Monday, May 4, 2015

GAAH's Dynamic Duo

Sue Garza, Director of the Cook Library Center, was recently honored by Family Futures with the Christine Nelson Professional Award for her tireless work on behalf of children and families in the Grandville Avenue neighborhood.

Sue was nominated for this award by another tireless neighborhood advocate—Steffanie Rosalez, the Cook Arts Center’s Program Director. Steffanie’s nomination letter is a beautiful summary of Sue’s essential work in the community as well as a testament to their mutual respect and strong partnership. Here is that letter:

I am writing this letter to nominate my colleague, Sue Garza, for the Christine Nelson Professional Award. Through her work as Director of the Cook Library Center, Sue has been instrumental in providing a safe and welcoming space for youth and families in the Grandville Avenue neighborhood for almost ten years. Even more importantly, Sue has a passion for empowering and serving others, and that passion pushes her to go above and beyond just being an advocate for youth in her profession – she is a genuine force for equality and education in her everyday life. 

Sue’s daily professional activities include an incredibly wide range of programs and services that allow children and families to have access to opportunities and education. She implements and directs the typical library services that you’d expect, but not in a way that a normal “librarian” would. When children and families come in and need access to resources, Sue will provide the typical services one might need (books, computers, help finding information), but then on top of that she allows families to utilize her as a resource. She is always willing to sit side by side with individuals to help them apply for jobs, learn to read, get their homework done, and in any way she possibly can help them reach their full potential.

Sue also oversees all of the Cook Library Center’s programs, including Cook Library Scholars, Cook Library Achievers, English as a Second Language (ESL) and literacy classes, Juego en Español (a program for families with young toddlers to speak in English and Spanish together), drop-in homework help, and more. Sue is at the helm, leading all of these programs that are designed to support youth and their families in a holistic and genuine way. Sue is the perfect leader for these programs, as she genuinely believes in the potential of every student and family and goes above and beyond her call of duty to support them in their needs.

As if that wasn’t enough, in her spare time Sue continues following her passion by volunteering for the Literacy Center of West Michigan and SLD Read tutoring adults and youth. She also serves on Grand Rapids Public Schools’ Parent University committee (a group that works to provide parents of GRPS students with tools and education to help their kids succeed in school), and she is a Parent Action Leader (PAL) at her sons’ school. One moment I experienced that was a true testament to Sue’s grassroots presence in the community was when, upon entering the room for a meeting, a man recognized Sue and said, “Oh! Hi Sue! I didn’t realize we were meeting with the Sue, who volunteered every morning at my son’s school giving rides to students in bad weather and making sure they got to school safely. It’s good to see you again!”

Thank you so much for considering Sue as a recipient for this award. I cannot imagine anyone who deserves it more than she does!

Steffanie Rosalez

        Sue Garza (right) and Steffanie Rosalez do great work on Grandville Avenue

Friday, March 20, 2015

Welcome to Jeffrey VanHove, the Cook Arts Center's newest volunteer

“Those kids kind of fill my heart. I just like spending time with them. I like listening to all of their funny little comments and questions. It makes me smile.”

This was the explanation that Jeffrey VanHove, a new volunteer at the Cook Arts Center, gave when he was asked why he chose to give his time to GAAH. His volunteer work in the animal drawing class does not fill any credit requirement. Instead, he is choosing to spend his afternoons and evenings with the youth in the Grandville Avenue neighborhood because of his passion for helping kids.

“I chose animal drawing specifically because it included ages 5-9 and I wanted to work with kids in the fourth grade age range,” he explained. “For my first experience, I was a little nervous. I always am when I walk into a class of kids I've never met before. I just wonder if they are going to like me. Even though I immerse myself in things, I am a little shy,” Jeffrey said. “But I definitely think I made an impression. When I walked in, I was wearing this big safari-looking hat, and the kids started calling me a cowboy. So I made a little cowboy move and they all laughed. That was my first connection.”

Jeffrey then started making friends with individual students in the class. “I started asking them some questions, talking to them about their classes. The girl across from me told me about piano classes which I thought was really cool because I've always wanted to learn piano. When I got up to go meet the other kids, they were like, ‘No, don’t go!’”

To assist the art instructor, Jeffrey helped the students trace rabbits and draw animals. “Two other volunteers were helping out, but I noticed that they were walking around asking kids if they needed help drawing. I wanted to actually draw myself, so I drew this ridiculous camel,” Jeffrey explained. “[The students] had a lot of energy so I was trying to play games with them to get them engaged. I even started a horse-drawing competition.”

Jeffrey, a freshman at Grand Valley State University, comes from Boyne City. Growing up, he attended East Jordan Schools, Bell Air Schools, and then graduated from Boyne City High School. His interests include longboarding, skiing, and working with kids. He has also volunteered to help with the Warrior Dash and the Forest of Fear at GVSU and plans to do more volunteer work, including at the Cook Library Center.

“I found out that I loved kids when I started working as a teacher's assistant my senior year of high school. I helped out two fourth grade teachers with math, science, and PowerPoints and had a great time. I never knew how much I would miss it until it was gone,” he said. “One of the really cool things about being a teacher’s assistant and helping kids with academics and schoolwork is that you are helping them become more successful.”

He discovered the Cook Arts Center through a friend who volunteers in a pottery class. Once she explained the organization to him, Jeffrey thought it sounded like a perfect way to be involved with the community and work with kids. “The classes just looked awesome,” Jeffrey said. ”I was really excited about breakdance and guitar so I really wanted to get involved.”

Jeffrey summed up his experience this way: “I had an awesome time at the Cook Arts Center. The classroom was great, everyone was really nice, and I left with a really good impression. I walked out of the building with a smile on my face.”

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Meet Monica Zavala, CLS Program Manager

Monica Zavala, formerly Family Outreach Coordinator for the Cook Library Scholars (CLS) Program, has an exciting new role at GAAH. While still maintaining her current work with the families in the neighborhood, she will also be heading up the special year-round academic leadership program offered at the Cook Library Center. But as she made abundantly clear, “I won’t leave the families. No way!”

Monica is the mother of three children, Emmanuel, Josue, and Joseline, who range in age of five to twelve and attend Montessori School and City Middle/High. Their involvement with the Cook Library Center was the gateway to Monica discovering her passion for the CLS program, and she took her first professional position at the Cook Library Center to be more involved with their education. “Now I have an even greater opportunity to share my input. I live in this neighborhood so I know what we need here,” she said.

Monica sees the CLS program as a privilege for the students involved and an asset to the future of the city. “They are here for a reason. They are being empowered in different areas and will be our future leaders. In only one year we are already starting to see the change in their hearts and how they are growing. Imagine when we have more years!” she said. “These are students who have been living in this neighborhood which makes them special and unique. You can go to a university and read as many books as you want, but it doesn’t give you the experience of dealing with barriers every single day and overcoming them. I know that someday, when they are in a high position and be able to make a change, they will look back and remember this neighborhood and their roots.”

When offered the promotion, Monica first called her grandmother who raised her and is her greatest inspiration. “She told me, ‘Mi hija (daughter), you can do whatever you want if you believe in yourself. I know because I raised you and I raised you well. Don't be afraid to make mistakes because that's the way you learn.’ She always pushed me,” Monica said. “That’s why I don't have an ego. If my grandma knew, she'd come here and say ‘That's not how that I raised you. Why are you behaving that way?’”

Monica has lived in the Grandville Avenue neighborhood since her family’s move from Mexico to the United States in 1988. She said her family decided to bring her here for a better life. “To move to this country was not my decision. I wanted to go back at that time. My family told me that if after a year I still didn’t like it, I could go back to Mexico,” she said. “But when I had my own kids, I noticed that there was not much in Mexico for me to continue with that mentality and knew I would not return. Here I have a better life and better opportunities. I now feel like this is also my country.”

When she was young, her aunt’s goal to be a teacher influenced her. For years she wanted to be a pre-school teacher. “I was such a dreamer, let me tell you,” she said. She attended Kent Career Technical Center for Cosmetology school, got married, worked in a salon, and then ended her education to raise her family. Monica is now taking ESL classes and has aspirations of becoming a social worker. In her free time she enjoys dancing and spending time in her craft room. “I can go in there and sew, knit, or make something. It relaxes me when I’m under stress.”

When asked about what makes this neighborhood special, Monica said, “I think Grandville Avenue is full of hard-working families. In Cook Library Scholars conferences, 100% of the families say they want a better future for their kids. They want them to graduate from high school and get a career. They just need our support,” Monica said. “Working together is going to make the biggest change.”

She also pointed out the generosity of her neighbors and friends in the area. “I know that when the kids get home, they have their warm meals and their moms care,” she said. “Sometimes I can even see my neighbors coming with a meal for me when they notice that I have been working late. They share what they have, even if they don’t have a lot. They want to share the best things they have with others.”

About her work at GAAH, Monica says, “This is not just a job. It's something that is personal because I know this is my community and my people. I am working with them and I am going to fight for them because we don't have many people who speak up,” she said. “I want to empower the families to say what they want to say.” She maintained, “It's not for popularity. It's just for the feeling I have. At the end of the day when I go to bed, my conscience is tranquil. I know that I do my best every time a family is in need.” 

Friday, February 20, 2015

Meet Maria, Proud Parent of Aspiring Performer

Maria is the proud mother of two daughters, Carina and Ariel. Although Carina is too young to participate in the programs at the Cook Arts Center, her sister Ariel, pictured below, is very involved. After living in the Grandville Avenue neighborhood for several years, Maria has reached out to the staff at the Cook Arts Center to let us know how happy she is with our programs and services.

“Ariel has been through a lot in her little lifetime, and the Cook Arts Center makes her feel like she is doing something. The classes make her feel special and worthy. Those are important things to know as a child,” Maria said. “When I was young I felt like what I did didn’t matter, but Ariel looks forward to every day here. It pushes her to do better in everything she does.” 

Ariel, a 7-year-old who attends Bursley Elementary School in Jenison, falls in the 85th percentile in school. Although she succeeds academically, her true passion lies in the arts, especially singing, acting, and dancing. At the Cook Arts Center, she attends piano, animal drawing, hip hop, and pottery classes.  She told her mom, “I don’t want to be a trash picker or someone who works at a desk all day long. Instead, I want to be a dancer and a performer for my career.”

Maria, who is from Texas, moved around a lot with her parents, who were migrant farm workers. She attended a variety of Grand Rapids Public Schools including Franklin, Hall, and Burton. She also attended GRCC but then became pregnant with her second daughter, Carina. Although Maria needed to take time off to raise her infant, she plans to go back to college.

For fun, the family enjoys attending Grand Rapids First Church, going to the movies, and attending ArtPrize. Their favorite activity when it’s warm is going to Grand Haven to walk on the pier. Maria plans to include Ariel in drop-in programs at the Cook Library Center this summer and looks forward to continuing her relationship with the staff at the Cook Arts Center.

 “I tell Ariel that we must try hard in everything we do. We can’t just show up,” Maria said. “That way, at the end of the day, we can say we tried our best.”

Ariel playing the piano

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Mary T., Avid Reader and Committee Member

Mary is a bright, unique fourth grader at Cesar Chavez elementary school. This ten-year-old’s favorite subjects are music, gym, and reading. Mary and her three siblings, who are ages four, six, and twelve, celebrate diversity in their family. Her mom, now a social worker, is originally from Africa. Mary’s step-father, who is from Guatemala, is an auto technician in Grand Rapids.

Mary started coming to the Cook Library Center two years ago when she was in second grade. She thoroughly enjoys the myriad of activities offered here, including creative art activities and classes that expand her understanding of science. One of her favorite things about the Library is the field trips. She fondly recalls going to Calvin College for trick-or-treating in the dorms for Halloween.

Mary is also involved with the Cook Library Center D.I.Y. (Do It Yourself) Group. In addition to the normal quilt-making activities that the students partake in leading up to Grandville Avenue Arts & Humanities’ annual fundraiser, Día del Sol, this special children’s committee has been planning and creating additional items to auction off at the big event. As an integral part of this committee, Mary is responsible for making important decisions about what crafts to make and how to make them. Then, she and the rest of the committee bring their ideas to life.

One part of the craft required a field trip to Richmond Stamp Works in downtown Grand Rapids, where Mary and her team met owner and creative genius, Paul Newhof. While there, Paul showed them his unique work space and also the process of making rubber stamps. The kids particularly enjoyed the shop dog, seeing the stamp-making machine at work, and the candy that Paul so kindly shared as they departed.

In addition to the interactions that students at the Cook Library Center have with leaders, artists, and authors from the community, college students from Calvin College, GVSU, and GRCC often volunteer to tutor, help with homework, and lead  reading activities. Mary said that these students have helped her immensely with her homework, her reading comprehension, and her critical thinking.

Outside of school, Mary enjoys spending time with her friends. She enjoys having singing contests, building snowmen, playing with toy horses, watching SpongeBob SquarePants, playing with the family dogs, creating fake tattoos, reading comic books, and waking up her mother. Her favorite author is Dr. Seuss. When Mary grows up, she hopes to be famous stylist and actress.   

Mary, pictured on the left, with some of the other members of the Cook Library Center D.I.Y. Group

Richmond Stamp Works owner Paul Newhof shows Mary and Arianna how to cut out the rubber part of the stamp that was created by a machine at his workshop