Thursday, December 11, 2014

Mimi, Volunteer at the Cook Library Center, Finds Refuge There

It’s not every day that you meet a college student quite like Michelle (aka Mimi). According to her mother, Mimi is a “Book Eater.” Although Mimi was a very petite child who had to ride in the baby carriage until she was almost two years old, she began talking before anyone else her age. Her mother called her a “bright child” and said that she was forming full sentences early in her development. At a young age, Mimi’s mother would have to take books away to get her to focus on other things. Even then “She would read the cereal box, the tags on the back of the sofa, and other things in the house. That's just her!" her mother explained, fondly laughing. Nowadays, even after spending a long day on homework, Mimi goes to take a break only to find herself diving into yet another book. Mimi insists that it’s “recreational reading.” Her favorite books are the Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, and the The Silmarillion, all written by J. R. R. Tolkien. In fact, when she first received it, she read the trilogy in less than 48 hours. 

Although she was born in Evergreen Illinois, Mimi has lived all over the United States due to her mother’s occupation in campground management. In fact, they have seen every state in the United States twice and visited both oceans within the course of a year. Growing up, Mimi attended various schools and also attempted homeschooling throughout her K-12 education. “A lot of kids didn't like me in high school,” Mimi said. She feels that her good grades were to blame. She and her best friend Ruth, who suffers from a terminal illness, “broke the curve on every single test, making it difficult for the rest of the class to do well.”

Following the trend of her earlier education, Mimi was a student at several higher education institutions including Aquinas College and Northwest Michigan College. Mimi now finds herself studying at Grand Valley State University. This self-proclaimed “nerd” is majoring in English Language and Literature and minoring in East Asian Studies with an emphasis on Japan. She would eventually like to translate books and websites from Japanese to English and vice versa, but plans to get her career started as an assistant English teacher in Japan. In fact, while studying there she interned at Rice Ball Daycare where she spent two days a week reading, talking, and playing with Japanese elementary kids. This experience created a path toward exceptional volunteerism at the Cook Library Center, where Mimi brings the same joy and wisdom to the young students in the Grandville Avenue neighborhood.

Mimi got into habit of volunteering very early, starting at a local library in Manelona, Michigan, in 7th grade. She later became involved with the National Honor Society in high school, which included volunteer hours as the service component of the program. At Aquinas College she undertook another project in order to continue receiving the Monsignor Bukowski scholarship. She traveled to Lasana, Mississippi, where she relieved people from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2008. “I helped people who got ignored,” she said, “There was one elderly couple whose shed fell off its foundation, and no one helped them to put it back up. So we pushed the shed back up and set things right.” Mimi later received a certificate for her community service.
Although her current educational experience at GVSU is excellent, Mimi faces a few barriers. Mimi’s mother, who suffers from an inoperable brain stem malformation, requires countless visits to the hospital. Because Mimi’s biological father passed away from diabetes when she was young, she finds her mother frequently under her care. In addition to this difficulty at home, Mimi also began to struggle with interpersonal issues with her roommates. “There is just a lot of negative energy there,” she explained, discussing the racial tension she feels while they are present. As a result, Mimi has decided to find other ways to spend her time outside of class.
Fortunately she found the Cook Library Center, where her opportunity to volunteer with the children provides a healthy escape. ”The Library Center has reminded me how much I love going out and spending time with people,” she explained, smiling. "It's nice to stop hurting for a moment and enjoy life with the kids. It helps me let everything go for a while … knowing that I’m making life better for them.” She expressed, “Coming from an all-white neighborhood with all-white kids, there was no program like this where I could be with other people like me.” Excluded from social life in most of the places where she lived, Mimi says that she believes that the Cook Library Center gives the kids an opportunity to make friends with one other. “They are not alone here,” she articulated, “If I had something like this, I think about how much further I could have gone."

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Meet Noemi G., Future Politician

Noemi G. is a Grandville Avenue teenager with a bright and promising future. This 16-year-old high school junior loves politics and photography and dreams of being governor one day. She participates in Calling All Colors, GAAH’s Teen Leaders in the Arts program, and was even interviewed for The Rapidian’s Elevating Voices project. When reflecting upon her passion for politics, she said that she found it “interesting how one single opinion can change a law or create something.” She said that when it comes to making changes, she would start with the education system in Grand Rapids because we could do a lot better. “No one is stepping up to that,” she said.

Noemi thinks the Cook Arts Center provides students with a safe space where ”they can be whatever they want to be without having to fit into the boxes that we call the education system.” Her recognition of the Cook Arts Center and the Cook Library Center’s work to create a place for Grandville Avenue youth is fitting in light of the recent development in the organization’s Teen Leaders in the Arts program.

After years of developing creative, safe, enriching programs for youth in Grandville Avenue neighborhood, the staff and leadership team at GAAH began to notice a lack of retention after a certain age. This issue of keeping teenagers interested was addressed by research conducted by Program Director Steffanie Rosalez. Steffanie visited The Neutral Zone in Ann Arbor, a pioneer in innovative youth programming, where she learned that the teen retention rates increase significantly if they are part of the decision-making process. She discovered that the key to retaining youth beyond elementary school is to simply ask them what they want to do and then make it possible for them do it.

The idea of autonomy became a crucial principle behind the development of this program. The program the teens helped to create included choosing an artistic discipline in which to receive private instruction, working at GAAH’s facilities to gain valuable work experience and earn real paychecks, creating and presenting materials about key neighborhood issues, planning and participating in engaging field trips to cultural institutions, and more.

Noemi’s particular choice for the arts component of the program was, of course, photography. After taking an entire summer of private lessons from a professional photographer from Bultman Studios, she is eager to utilize these skills to do a campaign of images to help promote important meetings with GR Forward in the neighborhood.

(More Story Matters pieces featuring neighborhood youth and their families can be found on The Rapidian’s website or on GAAH’s YouTube.)

Friday, November 14, 2014

The Cook Library Center: A Space for All

Edgar, a fifth grader at Burton Elementary School, is one of the 21 students at the Cook Library Center who can proudly call themselves Cook Library Achievers. As a student who visits the library daily, Edgar enjoys art and playing soccer. His favorite creative activity is drawing cars. Edgar’s parents, who emigrated from Mexico, are agricultural workers; his father harvests flowers and his mother carrots. Although his family’s primary language is Spanish, Edgar is learning to read and write in both English and Spanish, giving him the distinct skill of being a bilingual and biliterate child. Edgar sees his career being a necessary step to personal success. He said, “I want to save money to buy my very own house.” In fact, he looks forward to painting it himself.

Young Edgar is a great example of how the Cook Library Achievers program allows students who are not enrolled in the Cook Library Scholars program to receive the attention, tutoring, mentorship and guidance they need. The program, sometimes warmly referred to as “The Overachievers,” mirrors the Cook Library Scholars. Participants get a name tag, have a meal time, receive homework help and tutoring, have their homework reviewed, and are guided to read for 20 minutes. Once those activities are finished, they are invited to play spelling or math games.

Sue Garza, Director of the Cook Library Center, said that the Achievers are treated with exceptional care. The program allows youth who cannot be a part of the Scholars program due to capacity limitations or scheduling conflicts to still benefit from the enriching programs that are offered at the Cook Library Center on a daily basis. Being committed to providing engaging after-school programs to the youth in the neighborhood, she reflected, “It’s really important for me as the director of our local library to help the community as a whole.”  

Edgar, a fifth grader and Cook Library Achiever, works on his homework with a volunteer

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Expanding Horizons

This fall our students and their families expanded their artistic and cultural horizons with field trips to several venerable downtown institutions.

The Andy Angelo Press Club visited ArtPrize the weekend it opened where they had a unique opportunity to talk to several artists about their motivation to enter the competition. Some of the students were surprised at what they learned, including the fact that one artist only enters to attract the attention of “Ripley’s Believe It Or Not” museums. The students then wrote about their experiences which were published on The Rapidian.

The next weekend 25 more students and their families were treated to private tours of two ArtPrize venues: SiTE:LAB and the Grand Rapids Art Museum. At the GRAM the group had the privilege of meeting several artists, including grand prize winner Anila Quayyum Agha. They also were able to get an inside look at one of the pieces to which they could easily relate titled “I Am Not Who You Think I Am/Yo No Soy Quien Crees Que Soy” by Salvador Jimenez Flores. Salvador spoke about the meaning of his piece in addition to translating for Ron Platt, GRAM’s chief curator, while he led the museum tour. A parent was overheard to say, “I didn’t realize I liked art so much!” When it was finally time to go home a student exclaimed, “I want to stay downtown and look at art all night!”

A post-ArtPrize field trip consisted of a visit to Kendall College of Arts and Design. On the way there, Steffanie Rosalez, the Cook Arts Center’s program director, was surprised to learn that nobody on the bus had ever been to KCAD. After taking a few minutes to describe the college and its important role in the community, she told the students what they could expect during the artist reception and campus tour. Moments later, 60 students filed out of the bus and began exploring the galleries and studios of KCAD's campus for the very first time.

Times like these remind the staff at GAAH of the importance of providing opportunities for our youth and their families. Even though most of our students live near downtown, they seldom have a chance to explore these institutions, learn about careers in a hands-on way, and meet artists, professors, and others who may be able to connect them with life-changing opportunities. GAAH serves as an important liaison between the Grandville Avenue neighborhood and the broader community by providing many residents with a unique opportunity to experience art in a city that is so deeply enhanced by it.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Library Scholars Help With Latino Archive

Carlos Fuentes said, “The United States has written the white history of the United States. It now needs to write the Black, Latino, Indian, Asian and Caribbean history of the United States.”

On September 18 the community celebrated one of Grand Rapids’ first Latino-focused archive titled “Portrait of My Community.” Joined by esteemed guests Mayor George Heartwell, Dr. Paul Kutsche, GVSU’s Dean Anne Hiskes, and historians Tim Gleisner and Gordon Olson, GAAH’s Cook Library Scholars unveiled a series of historical accounts about Grandville Avenue. They were collected by students who are growing up there in partnership with Grand Valley State University’s Kutsche Office of Local History.

The documents include interviews, photos, and videos of conversations between the Scholars and local business owners, inspirational leaders, and other key figures in the community. The students asked such questions “What inspired you?” and “What advice do you have for me?” These interviews were carefully documented, ensuring that this significant history remains accessible for everyone in the community.

The celebration itself, which took place at the Cook Library Center, included an address by Mayor Heartwell as well as inspiring presentations from students Alejandro, Itza, and Angel. After the program, the crowd of family, friends, and community members viewed the display and enjoyed some Hispanic food.

All in all, this poignant project elevates the important voices and history of the people in the Grandville Avenue neighborhood. Not only did the process teach important historical lessons to the youth who worked on it, but its completion will serve as an educational tool to communicate significant historical information in which the entire city can take pride. 

Reyna Garcia and a student with Tim Gleisner, 
Gordon Olson, and Dr. Paul Kutsche

GVSU’s Dean Anne Hiskes addressing the scholars

Cook Library Scholar Itza speaking to the audience

A spectator photographing some of the 
historical pieces that were produced