United Way of the Battle Creek and Kalamazoo Region


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!

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

Greater Collaboration Provides a Great Start

by United Way of the Battle Creek and Kalamazoo Region


Posted on behalf of Denise Hartsough, Director of Community Investment

Visit www.changethestory.org to learn more about the work we are doing in Education.

At United Way, we believe that positive, nurturing early childhood experiences are vital to creating a thriving community, so that our children are able to begin their journey strong and continue to succeed. We know that when we invest in children from the beginning, we can prevent a great deal of hardship later in their lives and make our community stronger. This is why United Way actively engages in the work of the Kalamazoo County Great Start Collaborative.  I am privileged to support the Great Start Collaborative’s efforts around early care and education, and parenting education and support.

The Kalamazoo County Great Start Collaborative aims to “assure a coordinated system of community resources and supports to help all Kalamazoo County families provide a great start for their children from birth to age five” (www.kalamazoogreatstartcollaborative.org). That system includes home visiting for families of children ages 0-3, and high-quality pre-kindergarten for 4-year olds.  I am excited to announce that a new grant will strengthen the system by offering scholarships for high-quality care and education for 3-year olds.  Consumers Energy has awarded $20,000 to help families of 3-year-olds in our community. Children with a scholarship for  high-quality care and education at age 3 will then move to a high-quality preK program when they are 4 years old–Head Start, state-funded preschool, or a Kalamazoo County Ready 4s provider.  Two years in high-quality programs will give participating children a great start as they head into kindergarten!

The Great Start Collaborative is partnering with Child Care Resources for this scholarship program.  Child Care Resources serves as the fiduciary of the grant and will disburse the funds directly to the early care and education providers.  Eligible families who receive the scholarship will choose from providers rated at the four or five star level in the state-wide Great Start to Quality rating system.

I am happy to have been able to help strengthen the early childhood system in our community by writing this grant with staff from the Great Start Collaborative and Child Care Resources. This is yet another example of how well our community collaborates for positive change.

To learn more about United Way, and our work on Education, Income and Health in the region, like us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter @LIVEUNITEDbckr.

United Way: A Year-round Commitment

by United Way of the Battle Creek and Kalamazoo Region

Posted on behalf of Christopher Riker, Director of Marketing &
Communications at the United Way of the Battle Creek & Kalamazoo

There are a lot of responsibilities that only interrupt us once a year: renewing license tags, spring cleaning, and if you’re not an accountant, taxes.  Our responsibility to our community, however, must be an ongoing commitment.  There is no time or season more important than another, and the work is never truly done.  We’re on a mission to constantly improve the quality of life within our region.

That’s the perspective of United Way. Our role goes beyond the outdated image of a once-a-year fundraiser. We partner across all sectors to create opportunities for a better life for all.  People in our community don’t stop caring because the workplace campaign has ended, and we are inspired by the volunteers who are driven by passion rather than a calendar.

There are more than 1,800 independent and autonomous United Way’s around the world, and the very best are having ongoing conversations across all sectors to address real, relevant issues and advancing the common good for all.

Our vision for our community is big: that all students enter school ready to learn and graduate, that families have a stable income, and everyone has access to quality healthcare.  Working together is the only way to realize that vision.

We have an opportunity to do more and the responsibility to do better. Collectively we can do more than anyone can do individually. As we look forward to 2013, let’s unite and work together to build the strongest, healthiest and most vibrant region possible.

United Way: Why Partnering Matters

by United Way of the Battle Creek and Kalamazoo Region

Posted on behalf of Christopher Riker, Director of Marketing &
Communications at the United Way of the Battle Creek & Kalamazoo

As the saying goes, “Nothing ever changes until somebody motivates a critical mass of the right people to commit to change.”

It’s a good saying – and it happens to be true.

The need for change is immense. You don’t have to look far to find troubling statistics on school readiness and achievement, children and families in poverty, and individuals and families struggling to gain access to high quality and affordable healthcare.

The first step in summoning real, lasting, community-wide change is acknowledging the reality of the needs. This requires open, honest and inclusive conversations as well as coming together to organize and mobilize efforts and resources in effective, strategic ways. That’s how we collectively create meaningful change.

To take that first step, people must recognize that money alone is not the answer. If it were, we would have “fixed things” by now. We live, work, play and innovate in a region that is home to extraordinarily generous companies, foundations, nonprofits and individuals. That’s a critical part of the mix. Beyond that, transforming the community
requires all of us to have shared goals, awareness and commitment to working together to achieve success.

The good news is, United Way has always partnered across all sectors to identify the greatest needs in the community, define their root causes, and mobilize human and financial resources to accelerate change and advance the common good for all. Even better, we’ve succeeded because so many in our greater community have been willing to partner as well.

That’s the call to action I want to make today. Each person’s willingness to provide the “critical mass” to bring about change is crucial to achieving specific goals in the areas of EDUCATION, INCOME and HEALTH. Our collective success hinges on our ability to continue and grow these partnerships.

We all win when a child realizes his or her full potential.  We all win when individuals and families have enough income to support themselves through retirement. We all win when individuals and families have access to high quality and affordable healthcare.

If you’re already engaged, thank you! If you’re looking for the opportunity to join us, welcome aboard! To LIVE UNITED, you can GIVE, you can ADVOCATE and you can VOLUNTEER. I look forward to showing you how! Please email information@uwbckr.org

Happy Thanksgiving!

by United Way of the Battle Creek and Kalamazoo Region

Since the annual holiday season begins with Thanksgiving Day, I want to bring that theme to this letter. Please accept my deepest gratitude and appreciation for your unwavering support of United Way. Without your generosity we would not be able to mobilize the great resources of our community to improve people’s lives in real, meaningful ways.

As most of you know, this has been a year of major change for our United Way. Since the official merger of the Battle Creek and Kalamazoo organizations on July 1, we have accomplished a great deal. We have:

  • Aligned the goals of the two United Ways around education, income and health;
  • Merged and restructured the Board of Directors with cross-regional leadership;
  • Reorganized staff and implemented robust communications to build a strong team;
  • Received $125,000 to date from major sponsors and corporations to help with merger costs and near-term regional projects;
  • Conducted two campaigns this year – one in Battle Creek, one in Kalamazoo – while coordinating regionally to ensure consistent messaging, branding and staff support.

The year ahead will bring continued focus on integrating our operations while advancing the work of United Way and our partners across the region. And, as always, we will honor the intent of donors.

If you’re interested in hearing more about the merger and the work of United Way, please feel free to visit our website or call us at (269) 343-2524. I wish you and your loved ones a warm, safe and uplifting holiday season.


Mike Larson

President & CEO United Way of the Battle Creek and Kalamazoo Region

United Way; A Catalyst for Change

by United Way of the Battle Creek and Kalamazoo Region

Posted on behalf of Christopher Riker, Director of Marketing & Communications at the United Way of the Battle Creek & Kalamazoo Region

If I do my job right, you’ll never again think of United Way as simply a fundraiser.

Of course, that’s how most people view United Way – understandably so, since raising and investing funds in the community is an important part of our work. But if our region is to thrive, United Way must be much more than a fundraiser and funder.

This year we celebrate the 125th anniversary of United Way’s founding by affirming our role as a catalyst for change. With more than 1,800 local and autonomous United Ways throughout the world, we work with partners across all sectors to identify the greatest needs in the community, define their root causes, accelerate change and advance the common good for all.

In our view, we all win when a child realizes his or her full potential.  We all win when individuals and families have enough income to support themselves through retirement. We all win when individuals and families have access to high quality and affordable healthcare.

Money is part of the solution. But if that was the whole answer, the issues that plague our region would have been solved long ago.

Funding is just the start.  United Way works diligently with people and organizations to understand conditions and set goals in the areas of EDUCATION, INCOME and HEALTH, the building blocks of a vibrant community. We mobilize both human and financial resources, report results from our collective efforts, add value whenever/wherever possible, and invite individuals and organizations to engage with us in creating a stronger, safer, healthier region.

That’s way more effective than simply running an annual campaign – because success depends on all of us working together.

That’s where you come in.

You can GIVE by donating your time, talents and yes, some of your financial resources.

You can ADVOCATE by finding your voice and become a champion for United Way and the critical issues we tackle together.

You can VOLUNTEER by lending a hand to our shared efforts.

No great social movement was ever created by one individual or organization working in isolation. In order to create the change necessary in our region, we need individuals and organizations working together. Our collective future depends on our collective actions.

Join us. LIVE UNITED.  

To find out how you can get more engaged, please email information@uwbckr.org


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.”

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.”