United Way of the Battle Creek and Kalamazoo Region


Tag: Education

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!

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.

Back to School Means Time to Invest in Our Students

by Kellie Cochrane

It seems like everyone is getting in the back-to-school spirit!  As a recent college grad, it feels a little surreal not to be agonizing over the costs of my books and comparing class schedules with friends.   While I’m still adjusting to my new “alumna” status, back-to-school time as a new United Way employee brings its own excitement: a chance to see some of our incredible education initiatives in full swing!

Verona Elementary School in Battle Creek has really been an inspiration to our region.  In 2011, United Way began working with the school to create a program that would help boost third grade reading levels.  Why third grade?  This third year in elementary school marks an important transition for students: the switch between learning to read and reading to learn.  Research shows that students who lack reading proficiency in third grade are more likely to fall behind and fail to graduate.  In 2011, Verona Elementary, the Calhoun Intermediate School District and United Way formed the Verona Early Grade Reading Achievement Pilot Project.

This program provided teachers with professional development training, volunteer reading buddies for the students, support and engagement for at home activities, protection against the “summer slide” and community connections for additional resources.  The payoff has been extraordinary: Kindergarten students went from 5 percent reading at the proficient level or higher at the end of the 2011 school year to 71 percent at proficient or higher at the end of the 2012 school year. Half of the students were reading at an advanced level above their normal grade level.

Results like this truly spark change.  Earlier this month, SNAP Inc. Preschool announced they will be featuring a similar program and are looking for volunteers.  Think of what a difference being a reading buddy can make for these students.  If you’re interested in becoming a volunteer for the Verona Project, contact Kim Lehman   Just 30 minutes of your time spent reading to a child helps create a change our whole community can see.

“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!