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.”