United Way of the Battle Creek and Kalamazoo Region


We’ve Moved!

by Kellie Cochrane

We’re still blogging over at www.changthestory.org.  Don’t worry, all of our past content has been moved over as well.  Click on “Blog” in the header to stay up to date on your United Way.

211: A Vital Community Resource

by Kellie Cochrane


A crisis can happen at any moment.  An eviction notice, a prescription that’s out of your price range, or an empty refrigerator with 1 more week until pay day.  It’s easy to feel overwhelmed and unsure where to turn.  In our community, the answer is 211, the easy to remember phone number that connects people to the resources they need in times like this.

In Kalamazoo, 211 is housed at Gryphon Place, and in Battle Creek it is located in the HandsOn office.  Both places have call specialists waiting, these specialists are trained to help people get in touch with the best resource for their particular need.  This involves a community wide sharing process: in order to provide the best information, 211 has to regularly communicate with local agencies to stay up to date on programs they offer.  Call specialists also have to know the process and requirements for all programs, to make sure they’re referring people who qualify for the help.

211 has also been an effective tool for natural disasters.  When Battle Creek was hit with severe storms 2 years ago, 211 was responsible for reporting damage and helping people find assistance near them.  Both the Kalamazoo and Battle Creek 211 Centers are AIRS accredited: Alliance of Information and Referral Systems.  It is much more than just answering the phone, it’s a constant training process to stay up to date with all the services in our community and to be able to do the best job possible when assisting those in crisis.

Jamie Rugg, 211 Program Director, in Battle Creek says the impact of the program is twofold: “Residents are empowered to find the resources they need and also are advocated for by staff members when needed.  We’re also able to provide data about need gaps and trends.”

211 allows our community to see what needs aren’t being met, and work toward creating programs for those, while also tracking the most common needs in our community.  Most importantly, 211 helps people in times of need and provides easy access to all the wonderful programs we have in our region.

Principal El: “A dream without a plan is a hallucination.”

by Kellie Cochrane

Yesterday, Principal Salome Thomas – El spoke to some of our supporters at the Gilmore Car Museum.  Principal El has been a powerful advocate for education for over 20 years and is the author of the best-selling book, I Choose to Stay.  He shared his story of working in inner city schools and how he uses chess to give students intellectual confidence.


Principal Salome Thomas – El

Principal El opened with something he shares with his students: “A dream without a plan is a hallucination.”  He spoke about the power of mentors, how we must teach our children to plan for their future, even when they fail along the way.  He congratulated our region on our early grade reading turnaround, going from 5% of students reading at proficiency level to 82%.  One of the things he asks parents at his school in Philadelphia is to simply read with their children, because he knows the change that can bring is astounding.

Principal El also reminded us that: “We have 7 million minutes to help our kids from pre-K to high school, and we can’t afford to waste one.”  He believes we have a responsibility as a community, to see our kids graduate, to help them to be successful, and most importantly, to teach them how to respond to failure.  There will be times they fail, there will be students who come to school every day at a disadvantage, which is why it takes all of us coming together to provide the support every child deserves.

Our United Way supporters were both moved and inspired by Principal El’s message.  He definitely reminded all of us how truly important our work in education is.  We’d like to offer our sincere thanks to him for coming to speak with us and, for his hard work and passion for all children.


A well deserved standing ovation!

A Lesson in Tough Choices: ECM Roundtable

by Kellie Cochrane


Our ECMs are welcomed by Jason Horan, Assistant Director of Resource Development

Our dedicated Employee Campaign Managers (ECMs) joined us for the annual Roundtable event to begin preparing for our upcoming campaign.  We’re very fortunate to have such committed individuals who work to bring the Live United spirit into their workplaces all year long!  Rickman House hosted this year’s event, and even provided our ECMs with a tour and explanation of their work.  The Rickman House provides housing for low income adults with special needs, and was recently renovated to help them better serve this population of our community.

First, our ECMs heard from Community Impact Director, Matt Lynn, and Assistant Director of Community Investment, Jamie Helsen.  Matt and Jamie shared some of the fundamental beliefs of United Way: that all children deserve a chance to succeed in school, that all families deserve to be financially stable, and that all people should be able to lead a healthy lifestyle.  Jamie expanded on some of the health initiatives, explaining some of our work around helping the under insured in our community.

Another highlight would have to be the interactive game, Spent that everyone played.  Spent puts you in the position of the unemployed and takes you on a journey where you have to make choices based on your budget.  The first step, selecting a job, figuring out if you can afford health insurance premiums, and finding affordable housing.  It also accounts for the smaller things, such as your child’s field trip, which costs $15 when you’re still 4 days away from pay day with a few more bills due, what would you do in that situation?  The game is a fascinating portrayal of situations our neighbors, friends, and even family may find themselves in if they live pay check to pay check.  The game allowed our ECMs to really consider what an impact some of United Way’s programs make in people’s everyday lives.

We are so thankful for everyone who made it to the ECM Roundtable this year.  We’re definitely looking forward to seeing all of the amazing work of our corporate partners for 2013!

Beating the Summer Slide

by Kellie Cochrane


Summer brings a lot of excitement when you’re a kid; sleeping in, plenty of outside play time, and no homework.  The freedom kids celebrate, however, causes educators to worry about the “summer slide.”  Summer slide refers to a learning loss some students experience when removed from the school system for months on end.

At United Way, we’re very proud of our early grade reading efforts and the impact they’ve made, but the work doesn’t end when the school year does.  Throughout the year, kindergarten and first grade students’ reading proficiency is carefully tracked, and at the end of the year, their reading levels are recorded.  Throughout the summer, students receive books in the mail that are tailored to their reading level.  This method simplifies things for parents, as they don’t have to worry about transportation or buying the books.  It also creates an excitement around reading, as the kids view the books as gifts, many parents report that their children are anxious to read the new books to them.

This week, Time magazine published an article stating that the only definite factor in learning success over the summer, was parents who read with their children.  While many think the summer slide is largely based on socioeconomic status, this study found that regardless of income level, trips to the library and children spending time reading or being read to, keeps students on track.  Another study found that giving students books to read over the summer was just as effective as summer school.

We’ve seen results locally with our approach to beating the summer slide.  Last year, 91% of the students in kindergarten and first grade at Verona Elementary received the books.  Of those that returned to Verona, 78% maintained or improved their exit reading level.

For more information about our early grade reading efforts, contact communityimpact@uwbckr.org.

Out of the Shadows: ASK and Children’s Mental Health Awareness

by Kellie Cochrane


I had the good fortune to spend some time at Advocacy Services for Kids (ASK) this afternoon.  ASK helps parents navigate the often challenging children’s mental health system and also teaches parents how to best support and advocate for their child in a variety of situations.  We’re honored that ASK will be our May feature story on our website.

May 5-11 is National Children’s Mental Health Awareness Week, and this year’s theme is Out of the Shadows: Exposing Stigma.

“Exposing stigma is a topic that is very near and dear to our hearts here at ASK,” says Youth Involvement Coordinator, Krissy Dristy.  “We’re always working toward eliminating stigma for families and children in regards to receiving help for mental health, we want everyone to be able to be happy and healthy.”

In 2010, the National Alliance on Mental Illness reported that only 20% of children and adolescents with mental disorders would receive treatment.  Lack of mental health resources often leads to failure in school, criminal activity, and, in come cases, suicide.  Organizations like ASK are working to make sure the necessary resources are available to all families struggling with mental health issues.

At United Way, we also believe all families deserve every opportunity to live their best life.  So I encourage you to check out ASK or the National Federation of Families for Children’s Mental Health to find out more about how you can help eliminate stigma.

Mental Health Awareness

Staff Leaders Conference

by United Way of the Battle Creek and Kalamazoo Region

Posted on behalf of Rick Chambers

 I want to share my perspective on the recent United Way Worldwide Staff Leadership Conference in Indianapolis. And I’ll start by pointing to the stars.

There’s an incredible episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine titled “The Visitor”—don’t watch it without tissues nearby; you’ve been warned! The main character, Ben Sisko, counsels his aspiring-writer son, Jake, to find a balance between his writing and reality:

“I’m no writer, but if I were, it seems to me I’d want to poke my head up every once in awhile and take a look around, see what’s going on. It’s life, Jake! You can miss it if you don’t open your eyes.”

That quote neatly sums up the value of the Staff Leadership Conference. It was an opportunity to poke our heads up from the day-to-day work of United Way—as valuable as that work is!—and consider the greater impact of our collective efforts:

Children learning to read and reading to learn.

Families achieving financial stability.

Communities with access to quality health care.

And on and on….

True, SLC spent plenty of time on the details of fundraising, relationship building and broad-based partnerships. But it was the stories that stood out, whether it was the familiar tale of Verona Elementary (adroitly delivered by Jennifer Nottingham) or the advances in collective impact happening in places like Salt Lake City and Kansas City.

For me, that was the takeaway. The work that each of you does every day goes far beyond the work itself. You are writing a powerful story! You are changing lives!

Attending SLC with the singular goal of learning new ways to work is a bit like reading The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes just to find out how the Brits spell words. There’s some value in that, but it misses a much bigger and meaningful picture.

During one of the general sessions, Principal Salome Thomas-El, author of I Choose To Stay, quoted Maya Angelou: “People don’t remember what you do. People don’t remember what you say. But people will remember how you made them feel.” What sets United Way apart is that it covers all three of those metrics—and leaves our community forever remembering how you changed the story.

And that really is life!

Youth Day of Caring 2013

by Kellie Cochrane

YDOC blog

On Friday April, 26, nearly 500 students from across Battle Creek reported to Full Blast Water Park where they headed into the community for a day of volunteering.  The effort is an annual United Way HandsOn event during national volunteer week called Youth Day of Caring.  This year’s event was the largest yet, with more students and agencies participating than ever before.

Youth Day of Caring brings together students from all of the area schools for both the planning and the execution of the event.  A committee of students, with representation from each school, starts meeting in the winter to plan everything from a venue to approving the projects.  Nonprofit agencies across Calhoun County provide volunteering opportunities, and also give tours of their site and explain their organization’s mission to the students.

Projects include a wide range of activities, from landscaping to reading to children, the students are all assigned to projects that allow them to give back to their community.  Students are assigned to the projects at random, so they’re able to meet and mingle with students from different schools.  Each school provided staff members to help assist in supervision, and everyone pitched in and had a lot of fun.

After the projects were wrapped up, the students came back to Full Blast for lunch and to reflect on their day.  United Way President and CEO Mike Larson addressed the students to thank them for their hard work, telling them: “Whether you believe it or not, you’ve really made a difference in our community today.”

Students also heard from retired Col. Frank Walker, who spoke passionately about his love for the Battle Creek community and his pride in seeing the next generation step up to take care of it.  Before leaving for the day, students wrote down reflections from the day on Post-it Notes to post on the walls for everyone to see.  We were truly inspired by this group of young people who clearly know what it means to LIVE UNITED.

For more information or pictures from Youth Day of Caring, check out the Facebook page!

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Thank You

by United Way of the Battle Creek and Kalamazoo Region

A community is woven from the threads of stories.

Most people don’t see it.  They see a world spinning upon data, dogma and dispute.  But the truth is, each of us pens our life’s saga, and collectively we author a broader narrative.  That gives us the power to transform our community when we write that story together.

Consider the tale of Aracely.  Her mother, Fanny, describes the preschooler as a candle, Imagefueled by a passion for   learning and new experiences.  Take the fuel away — as was Fanny’s plight in her youth — and the flame would die.  Instead, through the Kalamazoo County Ready 4’s initiative and the Learning Village, Aracely is learning and growing, preparing for kindergarten and for everything else the future offers.

“Her candle will burn long and bright, and that’s all any parent can ask for,” says Fanny.

Then there’s the tale of Charmica.  It’s a story that any of us could experience — job loss, homelessness, isolation.  Into her story stepped the Women’s Co-op of Battle Creek, making it possible to earn her GED, attend college and secure a place to live.  Image

“Today I’m studying for my nursing boars, and I actively participate with the Co-op in helping others,” Charmica says.

Two stories.  Two chronicles that might have ended differently if not for those willing to help rewrite their narratives.

United Way of the Battle Creek and Kalamazoo Region is proud to support these efforts — and grateful for the generosity, compassion and involvement of donors, volunteers and partners like you.

With our 2012 Campaign coming to a close, we celebrate not merely numbers, but lives transformed.

Of the changing story of our regional community.

And of you, the authors of a truly epic tale.


Mike Larson, President and CEO and Chris Sargent, Executive Vice President and COO

Helping to Change the Story: Mark Zigterman

by Kierstin Nall


After ten months of unemployment, Mark Zigterman was contacted by a temp agency about an opening at United Way. While he didn’t know it at the time, it would be the beginning of a new journey. Filled with a renewed sense of hope, Mark began his new job at United Way in January 2006 as a Finance Assistant.

Living as “middle class” in the region since the 1980’s allowed Mark to live a blinded life. “You don’t often know how big the problems actually are. We don’t always tend to think about those that are struggling,” says Mark of his life before United Way. “I always knew about United Way. I knew that they were a good organization, but I was never really involved.”

Through his employment, Mark began to learn more about the role United Way plays in the community. “We don’t just fund organizations, we support programs. We provide leadership, accountability and expertise while focusing on the most important issues.” Mark is happy to work for an organization that focuses on the three pillars that he believes are tied to one another: Education, Income and Health. “If a family is dealing with health or financial issues, they cannot focus on education.” Mark comes from a family of educators and fully believes in the work and mission of United Way: To advance the common good by creating a better life for all.

Today, as a Senior Accountant at United Way of the Battle Creek and Kalamazoo Region, Mark works his magic with numbers to ensure United Way’s accounting records are accurate and monitors financial procedures and internal controls. He works hard to ensure United Way can be as effective as possible and he is taking on new roles, such as grant accounting.

“I get up every morning, and I enjoy coming to work. I have a passion for accounting, and I know I am helping make a difference in this region with every number I crunch and spreadsheet I create.”

United Way continues to be successful because of the dedicated employees, volunteers and partners, like Mark. Mark is helping change the story.