Grant Stories

Grants from the Community Foundation ensure all of our children have an equal chance for success in school, nurture and prepare all of our young people for life beyond school, support individuals and families from all walks of life, and enhance community prosperity in every corner of Kalamazoo County. The following stories take you inside the impact our grantmaking has made on the greater Kalamazoo area.

Collective action for food security

Here’s the shocking truth. In Kalamazoo County more than 37,000 people are currently considered to be food insecure, which means they aren’t certain where their next meal is coming from. And, according to Kalamazoo Loaves & Fishes, nearly 11,000 of these people are children.

Since 2005, with a grant of $4,800 to MSU Extension for its Family Nutrition Plan, the Kalamazoo Community Foundation been actively targeting food insecurity as part of its Individuals and Families community investment priority. Since then, the Community Foundation has made nearly $2 million in “food-related” grants to organizations large and small, from local churches to the most widely recognized food organizations in the county.

But it’s not enough. So the Community Foundation is leveraging its knowledge, leadership and community investments to help nonprofits address community needs in new ways. “There are still families who don’t know where they’re going to get their dinner tonight. That fact has informed our most recent work. We’ve given millions of dollars, but there are still families in need,” says the Community Foundation’s Elena Mireles-Hill.

"As we see the need for food assistance continue to rise, we know that it will require a communty-wide collaborative effort to meet this demand."

Jennifer Johnson, Kalamazoo Loaves & Fishes

Kalamazoo County actually has many resources related to food security and sustainability. “Linkage is the issue,” she explains. “Our job is to promote collective action and help support these organizations, encouraging them to work together rather than trying to tackle the problem in isolation.”

Says Mireles-Hill, “Last year we gave a grant to Kalamazoo Loaves & Fishes for their Grocery Pantry Program. We also gave them additional funding specifically to help them serve as a convener — to bring together the organizations and efforts in the food sector to discover how to work cooperatively.”

“We helped them bring together different organizations already doing good work individually to leverage their missions and strengths and focus on one overall effort,” she adds.

Jennifer Johnson, Kalamazoo Loaves & Fishes’ new executive director, echoes the need for this approach. “We are grateful for the Community Foundation’s commitment,” she says.

“Last year, we served more than 130,000 four-day food orders to local residents in need through our Grocery Pantry Program, and distributed over 2.7 million pounds of food to hungry people in our community,” says Johnson. “But as we see the need for food assistance continue to rise, we know that it will require a community-wide collaborative effort to meet this demand. Simply put, we cannot provide the services we do every day in isolation.”

“People can’t thrive unless they have good food to eat,” says Mireles-Hill. “Collaboration among food sector organizations is imperative to reaching everyone.”

Click Here Food Security and Sustainability Resources

Building relationships

Donna Odom and the Southwest Michigan Black Heritage Society are working to bring people together and build relationships across ethnic lines.

What began as an organization to celebrate local black heritage, the Southwest Michigan Black Heritage Society is now an ongoing source for community healing.

“We began as a black historical society, to add an important and then missing component to local history,” explains Donna Odom, Southwest Michigan Black Heritage Society founder and executive director. “Today we also work on building relationships across ethnic lines — ethnic lines, because race is really a social construct — that bring people together to share stories and experiences at a deeper level.”

SMBHS’s trajectory changed in 2010 when they participated in the Southwest Michigan RACE Exhibit. Participants in that initiative agreed they wanted the community conversations begun there to continue,” Odom says. “SMBHS has attempted to grasp the mantle of healing begun through that initiative and carry it forward through its Racial Healing Initiative.”

“The Racial Healing Initiative uses an approach called Transforming Historical Harms,” Odom explains. “This approach is based on the philosophy that the legacy of slavery left an historical trauma for all of society. Transforming Historical Harms seeks to heal that trauma through a four-faceted approach: facing history, making connections, healing, and taking action.”

Because of the support of the Community Foundation, which included $39,000 in grants in 2013, SMBHS has been able to hire a project assistant and provide essential programs addressing those four facets, including racial healing retreats, the Race Initiative Book Club, the Engaging the Wisdom Oral History Project, and the Summit on Racism 2.0: Extending the Dialogue.

SMBHS teamed with the YWCA and other organizations to hold the Summit on Racism to create channels of cooperation and collaboration within the community. Work begun at that Summit will continue with Action Networks addressing the areas of education, health, employment, housing and law enforcement. In this way, the work of each partner is strengthened, assuring greater impact community wide.

Says Bobbe Luce, a community investment officer at the Community Foundation, “We worked with the Black Heritage Society to help increase their capacity to reach more community members — youth through adults — with their approachable, multi-forum racial healing programming as part of our support of the continuum of racial equity outreach in our county.”

“The aim is to change perceptions, broaden understanding and encourage participants to explore the differences — and similarities — between races and ethnicities,” Odom says. “Our participants always ask for more. They are clearly hungry for this shared experience of healing.”

Helping students succeed

Amy Slancik (l) of the Community Foundation recently worked with Kalamazoo Center for Youth and Community's Sam Lealofi (r) to change the lives of not only the students the organization serves, but its staff too.

Kalamazoo Center for Youth and Community (KCYC) helps young people who live in poverty in Kalamazoo’s Eastside and Eastwood neighborhoods succeed in school and in life.

“We’re a virtual community center with the success of young people as our principal goal,” explains KCYC executive director Sam Lealofi. “We know that when quality youth development happens, students will have improved outcomes at school. They will also develop in social and emotional ways.”

KCYC’s programs offer development for students who might otherwise not have such opportunities. The focus on Kalamazoo’s eastern neighborhoods is because that is where the greatest percent of county families live in poverty — 263 percent higher than the county average. From 2000 to 2011, that number grew by 60 percent.

Since 2012, KCYC has received grants totaling $460,000 from the Community Foundation in support of these efforts, which are directly aligned with the Community Foundation’s fundamental priorities of ensuring that every child has an equal chance for success in school and is prepared for life beyond school.

“There are multiple roles we can play and a range of tools we can use to leverage change,” says Amy Slancik, a community investment officer at the Community Foundation. “We work behind the scenes, while our grantee partners — high quality organizations like KCYC — are on the front lines, providing direct services to the people who need them.”

“We also keep a close eye on emerging community opportunities and challenges so we can help Kalamazoo County nonprofits address them appropriately,” she adds. “Our support of KCYC does that.”

"We know that when quality youth development happens,
students will have improved outcomes at school."
~ Sam Lealofi

Lealofi says the support KCYC has received from the Community Foundation has dramatically changed the lives of both KCYC students and its staff.

“For our staff, it provides educational and occupational opportunities. For our students, it assures that our programs offer quality youth development,” Lealofi says.

KCYC works with some 20 community partner organizations and its programming is built on evidence-based best practices.

Among its core programs, which serve more than 200 neighborhood youth, KCYC supports efforts like the Boys and Girls Club and CHAMPS.

KCYC also provides individual student services to elementary school children through a focus on literacy and school success. Northeastern Elementary School is a key partner. Through this initiative, a dozen elementary children each year receive specialized tutoring through the SLD Learning Center and occupational therapy through Western Michigan University.

This collaboration benefits both the elementary students and the WMU students who work under direct supervision of WMU faculty, who are themselves registered therapists. In this way, local resources are leveraged to achieve greater benefit for all of KCYC’s partners and the community as a whole.

Another program, Teens of Tomorrow, helps students find and express their voices as future leaders. In 2013 the program sent two teens to the Jeter’s Leaders Conference in Chicago, where they met other young leaders from around the country.

Says Slancik, “This is a great example of a partnership that is creating community change.”

Those little libraries

Hannah Lane-Davies and her Little Free Library.

If you love learning and libraries, Kalamazoo County is a great place to live. In fact, it’s home to libraries so small they fit on a pole.

Thanks to 14-year-old Hannah Lane-Davies and her family, the national Little Free Library movement has come to Kalamazoo. Hannah saw a LFL for the first time while on a trip to St. Paul in 2012. “It was love at first sight,” she says. “We looked online and saw there were only 12 LFLs in Michigan, and none were in Kalamazoo. So I knew it would be great for the community.”

What exactly is a Little Free Library? Basically, it’s a small decorated wooden box containing 30 to 40 books that sits on a post outdoors, usually in participants’ front yards or businesses. The books are free. People who pass by a LFL can take or leave a book anytime; they often add notes inside for other readers.

The LFL movement was started in Hudson, Wis., in 2009 by Todd Bol and Rick Brooks to promote worldwide literacy and community building. When Hannah and her family opened their LFL in September 2012 at their home in the Westnedge Hill neighborhood, it was number 3,761 on the international list. Since then, 12 more Kalamazoo and Portage families have become official “stewards” of their own LFLs — with another seven to be installed by the end of summer.

“Hannah is adding a unique piece to the LFL movement,” Elizabeth Lane-Davies notes. “In July we had our first Kalamazoo/Portage stewards meeting, with 15 interested and active families.”

“Other communities have LFLs, but the stewards don’t necessarily know each other,” Hannah explains. “We’re trying to connect the local stewards so we can share resources and advice. We want to make sure this isn’t a ‘one-hit wonder’ project.”

The Lane-Davies family was able to help establish the original LFLs thanks, in part, to support from the Gretchen LaReau Memorial Fund of the Kalamazoo Community Foundation, an Advised Fund established in 1993 by the LaReau family in memory of their daughter.

“We’re very grateful to the Community Foundation, and especially to the LaReau family, for their interest and support,” Hannah says. “Things have come full circle as we’ve gotten to know the family. They set up their own LFL this summer. We have really enjoyed learning about Gretchen and her interests, especially how much she loved books. You could totally see her setting up her own LFL.”

Spreading fresh food fairy dust

Hether Frayer has set out to prove that a sprinkling of fairy dust, at least when it comes to food, is healthy for us all. With the support of a Good Neighbor Grant from the Kalamazoo Community Foundation, Frayer is on a mission to use fresh food to improve the health of children in Kalamazoo County.

Frayer is the owner of Fresh Food Fairy, one of Michigan's new L3C organizations that bridge the gap between the nonprofit and for-profit worlds. In her persona as the Fresh Food Fairy, Frayer works in classrooms and school cafeterias, primarily with students in kindergarten through middle school. She also does kids' after-school workshops and chef demos for adults.

"The idea was born at one of the Community Foundation's ChangeMakers workshops," says Frayer. "I began doing programs in the fall of 2011. My goals is to encourage good nutrition by making fresh food fun. I show kids that it is colorful and has cool shapes, interesting textures and yummy flavors, and helps us grow strong and smart."

"My presentations are always hands-on," she continues. "When Kalamazoo teachers invite me to their classrooms, I work with them to incorporate age-appropriate activities. For example, the kids love power-crunching green beans and making veggie faces. Having fun helps them create positive associations with fresh food, making it more likely that they'll eat it when they can."

Frayer has a goal of reaching 25 classrooms and 450 students this year. To accomplish this, she purchases seasonal fruits and vegetables from local farms whenever possible. "My main push is in the fall when there's a lot of locally grown produce being harvested," she says. "That's the freshest available, and it's the best tasting and best for the economy. Plus, I want to expose kids to food that's grown right here."

In addition to the Community Foundation, Frayer's partners include Fair Food Matters, People's Food Co-op and the Sustainable Communities Initiative for the Vine and Edison neighborhoods. Even with this support, she understands she's in an uphill battle. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, the number of overweight children has doubled and overweight adolescents has tripled since 1980.

"The domestic food and beverage industry spends billions of dollars a year on marketing mostly junk food," Frayer explains. "This is beginning to change a little, but few people are doing much to encourage kids to eat healthier. So as the Fresh Food Fairy, my main job is to be a spokeswoman for fresh fruits and vegetables. I want kids to think apples are as much fun as sugar-coated cereal!"

Helping ISAAC build a "beloved community"

A $45,000 grant by the Kalamazoo Community Foundation to ISAAC –– Interfaith Strategy for Advocacy & Action in the Community –– is helping to maintain smaller class sizes for many students throughout Kalamazoo County’s nine school districts.

ISAAC’s Building the Beloved Community project was able to work with other organizations statewide during the past year, including the Michigan Department of Education, to continue class-size reduction funding for students in kindergarten through third grade. The state’s decision to continue this funding was made in time to keep smaller class sizes for the current 2012-2013 school-year.

“Education and learning is one of our top priorities and we are thrilled that ISAAC was able to work toward maintaining reduced class sizes, which has been shown to increase student success,” says Amy Slancik, a community investment officer at the Community Foundation. “It is wonderful to see one of our nonprofits in this community demonstrate the kind of leadership necessary to ensure that state funds continue to help students and families here in Kalamazoo County.”

According to ISAAC Executive Director Brendan Flanagan, “ISAAC found the support from the Community Foundation invaluable to our organization’s effort to mobilize the community to advocate for retaining small classroom sizes.”

The Community Foundation’s grant to ISAAC’s Building the Beloved Community project was a one-year grant to achieve goals in three broad areas: bringing diverse people together across racial, religious, geographic, and generational lines to embrace common values; offering monthly training sessions accessible to leaders of varying levels of education and experience; and increasing access to programs that move families toward self-sufficiency, increasing the number of affordable family care units, and increasing the number of residents engaging in community-building activities.

The grant aligns with the Community Foundation’s increased focus on education and learning and authentic community engagement.

ISAAC is a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organization supported by foundations, membership dues, grass-roots fundraisers and individual contributors. ISAAC is a faith-based community organizing group made up of congregations and organizations that united in order to accomplish what cannot be done as individuals or single congregations. Together, they focus collective people-power on the most pressing issues of injustice in Kalamazoo County.

A bloomin' great time

Even Master Gardeners and black-thumbed plant destroyers agree: Thanks to Kalamazoo in Bloom, May is a bloomin' great time in Kalamazoo County. Each year in Portage, on the third Friday of May, the community dresses the city in its flowery best for the summer. In Kalamazoo, Bronson Park and other public places get dressed up in flowers and plants on the Thursday before Memorial Day.

With a nod to Kalamazoo's heritage and current status as one of the world's leaders in the bedding plant industry, Kalamazoo In Bloom coordinates this feat. Nearly 90,000 individual plants are used annually at a cost of about $35,000.

Monika Trahe is executive director of KIB. "We get help from a lot of volunteers, gardeners and people who 'adopt' a bed," she says. "Recently, we've had more young people helping us with annual planting. This year, with help from a Kalamazoo Community Foundation Good Neighbor Grant, we were able to turn it into a true learning experience."

According to Trahe, 260 students participated this past May, coming from Saint Augustine Cathedral School; the Gagie School; and Kalamazoo Central, Loy Norrix and Portage Central High Schools. "Volunteers and KIB board members went into classrooms and gave the students hands-on learning activities," she explains. "They brought examples of the flowers the students were going to be working with, then taught them how to break open the roots and property plant them."

The list of Kalamazoo and Portage community partners who support KIB's annual planting frenzy is long. In addition to the Community Foundation, the list includes Kalamazoo Valley Plant Growers Cooperative, WMU Landscape Services, the MSU Extension/Master Gardener Volunteer Program, the cities of Kalamazoo and Portage, Kalamazoo County, Napps Greenhouses, Tuesley's Greenhouses and Burger King.

"Having the students involved with this when they're young is so important," Trahe states. "It helps them have pride in the work they're doing and the community they live in. It also teaches them how to serve others and be part of something bigger than themselves. And they can see that their work lasts for more than one day –– that the flowers they planted continue to thrive over time.

"Of course," she continues, "it's important for us to recruit young people to help because most of our KIB gardeners and volunteers have been with us for many years. It's time for them to teach and advise the next generation so we can continue our mission. But what really matters is that when kids get involved in something like this, it might just continue throughout their lives."

Building Bikes, Building Community

Last fall some unusual teams gathered on Western Michigan University's campus to build bicycles –– and then give them away. It was the trial run of a service learning project called Building Bikes, Building Community.

According to Shawn Tenney, Western's University Coordinator of Service Learning, eight WMU faculty/staff participated, along with 16 Lakeside Academy students and eight elementary students from the Edison Environmental Science Academy. Each adult teamed up with two teens from Lakeside and each team built a bicycle. Then the Lakeside students presented the completed bicycles, along with new helmets, to the elementary students.

"This project serves many purposes," says Tenney. "For faculty, it helps to build their skills in incorporating service learning into their curricula, giving them first-hand knowledge of what it is like for their students when they are placed in the community to serve in various capacities.

"For the Lakeside students, they have a chance to practice leadership and teamwork skills, and build trust and empathy. Many Lakeside students said they have never created something and then given it away, and several said they'd never had someone look up to them before.

"For the elementary students, a bike was a luxury they may not have enjoyed, but this wasn't 'charity.' They were selected by their teachers because they made a difference in their schools. The bikes were a reward recognizing their contributions to their community."

Says Tenney, "Everyone enjoyed participating. Depending on funding, we would like to do this twice a year, but at least annually."

The helmets for Building Bikes, Building Community were donated by Safe Kids Kalamazoo County. Meijer donated funds toward purchasing the bikes. A Kalamazoo Community Foundation grant was used to purchase bikes and the tools needed to put them together.

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