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

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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DRIVE UNITED: How Local Auto Dealers Partnered to Advance the Common Good

by Kellie Cochrane

Posted on behalf of Rick Chambers, Rick Chambers & Associates 

Car Sponsorship

Sweepstakes winner, Terri Musolff, picking out her new car

The automobile sales industry is one of the most competitive on Earth. With production costs rising and personal income stagnant or declining, every sale matters. As a result, dealers work hard to distinguish their businesses from their peers.

Yet 11 Michigan auto dealers in Battle Creek and Kalamazoo put their rivalries in the back seat during the recent United Way campaign. Those dealerships, along with the Kellogg Community Federal Credit Union, pitched in a total of $30,000 to support a car sweepstakes as an incentive for people to contribute to the campaign.

“I was amazed by this partnership,” said Mike Larson, President and CEO of the United Way of the Battle Creek and Kalamazoo Region (UWBCKR). “The dealers were enthusiastic supporters. They wanted to do everything they could to enhance the campaign and benefit the community.”

By co-sponsoring the sweepstakes – over and above their normal United Way contributions – the dealers offered a vehicle of choice up to $30,000 to the grand prize winner. Donors who gave to United Way for the first time or who increased their gift by at least $50 over the previous year were automatically entered in the drawing; others used our website to enter.

While incentive sweepstakes have been held before in conjunction with United Way campaigns, this was the first to cover the Kalamazoo and Battle Creek region collectively. Dealers displayed vehicles at 59 different locations, often in conjunction with campaigns at local businesses. Marketing and information materials highlighted the partnership and the dealerships involved. In all, more than 80,000 working adults were exposed to the effort.

The promotion made a difference: 10,987 donors qualified for the drawing, contributing a total exceeding $1.4 million. In December 2012, long-time United Way donor Terri Musolff, an employee at Kazoo Inc./Edwards Garment, won the vehicle of her choice.

Two of the sponsoring dealers said the collaboration was fun and beneficial to their communities.

Added Jeff DeNooyer, President of Metro Toyota in Kalamazoo and a UWBCKR board member, “It’s what United Way and its slogan, LIVE UNITED, is all about. I’m glad that all the participating dealers were able to demonstrate the power of partnership.”

Organizations that supported the sweepstakes were the following:

Maple Hill Auto Group

Kellogg Community Federal Credit Union

Cole Nissan Cadillac GMC Buick

Seelye Wright Automotive Group

Henkel Chrysler Jeep Dodge

Orrin B. Hayes Inc. Jeep/Mercedes-Benz/Mazda

Lakeview Ford

Zeigler Automotive Group

DeNooyer Chevrolet

Metro Toyota

Heritage Chevrolet

Sunshine Toyota


Creating Opportunities Through Reading

by Kellie Cochrane

Verona mom and daughter

Nyekah Guest is the mother of 6 year old Nizjaylah Guest, a student enrolled in the Verona Early Grade Reading Pilot Program.

I’ve always been impressed by the great work being done through the Early Grade Reading Pilot Program at Verona Elementary School in Battle Creek.

But it’s much more powerful to actually see the excitement the children had for reading.

Last week Thursday, I joined several families for Verona’s Literacy Night. I saw first-hand that this program has achieved more than just better reading scores; it has brought hope to many families.

The numbers themselves tell a story of progress: Kindergarten students went from 5 percent reading at the proficient level or higher to 71 percent in a single year. Incredibly, more than half of the children were reading at an advanced level – higher than grade level.

That alone is impressive. Beyond that, I was inspired to see all of the families, many of whom had toddlers and other siblings in tow, who had taken time out of their night to come and support the program and their children.

Take six-year-old Nizjaylah Guest. She was never interested in reading before the program.  When her mother, Nyekah, would try an engage her with books, she would refuse.  Nyekah says the most winning component of the program for their family has been Razz Kids.  Razz Kids is the online counterpart to what the children are learning in school. Nyekah says it made reading more than “just a school thing” for Nizajaylah. “It’s in our home and it’s fun for her.”

Sharing in the Literacy Night experience made me realize that this program is about much more than helping children read proficiently; it’s about engaging parents, teachers and community members to set those kids on a path toward success. The children at Verona – and now Coburn, where the program is expanding – are being empowered to take charge of their education, which creates opportunities to change their lives for the better.

Kiersten Meales is Changing the Story

by Kellie Cochrane

Kiersten Meales seems like an ordinary Western Michigan University freshmen: she’s studying early childhood education, volunteering around campus, and is hoping to become a resident assistant in her future years.  What sets Kiersten apart, and drives her passion for helping others is her deep understanding of struggle.

Kiersten grew up in the foster care system after being removed from an abusive and neglectful home life at the age of six.  Then, her mother died when Kiersten was 11, shattering the young girl’s dream of ever going home. 

She moved in and out of different foster homes and three different residential facilities.  Throughout those tough years, Kiersten says school was her safe haven: “That’s how I got away, was school, I could be with friends and I always loved to learn.”  Kiersten eventually was able to move to Kalamazoo and live independently while finishing up high school.  Despite being completely on her own, she graduated a semester early with a 4.0 grade point average.  Now her dream is to become a teacher, so that she can be a positive light for students who need someone to look up to, as she once did.

Rather than let her difficult background bring her down, Kiersten uses it to fuel her generosity.  She knows how it feels to lack adequate clothing, so she took up knitting to make scarves, hats and other winter accessories for people in need.  Also, she became a first time United Way donor this year, giving $50 to the 2012 campaign.  That’s no small donation for any college student, and Kiersten’s contribution is especially touching given her story.

While she says that she’s proud of all her accomplishments and independence, Kiersten believes all children should have someone to rely on.  She is grateful for the resources and services she did have, such as, Starr Commonwealth, which  helped with her transition into college life, and the John Seita Scholars Program, a special scholarship for foster youth at WMU.

Kiersten says it pains her to think of others in our community struggling with the issues her family went through.  This is what motivates her to make a difference.   We’re so proud to have students like Kiersten in our region, inspiring us all with her commitment to bettering the lives of others.