Wednesday, March 1, 2017

When Volunteers Become Companions


Here at Grandville Avenue Arts & Humanities (GAAH), the volunteers are critical and cherished supporters in pursuing our mission. The students always rush to the door to greet the volunteers with literal open arms and spend every minute possible with them. For many of the students, simply spending time with “big kids” they can look up to is a comfort and a friendship they treasure.
           Anna, pictured above, is a sophomore at Calvin College and a consistent volunteer at the Cook Library Center.  She is from Princeton, Minnesota, and is studying Speech Pathology. Her experience is one that embodies the spirit of volunteering: giving back has in turn given her joy. In the following interview, Anna shares her thoughts and takeaways in being a volunteer at the Cook Library Center. 

GAAH: How did you initially hear about the Cook Library Center/GAAH?
Anna: I heard about the Cook Library Center because each of the dorms on Calvin’s campus is paired with a local organization, and my dorm was partnered with Cook Library. The Community Partnership Coordinator in my dorm told me about what the Cook Library does and encouraged me to volunteer.

GAAH: When did you first get involved with the Cook Library Center?
Anna: I started volunteering at Cook Library last year.

GAAH: Why did you pursue this volunteer opportunity?
Anna: I initially started volunteering because it was convenient and because it involved working with kids. However, I continued to pursue it because the volunteering goes towards a really good cause, I continue to learn new things along the way, and it’s a really fun and rewarding experience.

GAAH: Do you remember your first day as a volunteer or your first impression of the library?
Anna: The main thing that I remember about my first day as a volunteer was how welcoming the Cook Library kids were and how thankful they were to have you help them with their homework. I also remember how happy they were to have someone to just sit and talk with them. The time went by faster than I expected because it was so much fun.

GAAH: What keeps you coming back as a volunteer?
Anna: What keeps me coming back as a volunteer is definitely the Cook Library students. Their smiles and energy are so contagious and it seems like you always leave feeling happier than you were when you came. It feels good to know that you are there helping the students with something as important as education. To me, it seems like you start volunteering thinking that you re there to help them learn, when really there is so much that you can learn from them.

GAAH: Has anything surprised you about volunteering here, our mission, or how our work plays a role within society in general?
Anna: One thing that really surprised me was how close-knit the community and kids all seem to be in the Roosevelt Park Neighborhood. It was amazing to see how Cook Library is part of a community that really seems to care for each other and for the future of their students. Volunteering there makes you feel like you are part of something much bigger than yourself.

GAAH: What has been the most challenging aspect of being a volunteer here?
Anna: One of the most challenging aspects of being a volunteer has been knowing that volunteering at Cook Library is such a fun and rewarding experience, yet you still see a lot of people who choose not to volunteer because they seem afraid to try something new or claim that they are too busy to volunteer.

GAAH: What is your favorite memory while volunteering at the Cook Library Center?
Anna: My favorite memory so far was when one of the students told me that she was so thankful that I always help her, and she gave me a hug and called me her best friend. It totally made my day.

GAAH: Have your formed a close bond with any students? If so, please share!
Anna: I kind of tend to rotate what students I work with, but I started working more with Melissa for a while, and she was the one who called me her one of her best friends.

GAAH: If someone you knew was considering becoming a volunteer with GAAH, what would tell them?
Anna: I would definitely tell them to become a volunteer because it is a truly unique and amazing experience. Volunteering does not feel like something that you have to do or something that you should do; it is more like something that you want to do because it feels so rewarding.

GAAH: Is there anything you wish people knew about GAAH?
Anna: I just wish that more people knew about it and how amazing and beneficial it is.

GAAH: What are three words you would use to describe your overall experience as a volunteer at the Cook Library Center?
Anna: Diverse, enlightening, and rewarding!

Calvin College’s Community Partnership Program, the program through which Anna was introduced to GAAH, was recently recognized on a national level. Sue Garza, director of the Cook Library, is heavily involved in orchestrating and maintaining the college’s involvement with our organization. We deeply value this partnership and the committed volunteers like Anna we’ve met through Calvin College. To read more about this honor, click here!

            Interested in becoming a volunteer? To learn about volunteer opportunities at the Cook Arts Center, please email our Community Engagement Assistant Vanessa Cervantes at vcervantes@gaah.org. For volunteer opportunities with the Cook Library Center, please email our Library Director Sue Garza at sgarza@gaah.org. 

Friday, December 16, 2016

Cook Library Scholars: A Second Family



“My mom tells me that I need to be a good student so I can be a good example for my younger sisters. Then they can look up to me and have a better future too.”

Dominga and Liliana at the Cook Library Center
This is a quote from 13-year-old Liliana who is a force to be reckoned with. Her presence is calm, genuine, and reserved, but there’s a quiet strength behind her black-rimmed glasses. You would never know by looking at her that this smiling, studious teen has endured the pain of loss. The grief she experienced in suddenly losing her father did not defeat or define her but instead molded her into the resilient and empathetic girl she is today.

Liliana’s favorite subject is science, specifically geology, and she loves playing with her two younger sisters. She even named her youngest sister, Juliemar, when she was born. The summer cooking class at the Cook Library is one of her favorite programs because “cooking is not just a girl’s job, the boys need to know how to cook too!”

While Liliana doesn’t know exactly what she wants to be when she grows up, the options she listed were anything but uninspiring. “I want to be some kind of a doctor when I grow up, maybe a dentist.” She has high goals for herself, and betting on her success is a safe one.

Liliana’s involvement at the Cook Library Center was once sporadic. She began coming to the center in third grade, and she became a Cook Library Scholar as a fifth grader three years ago. She described how Cook Library Scholars supports students academically through homework help and encouraging personal growth. Students feel they can trust the teachers there, she says, and they now have the resources to be the best students possible.

When asked if she liked being a Cook Library Scholar, Liliana simply glowed. “In the last few years they became like a family to me. Now I have two families—my home family and my Cook Library Scholars family.”

Beyond educational support, the Cook Library Scholars program offers emotional solace to students and their families, including Liliana’s. Three years ago, Liliana’s father passed away unexpectedly.

“Miss Monica helped me a lot when my dad died,” Liliana affirmed. Monica Zavala, the Cook Library Scholars Program Manager, was sitting next to Liliana. They shared a loving squeeze. “And that’s when I started coming here. Because before then my dad said he believed in me, and that I could reach my goals. He didn’t know how to read or write, but he believed I could do it all on my own.”

Liliana’s father was an absolute supporter and advocate for his children’s education. He believed in his daughters’ abilities so adamantly that he didn’t think they needed homework help or tutoring and that they could achieve whatever dream they had independently.  It was not until he passed that their family realized the Cook Library Center could provide more than educational support—it was a place to help them cope.

“I remember him saying that one of his dreams for me was that I had to finish college because he wanted us to have good careers.” Liliana’s voice began to falter as she courageously tried not to cry. “He always told me I was a good kid. I remember the last day he was with us, he was leaving to go to work and he told my mom everything would work out.”

After Liliana’s dad passed away, her mother signed them up for the Cook Library Scholars program. “We would not have come here if my dad were still here, and now I’ve learned it’s important to have another family around so they can support you in the hard times.”

Liliana described how Monica has been a guiding light since they met. “I think for me, Miss Monica is like a second mother. If something happens to my mom, I can trust her with everything.” Liliana’s eyes welled up with tears as she described the warmth she has felt at the Cook Library Center. “Everybody here is part of a family. I treat everyone here like my siblings.”

Monica shared how Liliana’s mother, Dominga, has been a source of fortitude for their family. “I know her mom, and she’s always helping others, is always active in the community.” Monica explained how Dominga is her right hand—the ultimate active parent in the Cook Library Scholars program. She is one of those parents who goes above and beyond in supporting the community around her in any capacity, from cleaning up after a library event to helping other families in the program find a house to rent.  Dominga is a perfect example of a woman who is paying it forward, and her daughters are watching and following her lead.

The Cook Library Center has not just been a place of healing for Liliana, but for their entire family. Monica talks about how Dominga will often bring her daughters to the library to play and relax as a family. There is an air of cathartic peace for families here. The network of support that has formed is one that holds each other up. Families even raised money to assist Dominga with funeral costs.

Dominga has instilled in her daughters a willingness to serve and strive, even in the face of adversity. After her husband’s passing, Dominga continued to give to the community, if not even more so than before. “She is a woman who just continues forward,” Monica said. “She is a woman who said ‘yes, I need help at this moment, but I am going to keep going because I want something better for my girls.’” Monica recognizes this trait being passed on to her daughters. “Liliana is a great student, she’s been so strong. I am so proud of her. She works for what she wants.”

“Working with our Cook Library Scholars, every one of them has a story,” Monica says. “Some are happy, some are sad, but seeing them every day, how they are growing and changing, it enters you and becomes a part of you. When they’re not here, I miss them. I want to see their smiles and hear their laughter. That’s why we are here.”

Liliana, her sisters, and her mom will never have to feel they are alone. Whether it is a shoulder to lean on or community to celebrate with, the staff, students, and parents at the Cook Library Center have become a family.














Thursday, October 20, 2016

“Adventures in ArtPrize”

By Allison Palm, GAAH Intern

Throughout ArtPrize 8, the Cook Arts Center hosted elementary students to tour several exhibits, to discuss how they interpret the art, and to then create art inspired by their own cultural identities. The class, entitled “Adventures in ArtPrize,” was part of ArtPrize’s Education Days initiative. Students toured SiTE:LAB on Rumsey Street and Cultura Collective’s installation at 912 Grandville called “This Space Is Not Abandoned.” I wanted to experience ArtPrize through the eyes of the students to catch their perception of the art, and joining in on their adventure allowed me to do just that.

The third and fifth grade students from Cesar E. Chavez Elementary School were excited for their field trip on the calm October morning, buzzing amongst themselves in line about what they predicted the art might be like. “I just hope there are lots and lots of colors,” one student told me. “Do you think we’ll be able to touch it?” asked another.

A common theme throughout the tour was the concept of cultural identity and how the art we saw was a response to the environments and spaces in which it was created. Our first stop was 912 Grandville where Steffanie Rosalez, the curator of the installation who is the Cook Arts Center’s program director, facilitated a discussion with the students about artistic meaning.

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The swarm of elementary students gazed at the wall-sized mural before them, mouths gaping and brains contemplating.

“What do you see in this mural?” Steffanie questioned. The students’ answers resonated throughout the garage: “a skeleton,” “a rat,” “the desert.” Steffanie went on to explain the artist’s process of dreaming, planning, and creating the art. The kids were floored that the piece was entirely spray-painted. It was thought-provoking to hear how the students processed what they saw as Steffanie walked them through the piece’s meaning—a comment on time passing as social assumptions, stereotypes, and fear remain constant.

After touring the rest of “This Space Is Not Abandoned,” we examined the mural outside of the building that was created youth from GAAH and the Hispanic Center. Unprompted, the students were able to point out the themes of the mural: the various flags representing cultural identity and diversity, the sun symbolizing hope, the kids absorbed in books showing their desire to learn, and the hands in fists and peace signs indicating power and harmony.

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En route to SiTE:LAB, I asked the students what they thought about the installations. Kaylee, a fifth grader, said the mural inside was her favorite. “I like the skeletons and the story behind it. Can you believe it was spray-painted? I bet he needed a really tall ladder,” she laughed.


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Her friend Yazmin chimed in to share that she also loved the mural. “It’s cool how you look at it and think it’s one thing, but when she explained it to us it actually means something different.”

At SiTE:LAB, instructor Eliza Fernand guided the students through several exhibits, from “The Well: Rusty Sputnik II” to “Excavations.” The kids seemed to respond most to an entry titled “TransMigration,”a house-turned-art piece. They were peeking in the windows and squinting up at the elevated structure. The students circled the house, curiously examining and evaluating the structure like they were ArtPrize jurors themselves.

“I like the colors, and how it’s kind of high up and we can’t reach it, like we aren’t supposed to touch it,” a student observed. Eliza explained that instead of looking like a normal house, the artist’s intention was for it to be transformed into a sculpture—a work of art.

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There were echoes of realization among the students of “oh, now I get it.” They grasped the fundamental concept of the artist’s intention on their own; they just needed the vocabulary to identify the meaning. “That’s pretty clever,” one student tugged on my sleeve and whispered. “This one is my favorite.”

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Back at the Cook Arts Center, the instructors sparked a conversation about what cultural identity means to them—a fairly complex concept I wondered how the eight-year-olds would process. We started by dissecting the 912 Grandville mural and what they saw there. “Identity means who you are,” Kaylee shared with the class. “So I think [cultural identity] means family and where you come from,” one boy added. “I liked seeing the Dominican Republic flag in that bright painting because that’s where I’m from.”

The students were asked to paint a symbol of their own cultural identity on a wooden block—the goal being to combine the Cultura Collective theme with a material used through the SiTE:LAB exhibit. Many students painted a flag, music notes, or their family. I was stunned at their understanding of identity at a young age, a notion that even adults sometimes struggle with.

One student caught my eye, as he looked discouraged and uninspired. “What are you thinking about painting?” I asked. “Well, I ruined mine,” he groaned, pointing at a smudge of paint on the otherwise bare block. “I messed up and now it’s going to look wrong.”

His friend next to him, who had completed a beautiful design, offered him some profound artistic advice: “remember what we learned about art? There’s never something wrong, there’s always something right.” The boy’s dismay turned into a smile, he picked up the paintbrush, and turned that smudge into art.

It was then that I realized I was in a classroom full of artists, and perhaps a few future ArtPrize winners.


Thursday, August 18, 2016

A Shining Symbol

By: Allison Palm, GAAH Intern

If you have driven down Grandville Avenue lately, you may have noticed a bright and beautiful new addition to its scenery: a community mural created by teens from Grandville Avenue Arts & Humanities and the Hispanic Center of Western Michigan.


The mural, located at 912 Grandville Avenue, reflects the teens’ Latino heritage while images of the students reading symbolize their enthusiasm for education. This project was funded by the Michigan Humanities Council which supported two additional projects in tandem: a documentary capturing their creative process of designing the mural, and a skit presentation focusing on issues of racial and cultural identity.

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On the evening of August 4th, friends and neighbors gathered to celebrate the mural’s completion. Attendees were all smiles as they enjoyed local food, admired the reimagined wall, and praised the artists and teens for their creativity and dedication to the commemorative project.
For years to come, the Roosevelt Park neighborhood will continue to celebrate the mural, as it is a symbol of neighborhood beautification and unity. As for the teens who created this art piece by hand, they can take pride in knowing they have touched the community in an inspiring, imaginative, and lasting way.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Cook Library Scholars: World’s Finest Entrepreneurs!


By Allison Palm, GAAH Intern

When the teens in the Cook Library Scholars program heard that The Phantom of the Opera would be performed through Broadway Grand Rapids, they immediately wanted to see the show together.

The group, made up of 6th through 8th grade students, has been infatuated with the opera ever since seeing Tosca as a class.

“I just find the opera exciting in general—how people can sing like that and hold notes for so long,” Itzel chimed with awe.

“Operas are just very interesting,” Emmanuel said. “My favorite part is the dancing.”

The Scholars discovered that ticket prices for The Phantom of the Opera were quite pricey; however, they were not deterred. Instead of being discouraged, they decided to raise the ticket money themselves.

“Since we didn’t have enough funding, we thought of a way we could learn how to do business and learn to do things ourselves,” Itzel explained.

Miss Sujey, the teen program coordinator at the Cook Library Center, oversaw their business project and beamed as the students shared their excitement and sense of accomplishment.

They all groaned and laughed with despair. “How could you ask such an impossible question?” Bryant jeered.

By selling “World’s Finest Chocolate” to friends, family, and neighbors, the Scholars raised over $1,000—doubling their initial goal.

“It was an independent learning experience of how to do business, sell something, and make a profit,” Emmanuel added. “And besides the help from Miss Sujey and Miss Monica, we did it on our own. That feels really good.”

“I can’t wait to see the opera, hear the music, see the costumes…pretty much everything,” Itzel smiled.

“The suspense,” Angel said, eyes widening. “I can’t wait for the suspense.”

When asked if they would raise money again for another performance, they all echoed like a chorus with “yes!” The Scholars are already strategizing what they will sell next.

“If you could go to any arts experience in the world what would you choose?” I questioned. “Maybe a museum, a performance, an opera…and your ticket is free. What would you choose?”

Once Emmanuel offered his dream of seeing the Broadway musical Hamilton, they all celebrated in agreement.

“We’ll need to sell a lot of chocolate to get to see Hamilton on Broadway!” they joked.


The teens ended up raising enough money to enjoy dinner at the Olive Garden (their choice) prior to the performance. 

The Cook Library Scholars exemplify an inspiring amount of passion and curiosity for the arts. If it takes selling thousands of chocolate bars to get to a Broadway performance, there is no glimmer of doubt that these students would not only meet that goal, but would likely double it. That’s just the kind of determination they have.