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.


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.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Cook Arts Center Students Shine!

It has been a busy time of year for the performing groups from the Cook Arts Center. We at GAAH value group performance for many reasons; our students develop confidence, share responsibility, and teach others about culture through the arts. Performing also enhances self esteem and teaches our children that their contributions have value, even if they don’t have the biggest role.

We want to celebrate and thank the local organizations and friends that have recognized and given many of our students a chance to shine and share their talents in our community. If you happen to catch an upcoming performance, you will not be disappointed.

The Cook Arts Center Grupo Folklorico

  • On April 15 the group performed for the ALSAME fundraising event.
  • This past Saturday, April 30, they danced at the Dia del Nino Community event held at Cesar E Chavez school.
  • On May 2 the dancers were a part of the Celebrate United Heart of West Michigan United Way event program.
  • May 5 will be a whirlwind day, celebrating Cinco de Mayo! The group has performances at the Cesar E Chavez annual luncheon at the Grand Rapids Public Museum, and the Cinco de Mayo community celebration at Buchanan Elementary School.
  • You can also catch the dancers on June 11th at LINC’s Rock the Block Festival.

The Aerial Tactic Breakdance Crew

Girls Rock!Grand Rapids

  • Seven of the GR!GR bands performed on Saturday, April 2, for LadyfestGR
  • The Girls Rock Alumna Band (“Reckless”) performed again at Calvin College on April 21 for the Young Women’s Empowerment Forum.  
  • The Alumna Band will also be the main stage performance at the Kent County Youth Fair on Saturday, August 13. Prior to the event the girls have been invited promote the KCYF on WOOD TV 8.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

The Cook Library Scholars Discover the Magic of Robotics

If you come into the Cook Library Center on a Wednesday afternoon, you will find several students huddled together poring over the pieces of a future robot.

In January the Cook Library Scholars began a new robotics program for two hours each week. Helping to boost the students’ understanding of math and science concepts, this class focuses on something that appeals to all ages: putting together pieces that look like legos and and then seeing if the robotic contraptions work.

Andrew Abissi, a high school teacher at Innovation Central, is leading the class with focused lessons each week. Andrew has facilitated a partnership with GR Makers to generously loan the robotics materials for the Cook Library Scholars classes.

Abissi began the first session by asking the question, “If you could create any type of robot, what kind would you build?” A few of the scholars’ reactions included creating a robot to do homework or to shovel snow. The students have been hooked since that question was posed. Abissi creates an environment where the scholars are active participants in their learning and solve problems in a group. He states that "using robots as a tool is a natural fit for sparking children's interests while absorbing meaningful content."

“This program has so many benefits. Seeing the scholars work in teams, think outside the box, while strengthening their STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) skills is vitally important today and for the future,” said Sue Garza, Director of the Cook Library Center. “With this new robotics component our students are able to experience firsthand the joy of the STEM concepts in a new, engaging, and interactive way.”

The scholars have worked hard figuring out the concepts of cause and effect that program or move a robot. Since January the Cook Library Scholars have built their own robots in teams and have integrated them with tablets or phones to control their new contraptions.

Abissi expressed that he would like to see the scholars walk away from this class feeling confident in their problem solving skills and passionate to learn more about STEM. It is evident from the enthusiasm of the scholars that the robots have been more than a teacher - - they have been the catalyst for making STEM magic happen at the Cook Library Center.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Daring to Dream

Alejandro (Ale) has always been a dreamer. Ale currently is a very active and enthusiastic member of the Teen Leaders in the Arts program at the Cook Arts Center. Since fifth grade Ale has been coming to the Cook Arts Center after school for classes. It has been at the Cook Arts Center that Ale has grown as an artist and a leader with dreams of making an impact on the larger community.  A long-term aspiration of his has been to attend Kendall College of Art and Design (KCAD). As a high school senior, Ale was not sure what steps to take to make his dream come to fruition.

Cook Arts Center Program Director Steffanie Rosalez recognized that Alejandro has passion and focus for attending KCAD. Over the past few months Steffanie worked closely with Kendall faculty and staff to help them see his potential and overcome any barriers that happened to be in his way.

Ale was thrilled to learn that he could be dual enrolled and able to participate in the 100 level drawing course at KCAD during his senior year of high school, and he will be receiving college credits upon completion of the class.

On a snowy January day, Ale walked a little apprehensively from Innovation Central High School to KCAD where his dream became a reality. Ale explained that being a part of a college class “made him really nervous,” but he feels so much gratitude for this opportunity. He smiled and humbly noted  that “the professor even stopped to look at my work, and she told me that she can see why I am here. It made me feel so proud.”

The professors are also working with Ale to build a strong portfolio and to create pieces that may help him secure future scholarships. His goal is to enroll at Kendall College of Art and Design as a freshman next school year. We look forward to seeing Ale's future dreams come true.