You can catch this recently aired video of Devers speaking about the event with Fox 17 here.)

Mirror, Mirror On The Wall, What’s The Ugliest Lie Of All?

uglysweaterOne of my colleagues kept suggesting I write an ugly post to remind folks to come out to our Ugly Sweater Party with the Young Professionals that is going on later this afternoon, Tuesday, December 9 at Old Burdicks Bar & Grill. 5-7pm. I told them no. “Admission is free with minimum $10 donation or a new item from the Wish List,” they’d remind me.

“I’m coming to the party,” I said. “But I DO NOT WANT TO WRITE AN UGLY POST.” But they didn’t seem to take the hint and kept nudging. I must admit, we’re all pretty good about that at CIS.  About not letting go or giving up when we believe in something. Especially when it comes to kids. (There must be something in the water here because it is a trait we share with Kalamazoo Public School teachers, staff, administrators and countless community partners and volunteers.) So, buckle up.

Here comes ugly.

That’s what he said. It feels like I heard that a thousand times as a young girl. For the first two of my school age years, I walked to my friend’s house, waited while she finished breakfast so we could walk safely together to school. My friend’s father would regularly tease me, say, “How are you doing, Ugly?” Or “Hey, everyone, here comes Ugly!” I didn’t say anything to my parents or teachers. I was embarrassed because a part of me believed him. I did have a huge gap in my front teeth. So big it felt like a car could drive through it. And why did I agree to that stupid shag haircut in first grade? What other classmates looked like Mrs. Brady?

Kindergarten picture, pre-shag haircut

 

Fortunately for me, my friend and her family moved after a few years. I also have a pretty strong ego. (My husband complains that it’s too strong.) And it didn’t hurt that I was accidently born into a family that could pay to close my gap with braces, that I had opportunities outside of school to feel good about myself. Mostly, I got over the ugly because of caring adults. This experience, though, is one of the things that drew me to CIS. It took a while to believe in myself, for a host of caring adults, like my parents, an orthodontist, two piano teachers, and a slew of fine school teachers to wipe away the ugly. It left a scar I’m content to bear—it’s made me hyper-focused on all the ugly things children hear along the way. The messages we send—intentional or not—that seep into their psyche until they believe the ugly.

Here is the ugliest truth of all: too many of our kids lose hope in themselves every day. Kids  who have come to believe they are nothing but a bad grade, who feel as empty as their tummies, and begin to believe that theKalamazoo Promise® isn’t for kids like them.

It’s hard to take in all this ugly. But we owe it to our kids to hang in there with them and give them hope. Every day, our CIS Site teams along with hundreds of volunteers and school and community partners are doing just that. Here’s just one great example of the kind of beauty that cuts at ugly:

When Kalamazoo Central High School identified some young men with patterns of missing school, skipping classes, academics slipping—clear warning signs that these students were at risk of dropping out—CIS Site Coordinator Deborah Yarbrough jumped into action and started meeting with each student to connect them to a men’s group. Some of them told her: “It’s no use. 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 because CIS partner, Pastor James Harris and his team were 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 the site coordinator wasn’t surprised, when one day 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.

This is the kind of beauty that CIS Site Coordinators are orchestrating every day. Putting just the right resources—volunteers like Pastor James, Kalamazoo College students, or a grief therapist from Hospice Care of Southwest Michigan—with the right kids at the right time. They do an awesome job of it and kids can’t help but stumble into their own beauty.

But the ugly side of this same coin is that we need more people to step up. Todonate, volunteer, and partner. To advocate for both integrated student services and stable and adequate school funding.

So, if you have survived this ugly ride, thanks for hanging in there. Come on down to Burdick’s and hang out with us from 5-7pm. Bring a donation of $10 or some newclothing item for CIS Kids’ Closet (packs of underwear, winter boots, and sweats especially needed). They’ll be plenty of food, fun, and prizes for the ugliest sweaters. (I even hear that Burdick’s is making a signature drink for CIS!)

And, if you didn’t like this ugly post, I don’t want to hear it. Stop downtown at Burdick’s and let my colleague know. (You can’t miss her. She’ll be the one wearing an ugly sweater.)

Can’t make it? We understand. It’s a busy time. We just ask that you take a moment to consider making a donation to CIS. No matter the amount, your contribution takes a bite out of ugly. ‘Tis the season after all. No matter what form of action you choose to take, it reminds our children—and all of us—that they are a treasure worth fighting for. That is one beautiful message that will never go out of season.