United Way of the Battle Creek and Kalamazoo Region


Month: July, 2012

Motivating Monday: Denise Washington, From Poverty to Ph.D

by United Way of the Battle Creek and Kalamazoo Region

Denise Washington and daughter Malika

Story Provided by Kathy Jessup

Denise Washington seemed destined to be a poster woman for young, single mothers aspiring to little more than a minimum-wage existence.

Forty years ago, Washington was offered a college scholarship to pursue a degree in accounting at Western Michigan University and had a promising internship lined up.  But with a semester left before her high school graduation, she became pregnant and all that vanished.

She gave birth to a daughter.  Mother and daughter were separated some nights when Washington was homeless; she slept alone in her car after arranging for a friend or relative to shelter her baby.

As life hit rock bottom, the Battle Creek woman recognized education was her lifeline out of poverty.

Today, Denise Washington has a Ph.D.  She credits people at United Way with supporting and believing in her even before she believed in herself.

“They saw what I didn’t see in myself,” Washington said.  “They believed in me.  I started sitting on an (United Way of Greater Battle Creek) ad hoc committee at a time in my life that I didn’t really feel worthy to be there.  I didn’t have long title extensions behind my name.”

A marriage to the baby’s father failed after 18 months. Washington enlisted in the military to improve her lot.  She married again and had another child while in the Army.  But that marriage failed, too.

She was discharged after serving eight years, returning to Battle Creek with her children.

“I had three small kids, living on less than $20,000 a year and not getting child support,” she said.  “We lived off $20 a week for food, relying on hot dogs, bologna and buy-one-get-one-frees.”

Washington says a vivid dream was her turning point.  She saw herself falling into a deep pit just before hitting the bottom.

“God told me, ‘Turn around or the next time I’m going to let you fall.’  I just remember having feelings of being stupid and never amounting to anything.”

Approaching age 39 and seven months pregnant, she enrolled in her first college accounting class.

“I got an A and from then on I told myself I could do anything.  I had small kids, I was taking two to three classes a semester and working two or three jobs.  I was so driven; I don’t know how I did it.”

She earned an associate degree in accounting from KCC, then went on to complete bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Sienna Heights University. Recently she received her doctorate in business from University of Phoenix

Through it all, United Way was there with encouragement, showing faith in her when her own sometimes waned.  Washington said United Way also allowed her to apply her classroom learning in real-world challenges.

Today at 58, the woman who once averaged two hours of sleep each night is retired from the City of Battle Creek.  But she still has many irons in the fire.

Washington wants to teach, both as an academic in accounting and personally as someone who knows what can be accomplished with hard work, determination and positive support.

“I want to write a book to help others who are thinking about pursuing education.  I would like to reach young, single-parent moms who don’t have a high school diploma or job skills and get no income from their child’s father.  I was there and I was told I would never amount to anything.  I was there and I want to reach out to them and tell them ‘Don’t let anybody stop you from your dream.’”

That’s what Denise Washington said United Way gave her.

“I never wanted anyone to give me anything, just show me the way so I could move on,” she explained.  “United Way promotes self sufficiency and independence.  I’ve seen the impact of what United Way does, and I want to be a part of it.”

Employee Campaign Managers . . . Start Your Engines!

by Kellie Cochrane

This morning, while most of Kalamazoo was hitting the snooze button to enjoy the sound of rain just a little longer, our 2012 Employee Campaign Managers were meeting for breakfast and training at the Senior Services Center.  We had a great turnout and everyone seemed enthusiastic about beginning their workplace campaigns.  This year’s training had a noticeable theme, from pit stops to turbo charged campaign strategies, there was no way to hide our excitement about our sweepstakes prize: a brand new car!

In addition to the sweepstakes excitement, ECMs were able to get inspired by the outstanding presentations by both Sandra Standish, Executive Director of Kalamazoo County Ready 4s, and Dr. Robert Littke, President and CEO of Senior Services Inc.  These two both reminded everyone in the room of the value of United Way of the Battle Creek and Kalamazoo Region’s impact in serving the community.   Which is why we’re so fortunate to have such great ECMs and of course, Campaign Chair Phil Harbert, President of 1st Source Bank.  We know everyone is going to do their best to drive their campaigns to victory!

All of our ECMs were able to break away from the larger group to have smaller sessions with UWBCKR staff about ways to achieve throughout campaign.  We were so impressed with everyone’s questions and obvious passion about this year’s effort.  Thank you so much to the Senior Services Center for hosting the event and for their excellent support throughout it.  And a big thank you to all our ECMs for braving the rain to come and learn how they can help their coworkers Live United in 2012!

Wellness Wednesday: Local Produce Makes a Difference for Low Income Families

by Kellie Cochrane

Randi Dale and her daughter, Cheyenne Ruddock, 15, of Battle Creek buy produce using Double Up Food Bucks
Photo Credit: Battle Creek Enquirer

I love a trip to the Farmers Market.  I love fruit, I love veggies and I love an excuse to walk around and enjoy the summer.  And of course, it certainly feels great to support our locally grown products.    Now, the Battle Creek Enquirer has given me yet another reason to love Farmers Markets: increased access to healthy, local food.

Battle Creek has stepped up to participate in the Double Up Food Bucks Program which allows low income families who rely on the assistance of Bridge Cards or other food assistance programs to receive tokens to be used at the Farmers Market.  These tokens literally double their dollars all the way up to a $20 dollar value for Michigan produce.

Participants claim this program has really impacted the way they shop, allowing them to choose foods that are both nutritious and delicious.  Vendors see the difference too, one estimates that the DUFB shoppers are 40% of their revenue.  This program creates amazing change on both sides: families gain access to produce they might not otherwise be able to get and vendors benefit from increased revenue and more shoppers at the market.

The Double Up Food Bucks Program is an initiative allowing for positive change for the health of our community and stimulating economic growth.  Kalamazoo Farmers Market also accepts EBT and WIC benefits and offers a Project Fresh program.  So, brave the heat and plan a trip to your local Farmer’s Market because the products aren’t the only good that is happening there.

Motivating Monday: Eileen Wilson-Oyelaran, An Advocate for Education

by United Way of the Battle Creek and Kalamazoo Region


Story provided by Kathy Jessup

As Kalamazoo College president, Dr. Eileen Wilson-Oyelaran focuses on providing a challenging academic atmosphere for young people readying themselves to embark on an adult learning odyssey.

As a local United Way leader, she’s targeted her academic passion at another point in learning: early childhood education.

Wilson-Oyelaran, 64, credits the United Way with providing a framework to support Kalamazoo County’s commitment to having four-year-olds begin school ready to learn. United Way offered office space and a coordinating staff person to nurture the Kalamazoo County Task Force on Early Childhood Education’s “kernel of an idea” into a countywide commitment to enrolling kindergarteners prepared to succeed.

“We would not be where we are today with Kalamazoo County Ready 4s without the strong support of the United Way,” Wilson-Oyelaran declares.

The United Way board member says her involvement challenges her as an educator and an activist, while opening a window for her to the Kalamazoo community.

“It’s an opportunity for me to understand the needs of the community and perhaps for me to contribute a little bit to helping solve some of the community’s most pressing problems,” Wilson-Oyelaran said. “United Way has been very intentional about the areas on which it wants to focus, including ones that hold real passion for me: opportunities for children, for families and for the eradication of poverty. So for me, there’s no question that when I have discretionary time, the United Way is a good place to spend it.”

Wilson-Oyelaran focused on the benefits of early childhood education long before she came to Kalamazoo in 2005. She studied immigrant child education in England and conducted independent research in Africa on her way to a Ph.D. in early childhood development.

When the K-College president rubs shoulders professionally with some of the area’s top philanthropists, she has a ready reply for why United Way is a wise investment for their charitable dollars.

“Impact.  Creativity.  Rapid response to challenges.  There is strong leadership in the organization, and a board and staff that are deeply invested in the work.”

Motivating Monday: Ernest Lanier, A Personal Passion for Community

by United Way of the Battle Creek and Kalamazoo Region

Story provided by Kathy Jessup

There were a handful of times during Ernest Lanier’s life when someone he barely knew offered a piece of advice or a modicum of encouragement that propelled him forward.

Now Borgess Health’s chief diversity officer pays those examples forward—mentoring young people, working on projects for a variety of community organizations and spreading the mission of United Way.

One of 14 siblings who spent their childhoods raising and harvesting crops, Lanier said his clothing came from Salvation Army, and a college education was little more than a dream for someone like him.

Now 62, Lanier has a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice and a master’s in public administration, both earned after the Kalamazoo man began taking college classes at age 30.

“As I reflect back on my life, I can think of four or five times when someone took the time to help me find my way,” he recalled.  “As a kid growing up, I got some important support from people I didn’t even know.  That’s why I think United Way’s programs are so important today.  You don’t forget where you come from.”

Lanier is considered among the Greater Kalamazoo United Way’s most persuasive advocates.  Three times he’s been “on loan” from Borgess, lobbying new companies to join the community giving program and helping United Way maximize collaboration and diversity.

The Kalamazoo man mixes stories of his own meager beginnings with examples of how United Way has made a critical difference in the lives of local individuals when he visits prospective, new contributors.  Lanier’s stories brought a secretary to tears during a visit to one company and prompted two-thirds of the employees to become first-time donors.

Today, that company’s CEO not only matches his employees’ United Way contributions.  He devotes his own volunteer hours to community projects, all because Lanier’s “giving back” message.

“I consider I’ve been successful when I can help someone else succeed,” Lanier said.  “I’m proof you don’t have to be some high-level, wealthy person who went to private schools to be able to serve the community.  All you need is the passion in your heart.”

“Not Just a Merger, but a Transformation”

by United Way of the Battle Creek and Kalamazoo Region

CEO Mike Larson and COO Chris Sargent show off the new logo

July 10 marked a huge step for our regional community: the United Way of Greater Battle Creek and the United Way of Greater Kalamazoo merged to form the United Way of the Battle Creek and Kalamazoo Region (UWBCKR).

I know, it’s a mouthful!  But beyond the longer name this merger represents much more change to come.  Chris Sargent, COO of the new organization, put it best when he said, “We know hunger doesn’t stop at the county lines.”  We believe that this merger will allow us to more positively impact on a larger scale in the areas of Education, Income and Health.   Both the Battle Creek and Kalamazoo communities have shown they’re generosity and determination at improving the lives of others throughout the years, so we know that this new merger will position all of us to achieve.

So how did we mark the occasion?  The day started in Battle Creek with several community members, United Way volunteers, representatives affiliate agencies and other United Ways from around the State.  Speakers included:  Mike Larson, president & CEO of UWBCKR, Chris Sargent, Executive Vice President & COO of UWBCKR, Susan Balwin, Mayor of Battle Creek, and Tim Kool, UWBCKR Board Chair.

After a few wise words from these folks, we got to work!  Nothing like a volunteer project to start things off on the right foot.  People graciously pitched in to help package hygiene kits for Community HealthCare Connections, which serves as a mobile health clinic in Battle Creek.  Other volunteers worked on labeling books with reading strategy to be distributed to students in vulnerable neighborhoods to promote reading during the summer and with the family.

In Kalamazoo, community members gathered for a similar event.  Larson and Sargent spoke again on the importance of this change and the power of a regional organization.  Jim Stephanak, former Board Chair of the Greater Kalamazoo United Way also spoke and impressed upon listeners that this decision was not made lightly.  Many months, weeks and hours of volunteer input and dialogue between both communities took place before the unanimous decision for the merger was made.  He also commended the hard work of both sides, telling the crowd, “This is not just a merge, but a transformation.”

Those gathered in Kalamazoo, also lent a hand.  People gathered around a table full of children’s shoes to take remove price tags, take out that annoying toe paper and tie together the shoes for Family Health Center’s Back to School Bash.

After all of the excitement, our newly merged staff celebrated at the Kellogg Manor with delicious hor d’oeuvres, and of course what’s a celebration without cake?  All in all, it was a great day and on behalf of the entire organization, thank you to everyone who participated and continue to help make our communities successful.  Make sure to check out our Facebook for pictures and news coverage from the events!