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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.]
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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
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
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.
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.
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 Levi Soto, CIS Site Coordinator at El Sol Elementary. We met up with him at this thriving school located in the historic Vine neighborhood. El Sol functions similarly to a magnet school, accepting students from throughout the Kalamazoo Public Schools district. Approximately half of El Sol’s students come from homes where Spanish is the primary spoken language and half from English-speaking homes.
Originally from Hartford, Michigan, Soto came to Kalamazoo to attend Western Michigan University. While finishing his Bachelors in Social Work, Soto interned with Communities In Schools of Kalamazoo (CIS) and was placed at El Sol Elementary. The rest, as they say, is history. Now in his third year with CIS, Soto is also working towards his Masters in Social Work at Western Michigan University and interning with The Kalamazoo Promise. It’s probably an understatement to say Soto is busy. As part of his internship responsibilities, Soto says he’s excited to help pilot a new mentoring program. “It’s a mentoring project in which seniors at WMU—men of color who are also Promise graduates in the education field and looking to become teachers—will be mentored by WMU alumni men of color.”
Alright, Levi: pencil out, eyes on your own paper. Good luck.
What do you love about working at El Sol as a CIS Site Coordinator?
I love the whole partnership aspect of the work we do. Take Kalamazoo College, for example. They are a terrific partner and provide us some wonderful bilingual students—anywhere from 20 to 30 each year—who serve as role models for our students while tutoring, mentoring, and offering diverse, high quality supports like the Lunch Buddy Program. I love our Lunch Buddy Program!
[To learn more about the lunch buddy program and the Kalamazoo College Civic Engagement Scholars who support El Sol and other schools, check out this blog post.]
I feel that all together—El Sol, CIS, and our partners and volunteers—we are a community, a family here. We come together and help children and families who need support, whether its academic, basic needs, or providing enrichment activities through after school.
What is one of the most fulfilling aspects of being a site coordinator?
Just knowing that the students are being positively impacted by the partners and volunteers coming into the school. Without CIS, things would be a lot different. I can’t image what it would be like without CIS after school and all the resources the community provides through CIS during the school day. What everyone is doing is impactful and, in the long run, will help develop and strengthen the skills our kids need to be successful in school so they can go onto middle school, then high school, and on to college, higher learning of some kind.
What do you find most challenging about your work as a site coordinator?
Because we are a dual language school and everything is in both Spanish and English, I would say the challenge is to find more bilingual volunteers. And volunteers of color. It’s great when we can connect volunteers and partners who serve as role models for kids who also can speak Spanish. We just need more!
What is something interesting you’ve recently learned?
I’m learning about policy planning through the administrative social work class I’m taking at Western. As part of that, I’m learning how to effect policy change.
What are you currently reading, besides text books that is?
Little books. [Levi retrieves several Newmark learning books from a resource shelf filled with books and games.]
These books are part of a series that promotes social emotional learning. I’ll read these with our students. For instance, here’s I Show Respect. It’s an opportunity to ask students how kids in the book are showing respect. I’ll ask them questions like “How do you show respect? What does it feel like to be given respect? To show respect to others?”
I really enjoy reading these with the students.
The kids respond to these books?
Yes, they really do. They are short and simple. The books have a good message and the students enjoy discussing the what and why questions that are at the end of the book.
What does your summer work with the migrant program look like?
I work with Van Buren Intermediate School District as part of their secondary credit recovery program. So I make over 200 home visits each summer. Usually, these visits with students occur after the second shift, after their families finish working. I’m meeting with the students anywhere between 8 and 11 p.m, to tutor them…It’s good we have these kinds of programs in Michigan. As part of the program, we promote college. All these kids do is work and travel. And live in fear. They are isolated and don’t go out. With the migrant program, we are able to broaden their experience, promote a college-going environment, and even take them on a tour of WMU.
What is your favorite word right now?
Diversity. I like diversity. I like diversity in my life. I have it here at El Sol, in my internship with the Promise, and in my class at Western.
Speaking of diversity, I’m noticing a rise in the Latino/Hispanic population at WMU, particularly in my program. In the past, social work has typically been composed of white female and a few males. Lately, though, we have more men, men of color and women of color, too.
Why do you think that is?
I think, at least with the Latino/Hispanic population, students are often first-generation college students. They don’t necessarily know the ins and outs of college and careers…I think that the students are finally catching up with exploring different career options…I’m making some assumptions here, based on my experience. My family were migrant workers, you know.
Can you tell us what that experience was like?
As a migrant family, we travelled from Florida, to Georgia, to Ohio, to Michigan, depending on the crop season. We were constantly moving because of the crop seasons, so it was always different friends and different schools with different state requirements.
Did you work as a child?
Yes. After school I’d pick apples and then summer was blueberries…and also lots of mosquitoes. It was hard work and I didn’t like it much. My parents settled down after a while, in Hartford. When I was twelve, they stopped working in the fields and my dad started working for a construction company. He and his brother saved up $20,000 and started their own gutter business.
L & A Gutters—it’s family owned and operated—is now the largest gutter company in southwest Michigan! I used to work there, and even got to meet Muhammad Ali when we did the gutters on his house…I guess you could say my family is the American dream come true.
What is something you love about Kalamazoo?
Kalamazoo has a lot of community involvement, as well as nonprofits and other supports we can turn to. Of course, just like anything, there is always room for improvement. There is diversity here as well. [Superintendent] Dr. Rice has said it, and he’s right, that diversity is our strength.
Behind every successful person is a caring adult. Who has been your caring adult?
My high school counselor, Rick Ward. We didn’t have CIS at my school but we had Mr. Ward. He promoted a college-going environment and provided that CIS basic: a relationship with a one-on-one caring adult. He helped me with life skills. He was a role model for me.
Our school was predominately Caucasian and it was all Caucasian teachers with the exception of the Spanish teacher. He acknowledged that the Latino/Hispanic kids—we may have made up about 15% of the population back then—needed extra support and he went out of his way to build that support within our community.
How did he do that?
Growing up Mexican means being involved in soccer, kicking the ball around…it’s more than a sport, it’s one of the things that brings us together. Mr. Ward recognized this—that soccer was an important part of our culture. He started attending our soccer games and then in school, he’d take hold of the mic and for morning announcements would tell the whole school who scored a goal and we’d hear our names. It meant a lot.
He became a part of our Latino/Hispanic community. And he still goes to our soccer games…I’m the [Hartford Public Schools] assistant soccer coach.
You really do a variety of things, don’t you?
[Levi laughs. In addition to his passion for helping students, it’s clear that soccer remains an important part of his life.] …and we have been a team for the past ten years, recognized these past eight years as a top ten within the state!
Thank you, Levi, for hanging out with us at Ask Me About My 12,000 Kids.
Do you or someone you know speak Spanish? Consider becoming a volunteer with CIS today. Our students at El Sol and at other CIS sites throughout Kalamazoo Public Schools can use your support. Start the process by going here today!
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.
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!”
Wednesday, May 9th will mark the eleventh year of Champs, a celebration in which Communities In Schools of Kalamazoo (CIS) recognizes those who are making a difference in kids’ lives. CIS is thrilled that Kalsec is the presenting sponsor for this year’s event.
So, who will be honored this year? Drum roll, please! This year’s Champs are:
Kalamazoo College Civic Engagement Scholars, CIS Higher Education Partner Diane Fuller, CIS Volunteer from Miller-Davis Company Nkenge Bergen, Director of Student Services for Kalamazoo Public Schools Woods Lake Math Squad, CIS Volunteers Black Student Union at WMU, CIS Higher Education Partner Chris Werme, CIS Volunteer
Sally Stevens will also be honored with the Gulnar Husain Volunteer Award, a new recognition established by Gulnar’s family to honor her long-time contributions to Communities In Schools and work as a CIS Site Coordinator at Arcadia Elementary School. For more than 38 years, Gulnar dedicated herself to being an effective volunteer for many causes throughout the Kalamazoo community, as well as cultivating and supporting volunteers to benefit others, particularly children. This award recognizes a CIS volunteer who emulates Gulnar’s belief that there is no greater calling than serving children.
The CIS Board will also be honoring Dr. Marilyn Schlack with the Diether Haenicke Promise of Excellence Award. Established in 2010, this award is named for Western Michigan University President Emeritus Diether Haenicke. Dr. Marilyn Schlack has served as the president of Kalamazoo Valley Community College for more than three decades, becoming Michigan’s first female community college president in 1982. With her leadership and vision, KVCC has grown to four campuses and more than 10,000 students, each campus responding to unique student, educational, and community needs. Despite overseeing an expansive, increasingly complex institution, Dr. Schack has maintained a commitment to understanding the needs and challenges of individual students whose circumstances are filled with obstacles to college completion.
We thank all of our event sponsors for sharing our vision and igniting in kids the hope and belief that they can succeed in school, graduate, and be prepared for life. Thank you to our presenting sponsor, Kalsec, Fifth Third Bank, Maestro, PNC, Anonymous, BASIC, Borgess, Chase, Humphrey, Miller-Davis Company, Old National Bank, TowerPinkster, Warner Norcross + Judd, Zoetis, 1st Source Bank, Bronson Healthcare, BDO USA, LLP, First National Bank of Michigan, Greenleaf Trust, Lake Michigan Credit Union, Western Michigan University, and CSM Group.
Stay tuned to Ask Me About My 12,000+ Kids. Over the coming weeks we will spotlight each of these award recipients. You’ll learn what they are doing to make a difference in kids’ lives.
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.
Alright, John Curran: pencil out, eyes on your own paper. Good luck.
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.
In 2016, First Day Shoe Fund celebrated its tenth anniversary. Tell us more about your organization and what’s happened since then.
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.
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.
“When I think of Gulnar, I think of someone who hears a problem from a child or a teacher and immediately responds with, ‘Well, let’s see how we can fix this.’ Never a list of reasons why we can’t.” -Dr. Timothy Light, CIS Board member
On January 1, 2018, Kalamazoo lost a giant: Gulnar Husain. Pancreatic cancer may have taken her from us, but she has left a tremendous legacy.
Gulnar Husain worked tirelessly to unleash her fellow citizen’s own potential, encouraging others to share their gifts and talents to strengthen this community she loved. Gulnar immigrated from Pakistan in 1981 and for over 35 years, gave joyously of her time to numerous Kalamazoo entities, such as Kalamazoo Interfaith Coalition for Peace and Justice, Kalamazoo Islamic Center, Michigan Festival of Sacred Music, Western Michigan University, Communities In Schools of Kalamazoo (CIS), AmeriCorps Volunteers In Service to America (VISTA), Kalamazoo Public Schools, Portage Public Schools, ISAAC, St. Augustine School, Kalamazoo Non-Violent Opponents of War, Kalamazoo County Summit on Racism, Michigan Interfaith Coalition for Peace, Kalamazoo Lend a Hand, and Fetzer Institute’s Gardens of Many Faiths. The list goes on.
For over 14 years, Gulnar worked with Communities In Schools of Kalamazoo (CIS). She first served as an AmeriCorps worker and then as an AmeriCorps VISTA at both Arcadia Elementary School and King-Westwood Elementary. In the last decade of her career she was the CIS Site Coordinator at Arcadia. During that time she worked ceaselessly to surround a diverse population of students with whatever it takes so they could succeed in school, graduate and be prepared for life. For Gulnar, doing whatever it takes meant coordinating and supporting more than 30 volunteers in a given school year, as well as a host of community partners to provide in-class tutoring, mentoring, counseling, music therapy, food packs, “Literacy Buddies” (a twice a week after-school program funded through State Farm), dental clinic, vision assistance, CIS Kids’ Closet (distributing basics like clothing/hygiene items), First Day Shoe Fund, Warm Kids-Winter Gear, Friendship Circle, Lunch & Learn, Math Club, Higher Thinking Club, Girls on the Run, the Recycle Project, and more.
While it’s impossible to fully capture Gulnar’s contributions to our kids and our community we want to honor her memory by providing a few photos, quotes, and links to stories (with more photos) about her, here, in one place…
Here she is back in her AmeriCorps days (2002):
Gulnar worked closely with her principal, Greg Socha, and cherished his wisdom and support. Despite the daily demands principals have, she knew she could count on him to help identify and prioritize school needs, share what types of partnerships were necessary to meet the needs. Here’s what Principal Socha has said about Gulnar:
“Gulnar Husain has been described as the ‘heart’ of Arcadia. Through her years of CIS service to the students and staff at Arcadia, Gulnar provided clothing, food, counseling, mentoring, tutoring and lunch-and-learn programs for students. For the staff, Gulnar offered guidance, a quiet persistence of providing needed services to students, and education on the multi-cultural needs of our families. But her world did not end at Arcadia. Gulnar promoted the Literacy Buddies program at Arcadia and Kalamazoo Central High School, matching high school students with elementary students to enhance the reading and writing of both parties. When the KPS Immigrant Program needed tutors after school, Gulnar provided her expertise and time to help students improve their English and complete their homework. Through her work with CIS, Gulnar made Arcadia a national award- winning school.”
“Still, that was not enough for Gulnar. Despite an acknowledged frustration with technology, she often provided articles and websites for staff members that promoted literacy, learning, and tolerance. She completed scholarship information to help her students expand their experiences. Her community involvement with interfaith organizations often placed her on the podium to speak of inclusion, and caring, and providing services for others in our community. All of this was completed in her humble way – quiet, but persistent.”
Gulnar believed in the five CIS basics, especially that all students deserve a one-on-one relationship with a caring adult. She felt such joy seeing volunteers in action with students, offering encouragement, academic support, and hope. Pam Kingery, CIS Executive Director, once noted,“In her role as CIS Site Coordinator at Arcadia, Gulnar has accomplished so much because she understands and values the role volunteers play in student success. Wearing that hat of ‘volunteer’ herself over many years and in a variety of settings, she knows the power of volunteers. That’s why she’s invested countless hours into supporting numerous volunteers throughout the years–she understands the potential return on that investment.”
Here’s Gulnar with just a few of the many volunteers she worked with over the years.
Gulnar was part of the Kalamazoo delegation that went to Charlotte, North Carolina when Kalamazoo was one of four communities from across the country honored as a community of excellence in 2013. Gulnar also received national recognition for her work within Arcadia Elementary School and joined the ranks of only a handful throughout the country to receive an Honorable Mention for the prestigious Unsung Hero Award. We blogged about it here, “Gulnar Husain: No Longer Unsung”. And Julie Mack covered it in a Kalamazoo Gazette/MLive article here.
When Arcadia Elementary School was one of just four sites across America honored in the school category by the national Communities In Schools’ network at the 2015 Unsung Heroes Awards in New Orleans, LA, Gulnar was there. Here she is with the Kalamazoo contingent, along with Bill Milliken, Founder and Vice Chairman of Communities In Schools, Inc. (left) and Dan Cardinali, then President of Communities In Schools, Inc. (third from right at back):
An interview with Gulnar, along with a copy of the City of Kalamazoo’s Welcoming Proclamation (she helped to craft it, along with a rabbi, a United Methodist minister, and Kalamazoo’s vice mayor) is included in the anthology, Immigration & Justice For Our Neighbors. Released in April 2017, her interview begins, “Hospitality can be a radical act, particularly when one steps out of her comfort zone to indiscriminately welcome, accept, and love others. Gulnar Husain marches through her own fears and discomforts to welcome and connect with people from cultures and religions beyond her own…” Gulnar also appears in the essay, “Blueberries,” by Nicholas Baxter. More about the anthology project and where to find ithere.
Here’s Gulnar, after receiving The Good Neighbor Award at the 2017 STAR Awards. She was recognized for her efforts in uniting people in the community who share different religions and backgrounds.
Shortly after being awarded the 2017 Good Neighbor Award, Gulnar was interviewed by Public Media Network‘s Pillars of the Community. You can watch it here.
In their January 2018 newsletter, ISAAC (Interfaith Strategy for Advocacy & Action in the Community) wrote about Gulnar and included some photos. Here’s that link.
Upon learning of Gulnar’s passing, Dan Cardinali, CEO of Independent Sector and former national president of Communities In Schools wrote this: “I had the honor of meeting Gulnar a number of times and visiting with her and the children with whom she worked for so many years. Her gift of love and vision for peace were contagious. Her life is a powerful example what a good life can and should be. For me she taught me that we’re all called to live courageous lives of mercy in the face of violence, tolerance in the face of intolerance, hope in the face of despair, and love in the face of hate…”
To honor Gulnar, her commitment to kids, and her special appreciation for volunteers and their impact on students’ success, her family has established the Gulnar Husain Legacy Fund at Communities In Schools of Kalamazoo. Those wishing to make a gift to the Fund may donate online. Checks may also be sent to CIS with a note in the Memo line indicating that the gift is for the Fund.