Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series.
When Keith Matthews moved out of the Washington Heights neighborhood several years ago, he made a promise to himself to continue to look out for the children and families he left behind. He continues to make good on that pledge today.
He does it by using a portion of the money he earns from his family counseling business to cover the cost of food and care for more than 22 families in Washington Heights who have few options and many challenges.
This safety net is provided through Cool People Community Savers, the nonprofit he co-founded in 1983, with most of the funding coming from his Brilliant Mind Family Counseling,
the private practice Matthews opened in 2005, and financial donations from Dr. Michael Glass, a local dentist.
Keith Matthews has found a way to create family and support familes, helping them with basic necessities.
The premise is simple: Children don’t do well in school if they’re hungry and their families can’t take care of them if they don’t have the basics, Matthews says.
“People talk about people living in poverty selling their food stamps. They do this because they can’t buy personal need items like toothpaste or deodorant with food stamps,” Matthews says. “We fill in the gaps to make them as stable as possible so they and their kids can focus on school work.”
This stability comes in the form of a $200 monthly stipend to the families Cool People works with. It's paid with a $10,000 grant from the United Way Battle Creek Kalamazoo Region’s Disaster Relief Fund established in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The grant was also used to provide mental health services for the families Cool People had already been working with, says Kyra Wallace, President and CEO of the Southwestern Michigan Urban League, the fiduciary for the grant.
The grant covers breakfasts and lunches provided daily to these 22 families and the delivery of dinners to them on Tuesdays and Thursdays. “Otherwise,” Matthews says, “these families are not going to eat.”
Glass contributes $2,000 each month for food purchased for the families.
“I just believe that we have to try and support our communities in whatever way they need help and sometimes there’s just too much red tape that gets in the way of helping them, so sometimes you have to do what you can as an individual to help children and families,” Glass says.
“Part of being a community family is that you have to fill in the gaps,” Matthews says. “We take them to grocery stores and doctor’s appointments. We want to make sure there’s nothing these families need.”
Wallace says Cool People provides some of the most comprehensive programs and services for families in the community.
“The fact that they’re serving entire families benefits the family all the way around. Both adults and children receive the services and by virtue of that they’re also given funds to buy food and other items needed as a result of loss of income or when there is an increase in the amount of food that needs to be purchased because they have more people at home now,” Wallace says.
The United Way funding covered the cost of services that are another part of what the organization provides--volunteers who ensure that the children of these families have every opportunity available to them to focus on school instead of empty stomachs.
Dr. Michael Glass works with Cool People Community Savers to help provide stability to families.
During and after the school day, the children whose families are receiving Cool People support services and other youth identified as at-risk, are monitored by Matthews and a team that includes five paid mentors and 15 volunteers -- both men and women.
“We’re in the schools every day,” Matthews says. “If I look into a classroom and the teacher waves at me, that’s telling me that my students are OK. If they are not doing what they should be doing, the teacher will let me know.”
Students who are under the watchful eye of Matthews and his mentors are expected to maintain at least a “B” average, be in school every day, get their homework done, and behave. They each receive after-school mentoring, some at the Battle Creek YMCA, which is making space available for the program at no cost.
Those who aren’t able to use the YMCA program receive daily visits from Matthews and his mentors, who go to each student’s house to help them get their school work done.
“How do you think these kids can get on a tablet and get their homework done when mom is at work? If their kids couldn’t be brought under control at school, how will they be expected to do their schoolwork at home?” Matthews asks.
There are about 60 youth participating in the wraparound services offered by Cool People. When the effort first began the majority of these youth were attending Battle Creek Public Schools. The advent of Schools of Choice saw some families choose to enroll their children in neighboring school systems, such as Lakeview. Matthews and his volunteers transport these children to their schools if their families can’t.
As a way to incentivize the participating students, Matthews gives them each a $50 monthly stipend. The amount of the stipend can be decreased in $5 increments if a student isn’t doing what is expected of them and each of his or her fellow students also will have their stipends decreased. Matthews says this is a way to encourage positive peer pressure and teach the students that their actions – whether positive or negative – have consequences on not just themselves, but others.
While $50 may not seem like a lot, Matthews says it is for these students.
Youth in the program are referred to it by others, including teachers or members of the community. Some parents also make contact with Matthews through his counseling practice.
“If I have a parent call me and say 'I have my child he said there’s a program his friends are in that he wants to be in,’ I will have a family evaluation. What I’m looking for is who really is the matriarch or patriarch,” Matthews says. “Mom may not do the right thing so I’m looking for that person who will do right by this child and work with them.”
In the organization’s earlier days, Matthews would teach the youth involved in Cool People about what a dysfunctional home life looked like.
“I would tell them that even though this is what your home looks like it doesn’t mean your parents are bad because this is what they knew growing up,” he says. “I would tell them that you can’t change your mom or your sister, but you can change how you choose to manage your emotions and live your life.
“Even though they have a dysfunctional home life, we don’t want them to be kicked out of that home. That’s why we give parents that $200. They really need it.”
When some of the youth in the program were kicked out of their homes by their parents or left because they couldn’t handle the high levels of dysfunction, volunteers with Cool People would take them into their own homes. This continues today.
“Our whole model is that we want to be a community extended family and that’s why Cool People started doing this back in 2009,” Matthews says. “If a parent can’t find their kid, we do a media blitz. Somebody knows where the kid is and usually within three to four hours we find them.
“Being an extended community family, you can’t have a program that runs from 9 to 5. If you get a call at 2 in the morning, you have to do something.”
Glass says he would hate to even try and imagine what it would look like for these families if Cool People wasn’t providing these services.
“At some point, there has to be a collaborative initiative of people who want to see sustainable change who will come together,” he says. “We’ve seen what we can do as individuals, but that’s not enough. At some point, there needs to be a collective effort or others who want to contribute to all that we’re trying to do.
“I believe that there are so many needs in the community right now and we have to steer each other in the right direction. The environment these children are in is not sustainable for growth and until we realize that a sustainable environment has to surround these children, they’re not going to grow and thrive.”
It began with sports
Matthews moved to Battle Creek in 1982, got married one year later and was living in Washington Heights and working in construction. Along with his wife’s two brothers and their girlfriends, now their wives, Matthews and his wife started basketball and softball leagues for children living in the neighborhood. Soon, youth from other areas in the community started coming in and the activities expanded to include football, bowling and dance competitions that took place in backyards throughout the neighborhood.
Known as Afterschool Sports, the program got the attention of the Battle Creek Public Schools and leadership there asked Matthews and his volunteers, those same family members, to come in and run the program at its elementary schools. Matthews added an accountability component so that those students who didn’t finish their homework or had a run-in with their teachers couldn’t participate in sports activities, instead spending their time talking with him and writing a letter to their teacher acknowledging what they did and saying that it wouldn’t happen again.
“We decided it (the sports program) wasn’t going to be a right, it was going to be a privilege,” Matthews says.
Eventually, the activities grew to include a travelling basketball league that traveled throughout the state. By this time Matthews and his team were being paid $18 an hour. Then the teacher’s union stepped in and said teachers should have the opportunity to get involved in the afterschool program and Matthews and his team backed out. But they weren’t going to stop working with the parents and children in the program.
“I ended up becoming Uncle Keith and some of these kids stayed in our homes which became a community hub for them,” Matthews says. “If mom was a drug addict, they would come into our home or we’d find other parents who had kids who were friends with the kid who needed a place to stay and that way we wouldn’t have to put them in the foster care system. We were a buffer between the system and what was normal life for us in Washington Heights.”
He says churches soon got involved and the surrogate family grew.
“These families would bring the kids into their homes where they were able to see the contrast between what they were living and what a stable family looked like,” Matthews says.
Further adding to the promotion of positive role models and stability was a Midnight Basketball program that began in 2017 at the Battle Creek YMCA that will resume once COVID-19 restrictions are lifted. The Battle Creek Community Foundation funds this program which has upwards of 160 youth on any given Friday shooting hoops with volunteers and members of the Battle Creek Police Department.
This program is where Glass and Matthews met.
Wallace says the Midnight Basketball program is a way for Matthews and his mentors to earn and gain the trust of youth so they can dig deeper and serve needs that go beyond the surface level.
“When there are additional concerns and issues, these young people know they have a trusted individual with Cool People and an actual licensed therapist who can do the work necessary to support them,” Wallace says
While all of this was going on, Matthews earned a Bachelor’s degree in Family Life Education and a Master’s degree in Counseling, both from Spring Arbor University.
“I went from a high school diploma I earned in 1974 to getting these degrees. It took me four-and-a-half years,” Matthews says. He put his skills to work at Brilliant Minds.
Cool People has become a component of Brilliant Minds, which covers the cost of programs and services with the exception of grants. Matthews says he is working on a grant application now to fund a Millennial Mentoring program in which people who volunteer with Cool People will be eligible to be hired by other nonprofits.
Three of the mentors working with Cool People have a felony record and Matthews says a lot of organizations won’t hire them.
“But, when a teacher is having issues with a kid, they’re the ones that the teacher will call on for help,” Matthews says. “It empowers our mentors and raises their self-esteem because they’re doing something.
“It’s hard to find a Black family that doesn’t have someone in their circle that doesn’t have a felony.”
In 1990, “Community Savers” was added to the Cool People moniker to reflect a mission that hasn’t changed.
“We want to make sure that we have a structured system for young people so that they can become self-sufficient and independent no matter what happened at home so that they can never say that they didn’t have a system in place and available to them to break the cycle,” Matthews says.
Glass says that system for him was family members who encouraged him to pursue his undergraduate studies at Michigan State University and his Doctorate in Dentistry from the University of Michigan.
“They believed in me even when I came back home discouraged,” he says.
Although Glass, who grew up in Battle Creek, didn’t live in Washington Heights, he had family members who lived near that neighborhood. Growing up in Battle Creek, he knows the challenging environment that many children continue to grow up in. He says it wasn’t until he went away to college that he really saw the potential for his own growth.
During his time away, some of his family members were murdered, others were incarcerated. He came back to Battle Creek because he had a strong desire to show people that their lives could be different.
For him, it’s personal.
“At some point we have to recognize that the environment our children are in is not sustainable for growth,” Glass says. “Until we change the conditions, we’re not going to change the results.
“Don’t close your eyes to what’s happening with our children.”