Irving S. Gilmore Foundation

Kalamazoo County Ready 4s

Fred Rogers once said, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”

Within two weeks of preschools being closed for COVID, it was abundantly clear to our team at KC Ready 4s that the pandemic was going to dramatically affect the lives of our young children as well as the livelihoods of our partner providers. We knew it was essential to bring our network of program directors together to share ideas and resources, to problem solve and, most of all, to listen and help.

After a year of working together in new creative ways and listening to the needs of the early education sector, we knew there was one statistic we could not ignore: Over 75% of our partner teachers had no health benefits. During the pandemic, record numbers of teachers left the field, and we knew this was one way KC Ready 4s could help.

In July of 2021, KC Ready 4s introduced Thriving Teachers Thriving Children, an employee assistance program that provides all of the teachers and staff in 26 of our partner providers access to telemedicine, counseling, a crisis line and wellness resources at no cost. PCCN Preschool Director Laurie Kreg said, “The Thriving Teachers initiative is going to gift our teachers and their families the opportunity to seek necessary health supports that our programs simply cannot afford. It’s another example of how KC Ready 4s continues to not only support young learners in Kalamazoo County but also the programs that are leading the way in high quality early childhood education.”

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Kalamazoo Experiential Learning Center

The Kalamazoo Experiential Learning Center (KELC), together with our college interns, was challenged to find unique ways to gather and create community placemaking while being safe and addressing COVID protocols. Throughout the year, the event team looked at many ways to host events that authentically addressed the activity’s mission while assuring safety in the event execution. Two important programs emerged through this challenge.

First, challenged with how to keep our food truck entrepreneurs sustainable and help our artists find unique and safe venues to perform, we relied on a very strong partnership with the Kalamazoo Health Department and our local municipalities. Together, we identified the needs of the community slowly emerging from a pandemic and protocols that would support the best mix of blending distanced gathering and an authentic feel of community. Unique outdoor spaces provided a fabulous blend where artists could perform in their “pod” and food trucks could offer the unique experience of street food. The funds helped us to host seven Friday Night Food Truck Rallies and 12 Tuesday night rallies with over 5,000 people attending.

Also in 2021, as the neighborhoods slowly emerged from the pandemic, the Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety and the Kalamazoo County Sheriff’s Department understood at their core that kids needed to get out of their apartments to safely engage with others in the community. Working to identify pockets of communities experiencing this challenge, KELC and the team of interns popped up five carnival events where kids and officers played, competed and enjoyed winning prizes. Trust was built and kids simply had fun.

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Kalamazoo Literacy Council

Like most educational institutions, the Kalamazoo Literacy Council (KLC) is adapting to the changing learning environment brought on by the COVID-19 global pandemic. During the first year of the pandemic, the KLC had the largest and most diverse range of virtual options for adult learners in Kalamazoo County thanks to the creation of its Virtual Learning Center and Laptop Loaning Program. The KLC also added an outdoor classroom in the Read and Seed Community Garden and Interpretive Learning Center in partnership with Goodwill Industries of Southwestern Michigan to safely provide multi-generational learning options for adults and their families.

Now, the KLC is building a hybrid learning model to accommodate the needs and preferences of adult learners who choose to learn virtually, in-person or in both settings. Despite the challenges and uncertainty, the KLC has continued to successfully lead the Everyone Needs to Read Adult Literacy Initiative, which has strengthened and expanded instruction for adults with low literacy skills in Kalamazoo County since September 2010. This initiative has aligned services across the adult learning continuum from adult literacy, English as a Second Language, Adult Basic Education and post-secondary education to deliver better outcomes for adults who struggle to read.

In total, KLC served 524 adult learners and their families, including immigrants and refugees who have settled in the greater Kalamazoo area in the past year.

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Kalamazoo Loaves & Fishes

The COVID-19 pandemic significantly altered Kalamazoo Loaves & Fishes’ (KLF) 38-year service model. Prior to the pandemic, KLF operated a network of 30 pantries throughout Kalamazoo County. Clients were able to shop in-person and had a bank of “points” to spend on their groceries. Overnight, this model changed to curbside pickup at just a few locations and KLF was able to continue operations throughout the entirety of the pandemic.

To provide greater accessibility, KLF launched a home delivery program in March 2020, which has grown to 70 deliveries each day. While both curbside pickup and home delivery were born out of necessity, clients report preferring these service elements over the pre-pandemic model. KLF currently has 21 pantries in its network, including 11 school-based units. Six additional mobile food distributions were added, resulting in 12 distributions throughout Kalamazoo County each month

KLF also increased targeted outreach services to support those with unique food needs, including individuals facing homelessness and refugees seeking safety. New partnerships were formed involving several new agencies who secure food from KLF to provide their clients with congregate meals, emergency packs or pantry items. Since the beginning of the pandemic, KLF has served over 3,000 brand new households. On average, KLF provides food assistance to 27,000 unduplicated individuals each year from just over 10,000 households.

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Ministry with Community

With over four decades of experience serving those in crisis in Kalamazoo, Ministry with Community has adapted to change many times. That’s why when COVID-19 arrived in March 2020, we knew exactly what we had to do: open our doors every morning while keeping our members (those we serve) safe.

We acted quickly to provide masks for everyone inside our facility and placed plastic barriers in high traffic areas. We installed special filters in our HVAC system to trap viral particles. When people started testing positive for COVID but had no home to safely isolate in, we set up motel stays so they could recover safely and peacefully.

We’ve had to limit the number of people in our space to allow for physical distancing, and it’s one of the hardest decisions we’ve ever had to make. But from the start, members utilized the services they needed and left to allow others in. Since meals could no longer be safely served family style in our dining room, we shifted to take-out containers and modified the back door of the kitchen to act as a walk-up window where anyone can take a meal to go.

We are proud to say that we have remained open 365 days per year, even throughout the pandemic. We continuously offered all our usual services, including laundry, showers, restrooms, two meals each day, hygiene items and, through our Social Work and Peer Support Team, assistance with housing, obtaining a birth certificate or an ID, and more.

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Open Doors Kalamazoo

When COVID-19 caused everything to shut down, Open Doors Kalamazoo was only weeks away from our annual fundraising luncheon, Discover Open Doors. The event typically gathers 500 supporters of our work, “building relationships to overcome homelessness.” Our staff began working from home, the event was cancelled, and our focus turned to keeping our residents and shelter guests safe.

Meanwhile, we placed a pause on taking in new shelter guests. Those who were already guests at the shelter had to remain in their rooms. We provided tablets so that everyone could stay connected with loved ones and continue attending AA/NA meetings, if needed. More than half of our residence community experienced a loss of income. We received emergency funding to pay for their housing, provide essential needs and ensure that families with children were equipped for virtual schooling.

While addressing these immediate needs, we were also keeping a cautious eye on the horizon for the long-term impacts on the economy and housing. When we were asked to serve as one of three local partner organizations in the COVID Emergency Rental Assistance program, we seized the opportunity.

Through social media, we shared videos of residents and shelter guests telling their stories of strength and hope. In return, our supporters showed us how greatly they care about the people who live in our community. Thanks to their generous support, we have been able to help more than 200 people not just avoid homelessness but overcome it.

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OutFront Kalamazoo

Like many smaller non-profits, the COVID-19 pandemic impacted OutFront Kalamazoo in a myriad of ways. We had to look at ALL of our programming – from Youth Group to Kalamazoo Pride – and make decisions about how to move forward in offering services and structured groups to our area’s LGBTQ+ community. Also, like many others, we had to climb the technical learning curve if we were to bring meaningful services to our community virtually. We shuttered our office in mid-March of 2020, just two-and-one-half months after hiring a new executive director and began the process of moving most of our services to a virtual digital platform.

Our services like Youth Group and TransCend pivoted to virtual with relative ease. A simple email to group members explaining the new paradigm and learning to use a platform like Zoom made things relatively straightforward. But other programming, like Pride and our annual Winter Gala, took much more thought and time to plan and execute. Pride became a month-long virtual celebration with entertainment and educational programming instead of a two-day festival. Our annual Winter Gala morphed into the Always OutFront Awards, presented virtually in the spring.

While we could not boast the same engagement numbers for Pride and the Always OutFront Awards as we did for their in-person, pre-COVID counterparts, we did successfully reach many hundreds of people and let them know – pandemic or not – OutFront Kalamazoo would be #AlwaysOutFront.

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Prevention Works

For 27 years, Prevention Works has helped build a stronger community by providing prevention strategies and health education services to youth and families. Our programs are recognized for enhancing social emotional health, substance use prevention, violence prevention, parenting and family life skills. Prevention Works partners with schools, churches, youth agencies and neighborhood community centers to remove barriers for the participants we serve.

Along with the entire world, Prevention Works underwent a paradigm shift due to the global pandemic, immediately closing all programs and services. There was a service delivery crisis given our limited ability to connect with our community. As a result, Prevention Works had to reimage how to connect to the community with vital services.

Virtual program delivery required us to marry technology with tenacity, exploring new engagement strategies to connect to the ones who need our services the most. Operational priorities required staff to rely on upgraded technology. Prevention Works joined community collaborations to improve accessibility efforts for youth and family participants, alongside the Kalamazoo Youth Development Network and the Kalamazoo Public Library.

Despite the barriers, Prevention Works responded to the “call to action,” opened its doors, and created a Community Learning Hub. The Hub provided a safe and structured learning environment with accessible Wi-Fi, technology, tutoring, mental health services, school supplies, meals and staffing to supervise in person learning for Kalamazoo Public School students. Prevention Works provided wraparound support services, prevention programs and social emotional development for 12 male students and their families. All 12 completed their academic year and advanced to the next grade.

Due to the Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety experiencing an increase of youth crimes, Prevention Works partnered with Public Safety, the Kalamazoo County Juvenile Court, the Boys & Girls Clubs and Youth Opportunities Unlimited to offer comprehensive wraparound support for 15 of the most vulnerable, justice impacted youth (ages 14-18). Prevention Works was the host site for this summer program and also provided programming to support the youth.

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Sherman Lake YMCA

A lot has changed at Sherman Lake YMCA over the past two years, but our commitment has remained the same – to always be here for our community when they need us most, with open arms and caring hearts. More than a gym, a pool or a camp, the Sherman Lake YMCA is about elevating community for all who live here. In “normal” times, we do that by helping people get healthy, by connecting seniors to in-person social networks and by teaching our campers about Honesty, Caring, Respect and Responsibility (or what we call HCRR). Recently, however, elevating community has meant something much different.

In response to the needs of families with school-aged children in our community, we created the Sherman Lake Scholars program in the fall of 2020 as an adaptation of our summer day-camp program. Half of each child’s day was spent online completing schoolwork and the other half was spent outdoors participating in traditional camp activities. More than 90 children participated in this program between September 2020 and March 2021. While the true cost of Sherman Lake Scholars was cost prohibitive for many families, we were able to implement a tiered pricing model, allowing families to pay what they could afford.

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Synergy Health Center

Synergy Health Center’s UrbanZone is strategically located between the North and East sides of Kalamazoo, with the goal of improving the quality of life for Black and Brown adolescents in the community. The COVID-19 pandemic brought an unprecedented disruption to the educational system, an uncanny recognition of social injustices and the unfolding of trauma in the lives of
our youth.

UrbanZone was able to act quickly, including opening its doors as a Community Learning Hub in partnership with Kalamazoo Youth Development Network and Kalamazoo Public Schools to provide educational support weekly. To better serve youth and community, we found ourselves pivoting and restructuring program delivery. We took time to revisit the heart of our mission and vision looking for greater impact. Out of the ashes, we developed a new cohort approach creating tremendous learning opportunities for students in 9th through 12th grade while providing educational and mental health support.

Through the support of various funders, UrbanZone was able to launch several innovative programs, including The College Academic Success Team (CAST), designed to prepare students for academic success and college preparation. Collaboration with Kalamazoo Valley Community College helps bring the college experience directly to the students, including college tours. UrbanZone also launched the Mind Health Ambassadors Program, which teaches adolescents about mental health and mindfulness techniques, including Yoga practices, so they can become mind health ambassadors in their schools and community. Our new programming allows more students to be helped by our mission of transforming lives and empowering people for a lifetime.

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