Jack Szott: Stepping Up to The Plate 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 WMU graduate student Jack Szott. This former CIS volunteer turned CIS advocate is a graduate of Metea Valley High School, located in Aurora, Illinois. Baseball and college brought Jack to Kalamazoo in 2015.

Jack holds a Bachelor’s degree in accounting from Western Michigan University. Throughout his college baseball career, Jack has pitched over 160 innings for Western. He has been awarded Academic All-MAC three times and Distinguished MAC Scholar Athlete three times. He also serves as part of Western’s Student-Athlete Advisory Committee (S.A.A.C). CIS is thankful that this busy college student has carved out time over the years to volunteer and advocate for our 12,000+ kids.

Jack Szott will graduate this June with his Masters in accounting and head to Chicago where he already has an accounting job lined up.

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

Pop Quiz

What is a question you’ve been asked recently?

I lost my wallet yesterday for a six hour period. When I got to the bank to cash in the money for a check for CIS, the question I got was, Can I see your debit card?
Nope, I said.
Can I see your id?
Nope.
We can’t fill out the check unless we have some id. You need to find your wallet.

So where was your wallet?

It was in my room.

Sounds like maybe your room is a little messy?

It’s all relative!

What are you currently reading?

I’ve been reading a few memoirs and biographies of leaders or former leaders. I just finished reading a biography of President George H. W. Bush. It’s Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush by Jon Meacham.

It’s really interesting. I enjoyed learning about his leadership qualities, how he treated people, and what got him to where he was in the position as President of the United States.

What is your favorite word right now?

So many to choose from! But right now, I’d say fortitude. I’ve been around a lot of people who have taught me how to deal with difficult situations and I admire that quality, of being strong enough to deal with what you’re going through and helping others at the same time. I think fortitude is the difference between being a good and a great person.

What are you curious about?

I’m very curious about the future that our country is headed in. We are at a turning point in many ways, such as with technology and politics. Just how we will progress? I like to think and learn about that. I like keeping up with world news and trends.

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in Naperville, Illinois with a brother and sister. My life was always 50/50, divided between school and sports.

Jack Szott, Western Michigan Baseball #36.

How has sports shaped you as a person?

I’ve had no single, larger teacher than sports and baseball. I have gained many insight and lessons that I could not have learned in school. While school is obviously important, sports has molded my personality. More than anything, it has given me—and I know resiliency can be a loaded term, so I’ll say—mental fortitude. What I mean by that is you fail so much more than you succeed in sports. That experience allows you to develop healthy and effective coping mechanisms. It makes it seem a lot more manageable when you are presented with difficult situations or experience failures in life.

I’ve also found that nothing teaches you to communicate better than working with teams in sports, I’ve done a lot of group projects in school and college and felt I had an advantage with being able to communicate and work with the group because of sports.

What is something interesting you’ve recently learned?

I love Marvel movies. Recently my brother and I watched all 22 movies in order. We learned from an avid Marvel fan that some of the most famous scenes and best parts are ad-libbed and were not scripted.

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

Both my parents. My dad taught me to always let your actions and your own achievements speak for themselves. He taught me humility. You don’t need to explain your success to people. They will figure out for themselves. Mental toughness is something else he taught me.

My mom is very passionate and has always encouraged me to pursue what I care about, and to do it as hard as I can. Also, to have fun while doing it. If I have any issues, I call my mom.

How did you first become involved volunteering with CIS?

As Medallion scholars, we were looking for a class project. [Note: The Medallion Scholarship is WMU’s most prestigious merit-based scholarship and is affiliated with Lee Honors College. In 2016, they received a Champ award, which we featured in this post.]

Jane Baas [former Associate Dean of Lee Honors College, now retired] gave us the low-down on CIS and we began a mentorship program at Woodward. I did that for two years—during my junior and senior year. I really enjoyed that. [CIS Site Coordinator] Jen DeWaele assigned each of us a student to work with a couple times a week. [CIS Volunteer and Development Coordinator] Nicky Aiello trained us and then we started meeting with our students in the morning or over the lunchtime. I would always go in the morning and have breakfast with my student.

What a fun way to help a young person start their day. Your students must have loved that.

It was sure good for me! I really enjoyed it and hopefully, they liked it, too.

And then last year, I also volunteered during the Thanksgiving Dinner Giveaway [a Hands Up Foundation project that CIS partners on, with the support of many in the community]. I helped with unloading the truck and going around and packing the dinner bags. That is quite an amazing process! I didn’t think we’d get it all done but with all the volunteers and the system set up, well, we got it done in no time.

That really is something to witness and be a part of, isn’t it? So tell us a bit about WMU’s Student-Athlete Advisory Committee and how you all came to select CIS this year as the organization you wanted to support.

The Student-Athlete Advisory Committee (S.A.A.C.) is made up of two representatives from each WMU sports team. We wanted to come up with a fun, interactive way for our athletes to get involved, to serve the community, and donate to a good cause. We’re now in our second year of doing a dodgeball event.

As we considered potential organizations to support this year, I shared about my great experience with CIS and that I wanted to give back. A second athlete who is also part of the advisory committee said she had a similar experience with CIS and seconded the idea of selecting CIS this year. The committee and our deputy athletic director thought it was a good idea and so I reached out to CIS Volunteer Services Coordinator Nicky Aiello who put me in contact with [Director of Development] Kim Nemire. It was super easy after that.

Is this dodgeball event open to the public?

No. It’s really more for our athletes to spend some time with each other outside of their practices and games. This year, we had teams of six. Three players from a men’s sports team and three from a women’s team. Each athlete pays $5 to be in the tournament. Other athletes are also able to watch for $1. We raised $452. We had about 62 or 63 athletes compete this year. And some of those who watched, donated a dollar or more.

Last week, Jack braved snow-covered and icy roads to stop by CIS and provide Director of Development Kim Nemire with check of money the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee raised from the dodgeball event.

Well it’s a terrifically fun idea, and we’re so grateful to you, the entire Student-Athlete Advisory Committee, all the athletes who competed in the tournament, and the students who donated to the cause.

We’re so glad we could do it!

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

Beyond the Backpack

As Kalamazoo Public School students prepare to step into their second month of school, they have a community of support that launched them into a successful year of learning.

On Saturday, August 17th, the Beyond the Backpack School Readiness Fair took place at Bronson Park. Hosted by Collaboration Kalamazoo, the fair, designed to increase school readiness for students, was a huge success. More than 1,100 in attendance, families were able to learn about community resources available in literacy, dental and other health supports, and more. From free glasses to free backpacks and supplies, with the support of our community and collaborating together, more students are on the path to success this school year.

Collaboration Kalamazoo is composed of Bible Baptist Church, Charlie’s P.L.A.C.E., Communities In Schools of Kalamazoo, The Kalamazoo Promise, and Kalamazoo Public Schools. “This year’s event,” said CIS Senior Director of Community Engagement & Student Investment Artrella Cohn, “was a tremendous showing of what it looks like when the community brings its knowledge and resources together for the betterment of students and their families.”

The Collaboration Kalamazoo team members: Alexia Jones of The Kalamazoo Promise, Nkenge Bergan of Kalamazoo Public Schools, Artrella Cohn of Communities In Schools of Kalamazoo, TaKarra Dunning of Charlie’s P.L.A.C.E., and Yolonda Lavender and Kandace Lavender of Bible Baptist Church.

With more than 1,100 individuals in attendance, families were able to learn about literacy supports in the community, access dental education and additional health resources, including mental health education, immunizations, sign up for health insurance, and more. In partnership with Hiemstra Optical and VSP Vision Care, 34 students were served on the Mobile Vision Unit, with 27 receiving glasses. Students also benefited from free haircuts and fresh hair styles from area barbers and stylists. The event provided free and much needed backpacks for students, but certainly went “Beyond The Backpack” to prepare students for a successful school year.

 

The 2019 financial sponsors for this event included: Communities In Schools of Kalamazoo (CIS), Kalamazoo Community Foundation, The Kalamazoo Promise, Kalamazoo Public Schools, Old National Bank, and YWCA Kalamazoo.

In-Kind Donors included: The Presidential Blend Suite, Charlie’s P.L.A.C.E., City of Kalamazoo, Exquisite Hair Design, First Baptist Church of Kalamazoo, First Congregational Church, First United Methodist Church of Kalamazoo, GQT Kalamazoo 10, Gordon Water Systems, Hiemstra Optical, Johnny Jackson (barber), Kalamazoo Promise Scholars, Life EMS, Marshall Music Company, Rentalex, Terry Watson (barber), UncLee’s Barber Shop, and VSP Vision Care.

Thanks to each and every one of you for surrounding students with support and launching them into a successful school year.

Check out this short video capturing some of the 2019 Beyond the Backpack School Readiness Fair: https://youtu.be/CboCKgoXU6o

 

Ashley Serio: Former Promise Scholar Lifting Up Future Promise Scholars

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 Ashley Serio, who serves as the CIS After School Coordinator for Northglade Montessori.

Ashley began her career with CIS almost six years ago, first as an AmeriCorps VISTA, then as Youth Development Worker (YDW), serving at both Northglade and Edison Environmental Science Academy. She has also worked in CIS Think Summer for five years.

Ashley grew up in Kalamazoo and attended Spring Valley Center for Exploration and then went on to Milwood Magnet Middle School. Upon graduating from Kalamazoo Central High School, Ashley used the Kalamazoo Promise scholarship to attend Western Michigan University. She graduated in 2016, earning a degree in university studies with a focus in business, health, and family consumer science.

Back in February, we popped over to Northglade and popped this quiz on her. Alright, Ashley Serio: pencil out, eyes on your own paper. Good luck.

Pop Quiz

What is one of the best parts about being a CIS after school coordinator?

Getting to know the kids and build meaning relationships with them. I love helping them grow and seeing that growth, well they inspire me and my staff in many ways. They help us grow, too. It’s just awesome to watch.

How have the kids helped you grow?

They make me want to be more patient, more present, and more aware of everything. I’ve come to understand that everyone’s experience impacts them differently and it’s important to be aware of those experiences.

What is one of the most challenging aspects of being an after school coordinator?

Not feeling like I can ever do enough for the kids. I want to be there even more for them, provide them more, and there is a limit to what I can do within the confines of this role.

As a graduate of Kalamazoo Public Schools, who were some of your favorite teachers?

My favorite high school teacher was Mr. [Christopher] Bullmer. He passed away last year. I did slam poetry and had him for language arts.

He had a positive impact on a lot of kids, didn’t he? I’m a little surprised, though, that you took his slam poetry class. I’m trying to picture you doing slam poetry.

Until very recently, talking in front of people was one of my weaknesses. I’d just get so nervous. But with my work at CIS, I was encouraged both by Cara [Weiler] and Ms. Stacy [Jackson] to do this very thing. They both pushed me beyond myself. I’m now doing trainings and sharing information with others. I’m becoming comfortable with doing this…The work that I do is so ingrained in my life now, it comes naturally. We all struggle, no matter how much we come to know and learn. But, as a CIS after school coordinator, I do have confidence in what needs to be done and I enjoy sharing that passion with others, too.

So, back to your KPS teachers. In addition to Mr. Bullmer, any other favorite teachers come to mind?

Oh, yes, definitely! At Spring Valley, it was Ms. Julie Jones, my second grade teacher, and Kairi Hokenmaier, my third grade teacher, and Michelle Larson, my fifth grade teacher. At Milwood Magnet Middle School, two of my favorite teachers were Mr. Atiba McKissack [now principal at Hillside, you can find his pop quiz here] and Ms. Dawn Kahler.

Did your favorite teachers have any overarching characteristics?

They were each dedicated to their jobs. They built quality relationships with their students, while also showing us that they were learning along the way, too.

I also think it says something about them, the fact that, to this day, they are working with kids one way or another.

The way you just described your favorite teachers reminds me of you—the focus on building relationships and life-long learning.

Oh, my! I can only hope I can be as good with kids as they have been. To think that I could teach kids as well as they did…wow. I mean, I’m not a teacher like them, but I’m still helping students, just in a different way.

[A CIS volunteer enters the CIS room. Ashley immediately rises to greet Ariel Slappy to see how everything is going. Ariel, a student at Western Michigan University, came to volunteer with CIS through her “Teaching as a Profession” class.]

Ashley Serio with CIS Volunteer Ariel Slappy

Your colleague, Steve Brewer, gave us a glimpse of what his work as CIS site coordinator looks like during the daytime [his interview here] at Northglade. Can you give us a glimpse of what an average afternoon in the life of a CIS after school coordinator is like?

Every day is different! I should also say that while Steve and I have different roles within the school, we work well together and we’ll each step out of our own role to step into each other’s role to get things done. For instance, you could see he was busy elsewhere in the building so I stepped in to assist our new volunteer. He does the same for me.

CIS After School Coordinator Ashley Serio sorting through CIS Kids’ Closet items with CIS Site Coordinator Steve Brewer

The term “after school’ is in your title, so the assumption might be that you are just in the school after the school day is over. But here you are, and it’s not even noon!

Yes, typically I’m checking in with students during day, to see if they are okay and if they are able to get their work done. I want to be fully present with the kids and after school staff so I use this time for program preparation and doing data work, planning for field trips and lessons and activities—all before program time begins. And then, it’s two and a half hours of after school programming with the kids.

What does that look like for you?

When the school day is over, our students—we have about 50 in the program—come into cafeteria and the staff and I greet them. I’m always with students during dinner time. I take attendance, the students wash their hands and have dinner. For Black History Month, we decided to try something new, so I’ve been reading a book aloud to the students for ten minutes each day. We’re reading Gone Crazy in Alabama by Rita Williams-Garcia.

After the students finish eating they go to recess. I take that time to clean up, go back to the CIS office and catch up on paperwork. Following recess, the students split up into three groups and go into their classrooms for their Core Time. I float around, going in and out of each of the rooms, and supporting however necessary. Sometimes, a kid may need some time away from their group so I might bring them back to the CIS space and they can do what they need to do to regulate themselves and then get back to their room.

Tell us more about what Core Time looks like for Northglade students.

On Mondays, our focus is on SEL [Social and Emotional Learning], Tuesdays it is STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering and Math], and Wednesdays is ELA [English Language Arts], and then, on Thursdays, the students participate in clubs.

Each class is focusing on something different. But across the board, we’re all focused on self-management and relationship building. We’re exploring our personal emotions and what they look and feel like, how we can interact kindly and help each other. This has become a regular part of what we do on a weekly basis. We’ve found, through trial and error, some great ways to engage students in ways they find meaningful.

Can you share an example?

Sure. Last week, in [Youth Development Worker] Ms. Paige’s group, the students did a bucket-filling activity. The idea behind this is that we feel good about ourselves when we are kind to others. We can build up others by filling them with kindness. When others’ buckets are filled up, that helps to fill up our own bucket. If we are mean to others, it not only spills out their bucket, but it spills out our own as well.

So, for the activity, the kids each made their own buckets and randomly selected the names of three other students. They then wrote something positive about each student and put the slip in their bucket. This was all done anonymously.

That makes sense. The anonymous bucket activity encourages the kids to respond in a more intrinsic way, rather than being driven to “be kind” for some external reward. It’s not about “Oh, look, see what I wrote about you!” It’s more about, “I felt good writing something nice about you.”

Yes! And the kids love doing this and reading what is in their bucket!

So after Core Time in which we are doing various activities like what I just described, the kids move into Homework Time. Again, I’m checking in here and there. I’m helping wherever necessary. Kids have all different kinds of needs, so you need to meet those needs in different ways. I might find I need to work one-on-one with a student or work with a group of students who might be confused about something related to their homework.

You mentioned Thursdays are club days. What clubs do you currently have going on?

The kids get to select two options for their clubs. Right now we have “Around the World” which focuses on learning different places and cultures food, languages, customs, and traditions. We have “Olympic Club” where kids can learn about different winter Olympic sports and how to play them. We also have “Animal Club” where kids are learning about different animals. The Kalamazoo Nature Center is partnering with us on this and coming in to help us learn more about animals.

Principal Mogaji, whom we recently interviewed [interview can be found here if you missed it] said that she appreciates how you take the Montessori philosophy into account when running the CIS after school program, so that children receive a consistent message as their learning stretches into the after school hours. Can you share an example of how you do that?

I do work hard to extend what they know in the school day into after school as much as possible. We avoid extrinsic awards, for example. Also, the rules and norms we go by are aligned with the school day. The Northglade students worked to develop these so we are essentially going by what they chose to develop, such as being peaceful with our bodies, respecting each other, the environment, and the school. We talk a lot about that.

What are you currently reading?

Becoming by Michelle Obama. I’m not very far in yet, but it’s good. It’s interesting to hear about her life from her own perspective.

What are you becoming?

A better version of myself, although I don’t know what that means yet.

What is your favorite word right now?

Love.

What do you love?

The kids that I work with. Food. Sleep. My friends and family.

Where is one place in Kalamazoo you love hanging out?

In the summer and spring I like to be outdoors, so I enjoy visiting Asylum Lake. Also, I like to go any place that has good food. I like to be comfortable warm, and fed.

What places for good food?

Saffron, Crow’s Nest, and Studio Grill. I’m vegan so my options are limited. Those restaurants have a great selection for that.

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

My mom. She’s always been there for me. Most of my life it’s just been her and me. She’s supported and encouraged me. And obviously, I’m a lot more like her than I ever thought I’d be! We both do the same job and love it! [Ashley’s mom, Martha Serio, is on her thirteenth year as the CIS Site Coordinator at Spring Valley Center for Exploration. In 2015, she received National CIS’s Unsung Hero Award.] I never thought I’d want to do the same work as my mom. I grew up watching her be stressed out worrying about the kids. But as soon as I started working the CIS summer program, I loved it. And working for Ms. Stacy [Jackson] during that time helped me definitely figure that out.

Anything else we should know about you?

I’m not usually very good talking about myself, I guess! I mostly work, sleep and eat. I do like to travel. I want to go to Italy within the next year.

Why Italy?

It’s beautiful from all the pictures I’ve seen. I’ve been to Paris, London, and Berlin. I studied abroad in college and loved Europe in general. So, Italy is next!

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

Creating Courage

Kalamazoo Central High School student Leasia Posey at MLK Courage to Create Celebration with Principal Valerie Boggan.

Courage doesn’t just happen. It takes work. Just ask the seventh through twelfth graders throughout Kalamazoo Public Schools who have chosen to participate in MLK Courage to Create. For the past five years, students have had the opportunity to attend “Courage to Create” poetry workshops offered as part of Kalamazoo’s annual MLK Day Celebration held in January at Western Michigan University. They have also been submitting their poems to the MLK Courage to Create Contest. The “Courage to Create” is a collaborative effort of Western Michigan University Office of Diversity and Inclusion, Communities In Schools of Kalamazoo, Friends of Poetry, and Kalamazoo Public Schools.

As one parent put it, “Courage to Create is more than poetry. It’s about community…I love that my child has an opportunity to not only practice writing, but to share their voice and read at Western with established poets.”

This year’s MLK Courage to Create celebration was held February 20th on the campus of Western Michigan University. Students who participated in the annual MLK Courage to Create contest were invited to read alongside community poets. Those present received college-themed prizes. Ten students whose poems received top scores also received an Amazon Kindle Fire. In addition, for the second year in a row, Hillside teacher Heidi Ellis received the inspirational teacher award for her support of the poetry project. Hillside Middle School was also recognized for having the highest level of school participation. (Watch out Hillside, Loy Norrix was just two submissions shy of taking this honor!)

In the months to come, we’ll publish (in the blog and in CIS newsletter) a few works that students created as a result of this project. In the meantime, here are two Courage to Create poems. Thank you, Leasia Posey and Wayne Bond, for not only your courage to create, but to share your work with us.

Proud to Be Black

I was never proud to be Black.
Maybe my ebony means nothing to me.
Like being in this skin is like being stuck in a nightmare.
Fear gunshots coming at me.
Not being as pretty as I wish I could be.
Being called a royalty.
But I never know because we never talk about Black history as often as we talk about the
Europeans crossing seas and great English writers writing stories
while my brothers and sister were shipped away to what they thought was hell.
Well, let me tell you something that isn’t anything.
Or maybe that is just everything because I wake up feeling like a slave to my own body.
I must change it for a society where I’m not the majority.
I’m minority
I am a minority
The lower class
The topic of conversation
But not the subject of an action
I sit and watch people my age die for nothing.
Killed by hate shot by a gun.
A punch
A word
An action that shouldn’t be made
That’s why when I have my children
I will wish their skin is caramel
Instead of dark chocolate
Because apparently
My skin is bitter
Or maybe we’re sweet.
But they only chose to take the first bite and spit it out.
And not allow all the flavors to cover your tongue
Our history to fill you
And maybe for once
I will be proud to be
Black.

-Leasia Posey

A senior at Kalamazoo Central High School, Leasia has been writing poetry since she was seven years old. For the past two years, Leasia has attended the Courage to Create poetry workshops held on the campus of WMU during the annual MLK Day Celebration. “It has given me a place to express myself,” she says. This was her first year attending the poetry celebration. Alongside local community poets, she read “Proud to be Black,” which was one of the top ten awarded poems. Leasia has completed a poetry manuscript and hopes it will find a publishing home soon. Upon graduation, she is looking forward to using the Kalamazoo Promise scholarship to attend Western Michigan University and study journalism, creative writing, and photography.

Leasia with her mother, Sharondra Posey (left) and her grandparents, Lynn  (on far left) and Daryl Underwood (far right).

Millennial’s Reverie

The fluency
of our time
is dictated by the beat
of a Congress that can’t understand

why our struggles
turn to outrage
and their grip on our throats
finally begins to loosen

It is time
For those fighting for change
to become their potential
and lead into a new Era.

-Wayne L. Bond II

A Career Development Specialist at Western Michigan University, Wayne Bond welcomed the students back in January, introduced the MLK Courage to Create poetry facilitators, and then participated with the students in the MLK Courage to Create Workshop.

Black Student Union: Passion for Serving Students Runs Deep

 

Today we highlight the Black Student Union at Western Michigan University. At the 11th Annual Champs Celebration, presented by Kalsec, the Black Student Union was honored with a 2018 Champ Award which was sponsored by Old National BankCIS Board Member Namita Sharma presented the award.

Since 1968, the Black Student Union has been

CIS Board Member Namita Sharma addressing the crowd at Champs

empowering and uniting minority students on the campus of Western Michigan University. Because they value community service, they began partnering with CIS three years ago, initiating a female empowerment group, Young Women With A Purpose, at Kalamazoo Central High School. CIS Site Coordinator Deborah Yarbrough says, “Their passion for serving our students runs deep. By creating a safe place, our students can open up; they feel more connected to themselves and others in the group, and, in turn, feel more connected with school.”

In a few short years, the Black Student Union has grown their volunteer force from one to 12, expanded their programming to meet needs, and reached into Linden Grove Middle School. Linden Grove’s CIS Site Coordinator Tamiko Garrett recounts Ms. Carney, who teaches strategic math, saying, “My student has gone from hating math and being disruptive in class to looking forward to math because he knows that on Tuesdays, Autumn is going to be there to help him.”

Kalamazoo Central’s Principal Valerie Boggan says, “We talk often about giving back and the students from the Black Student Union are examples of how to give back. KC students look forward to the exchange and appreciate having relationships with students who are able to relate to their life and school experience. The passion they bring to create change and to generate enthusiasm around reading, writing and verbal expressions is phenomenal! I look forward to the continued partnership.”

Parents, too, are noticing positive changes in attendance, behavior, or academics and will stop by CIS to make sure their child continues working with these Western students. The high school students themselves have been recruiting other students they think could benefit from this Champ’s support.

Part of the Black Student Union’s success is that their passion is paired with the mindset that, in order to empower young people to succeed, we must work together. So, they’ve joined forces not just with CIS, but also some of our other partners coming into the Kalamazoo Public Schools, like WMU’s School of Social Work and Mt. Zion Baptist Church.

Mt. Zion’s director of youth ministries Reverend Morris “Mo” Brooks, comes out to Central each week to work with the KC Men of Change, and sees them in action. He says, “What the Black Student Union is doing is great! It’s encouraging to see them reaching out to youth. It takes a lot of energy to go to college and, in many cases, also work. This awesome group of young people is doing just that—going to school, working, and then choosing to spend time with youth. And they’re doing a phenomenal job with the students!”

We couldn’t agree more.

Black Student Union, we thank you for helping kids stay in school and achieve in life.

In Step with John Curran

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 Curran, Executive Director of First Day Shoe Fund (FDSF). We met up with John a few weeks back at Walnut & Park Cafe in downtown Kalamazoo.

A lifelong resident of Southwest Michigan, John grew up in St. Joseph and then came to Kalamazoo to attend Western Michigan University. He graduated with a degree in political science.

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

Pop Quiz

Tell us a shoe story.

When I think of First Day Shoe Fund stories, one memorable moment that comes to mind is of a young man who got shoes with Batman on the sides. He put them on and started running circles around the gym. That’s how it works, right? Oh, and then there were these twins who each got a pair of shoes, different colors. Their teachers were grateful as, not only did they have shoes that were comfortable and fit them, the different colors made it easier to tell them apart!

Can you talk some about the partnership FDSF has with CIS in the Kalamazoo Public Schools?

I’m glad you asked that. I really want to put in a plug for your site coordinators!

CIS is really a special partner. We were, as you know, founded by Valerie Denghel. It was in volunteering with CIS at Edison that she was inspired to start this organization. In a way, First Day Shoe Fund grew out of CIS. And our partnership with CIS and KPS over the last twelve years, the help we’ve received with both identifying students in need and making sure they got the shoes that were right for them has been critical to our growth and success. Having CIS site coordinators in the school building dedicated to facilitating resources from the community to connect them to children who can use them makes our program possible and makes sure no child is left out.

We know [from last year’s Valentine Post] that you love “Lake Michigan and the bike trails that can get you there from Kalamazoo.” What else do you love about Kalamazoo?

I love that this town puts its collective focus on education. That is unique and one of the things that attracted Sakhi and I to live here and buy a home here.

Any favorite places?

Walnut & Park Cafe, of course. And Kleinstuck. It’s a hidden gem, a 48-acre nature preserve right in the neighborhood.

In 2016, First Day Shoe Fund celebrated its tenth anniversary. Tell us more about your organization and what’s happened since then.

Photo courtesy of FDSF.

We are now in our 12th distribution of providing shoes to elementary school-aged children. This past year, in 2017, we distributed 4,687 shoes! That a record high for us. The shoes were distributed across all the districts we now serve: Kalamazoo Public Schools, Comstock Public Schools, Paramount Charter Academy, and KRESA’s WoodsEdge Learning Center. Also, in 2017 we introduced a pilot program to serve Vicksburg’s students at their ‘Back to School Bonanza.’ That was organized by South County Community Services and Generous Hands, Inc.

As a grassroots organization, we depend on hundreds of volunteers to get this work done. We welcome new volunteers throughout the year. Those interested in volunteering with FDSF, can just fill out a form on our website. [You can do that by clicking here.]

One question we get a lot: Where do the shoes come from? We buy them. They don’t just come out of nowhere! A truck from Adidas doesn’t just pulls up and drop them off. We raise the money and buy the shoes.

What is the connection between shoes and academic success?

We are a piece of the puzzle. I mentioned that collective focus on education. First Day Shoe Fund is a part of that. We are doing everything we can do so students are ready to learn when they enter the classroom. When they have comfortable, correct fitting shoes, they are one step closer to that opportunity to be successful. Oh, I just said a shoe pun, one step closer, but it’s true!

We also believe shoes are important to a child’s self-esteem, feeling a sense of belonging and self-worth. Having the appropriate shoes leads to a healthy and active lifestyle. Students can participate in activities both inside and outside of school, they can be part of gym class, a school or community sport, and feel like they belong.

A pair of shoes put the young person on equal footing with their peers, providing them the same opportunity to walk into their classroom, feeling comfortable and good about themselves, ready to learn.

Favorite word?

Process. As in the process of how we do things at First Day Shoe Fund and in my personal life I’m a big believer that if you’re doing the right thing, if you commit to the process, it may not always turn out right, but in the long term the outcome will be good.

What is something interesting you’ve recently learned?

I was doing some research on the depth of need throughout our county. I learned that there are over 9,000 kids that would qualify for our program in Kalamazoo county. Throughout every community, in every corner of our county, there are children that could really benefit from a pair of new shoes.

What are you currently reading?

I’m a grad student—I’m in the MBA program at Western—so I’m reading a lot for school, much of which I find particularly helpful in my work as an administrator of a non-profit. When I have the pleasure of reading something that hasn’t been assigned, I read a few pages of Hard Labor by Sam Smith. It’s about the history of organized labor in the NBA. It combines my interest in social justice, worker’s rights, and basketball. Those are the topics I tend to gravitate towards for my leisure reading.

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

I’ve had a lot of them, but perhaps the person who has been the most impactful is Professor Don Cooney. He set me on the course that my life has followed for the last decade. I’d always had a vague idea that I wanted to make a difference in the world. Don showed me how. He gave me—as he does other students–a wealth of information as well as how to apply my energy. He introduced me to a great deal of learning and opportunity. He’s the best…such a decent human being.

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

[You can read more about First Day Shoe Fund in this 2016 post, First Day Shoe Fund: A CIS Partner with Sole.]