Eastside Neighborhood

What do singing, cheerleading, and football have in common? They're ways groups reach Eastside youth

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Eastside series.  Our coverage of youth programming in the Eastside neighborhood continues May 16.

Those who see a need to offer more opportunities to neighborhood youth are finding ways to fill gaps in youth programming on the Eastside.

The Boys and Girls Club at Northeastern Elementary, Eastside Youth Strong at the Kalamazoo Eastside Neighborhood Association, and Peace House on Phelps Street, all offer quality after-school and summer programs. And now other organizations have stepped in to provide more quality programming.

Two of them are the Eastside Choir, a free youth choir sponsored by the Kalamazoo Children’s Chorus, and the Kalamazoo Wolverines, an Eastside-based Rocket Football and Cheerleading organization spearheaded by a group of Eastside parents who wanted to bring organized sports to the neighborhood.

“I’m an advocate for variety,” says Pat Taylor, KENA Director. "Not everybody is going to be an artist. Not everybody is going to be an athlete. Not everyone is going to be brainy. All those disciplines should be shared with all the kids so they can determine what they may or may not be interested in. 

“Kids aren’t going to know what options are out there unless we as adults show them what options are out there,” says Taylor. “That’s what I think of when I think of well-rounded youth.”

Eastside Choir: Lifting voices together

Six years ago, with the intent to increase outreach to communities under-served by youth arts offerings, Kalamazoo Children’s Chorus initiated its first free neighborhood choir on the Eastside, and the first few years were “phenomenal,” says Andy Johnson, KCC Outreach Director.

“We believe in supporting one voice at a time in our community,” says Johnson. “Unfortunately, arts on the Eastside aren’t quite as prevalent as they are in other Kalamazoo neighborhoods. If you look downtown, and even on the Northside, there’s tons of opportunities for these kids. We wanted a spot where we can really just show we care about all of Kalamazoo and the surrounding community.”

The choir’s original goal was to offer a high-quality program to children in a neighborhood that might not be able to otherwise afford it or manage the transportation to the Kalamazoo Children’s Chorus, which offers scholarships, but meets across town at the Milwood United Methodist Church, 3919 Portage St.

“Our goal was to be in a neighborhood at a place that was within walking distance so that people could have that convenience,” says Johnson.  “Economic and transportation obstacles make it difficult to have equal access to the arts. It’s not fair to the community. Providing something like this, we’re hoping we can have a positive impact on people’s lives.”

The choir was KCC’s first venture into a specific neighborhood, and in its first few years, it served around eight youth, says Johnson. In 2017, however, an Eastside Choir director transition and an increase in transportation issues for some of the youth saw a drop-off in participation. Many of the youth needed rides from school to St. Mary’s Catholic Church where rehearsals took place.

With the advent of a new director, Kristina Reed Jipping, KCC took the opportunity to re-think its Eastside strategy in an effort to increase accessibility by bringing the choir to Northeastern Elementary School after school on Thursdays instead of during the evenings on Mondays. Now the choir draws many of the youth who already participate in the Boys and Girls Club held at Northeastern, but who may want a change in activity, says Johnson.

Jipping and Johnson are excited about the energy they have observed in youth at rehearsals.

“Students find belonging, encouragement, and purpose in the Eastside Choir,” says Jipping. “The singers recognize the value in everyone’s voice as I encourage each voice to be a dynamic contribution to the greater good of the ensemble.”  

“I’m glad they’re still in the neighborhood,” says Taylor. “We are an artistic neighborhood, but don’t have a lot of structured arts programming, which is unfortunate, because we do have a lot of creative kids are out there who can benefit from it.

“Their decision to go into Northeastern I think is a good one to help catch the kids where they are at, and avoid the struggle to find transportation. But they’ll still have the concert at St. Mary’s, which is a win-win in my book,” she adds. “I’m looking forward to seeing the things they have coming in the fall.”

In its first month at Northeastern, participation is already averaging 8 children a week, but has seen upwards to 15, says Johnson, who anticipates the choir will continue to grow. Membership is open to any child living in the neighborhoods of Eastside, Eastwood, Comstock and communities along Gull Road who will be between ages 8 and 12 in September regardless of whether they attend Northeastern Elementary or the Boys and Girls Club there.

“One thing I love about working with elementary students is you never quite know what you’ll get,” says Johnson. “They don’t have as much control over their emotions or how they respond so you know everything they are feeling almost at all times.”

The benefits of working with Eastside youth goes beyond the singing, says Johnson.

“In a choir, you’re instilling values—dedication, commitment, loyalty, hard work, and integrity.” He adds that singing with others is empowering. A 2009 Chorus Impact Study showed that children who sing in choirs tend to do better in both English and Math.

The Eastside Choir is now meeting for practices after school on Thursdays at Northeastern Elementary School.
“When you sing in a choir, you’re learning to be more of a family with other people,” says Johnson. “It’s super cool.”

“Students leave rehearsal with a sense of confidence in themselves and affirmation in their ability to positively impact others,” says Jipping. “The Eastside Choir is an amazing and free opportunity for children to sing fully, respect one another, and learn the value of teamwork.”

The choir is currently funded through Kalamazoo Children’s Chorus and parent donations, though KCC welcomes additional sponsors.

The Eastside Choir will hold its final concert of the season on Thursday, June 9 at 4 p.m. at St. Mary’s Catholic Church. The performance is free and open to the public. For more information, please visit here

Kalamazoo Wolverines: Rocket football league popularity grows

After noticing a lack of accessibility to organized youth sports in the neighborhood four years ago, several enterprising parents joined together and launched the Kalamazoo Wolverines, an Eastside-based Rocket Football and Cheerleading organization that offers quality sports programming at a reduced cost to Eastside families.

Open to youth ages 7 to 13, the Kalamazoo Wolverines, only four years old, included 75 participants in 2018 and had to turn away youth due to the program’s growing popularity. Whereas other local youth football leagues often charge $125 or more, the Kalamazoo Wolverines, thanks to a generous donor and coach donations, charges only $50, says Dartanya Gilmore, one of the founding parents and coaches.

“The reason we got started was we saw kids who were kind of left behind or had to get in line with another team,” says Gilmore. “There’s plenty of teams in Kalamazoo, but there’s a void on the Eastside. We see a lot of kids falling by the wayside with sports and not doing anything. The only thing they had to do was get in trouble.”

Gilmore, who has four sons and two daughters, says he convened with “a circle of us dads who are also coaches” and began talking about the possibility of starting their own neighborhood team. Those parents included Jamar Lockett (Coach Jug), Jeremy Dixon (Coach Jeremy), James Abbott (Coach Jay), William Bigby  (Coach Will), Montae Dick (Coach Montae) and Gilmore (Coach Dee).

“We had this conversation,” says Gilmore, and out of that, “all the money that we needed was put forth by the coaches, except a generous donor who helps us out every year and is a family friend.”

With financial viability, the team took “clues from the other programs around Kalamazoo and tried to put something unique together to make it our own.”

Besides building confidence in athletic ability and increasing social skills through teamwork, Gilmore says playing sports also builds character, a quality the Wolverines’ coaches are quick to encourage. 

“At their ages, we’re looked at as leaders,” says Gilmore. “Sometimes we don’t know the backstories of the home, but when they get to the field, it’s going to be social. We’ve seen the kids’ grades prosper. We’re showing them that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.”

Practices take place behind New Horizons Village apartments at Spring Valley Park, when the season begins in September. Pre-conditioning begins May 20. The team has flag football, junior varsity, and varsity teams, in addition to cheerleading, which is coached by Codia Collier.

Currently, the Kalamazoo Wolverines play in the New Level Ministries League,  based in Battle Creek. Saturday is game day. The teams have gone undefeated for two straight years, Gilmore says. Kalamazoo has several youth football teams, and Gilmore says although the Kalamazoo Wolverines have not yet entered the local league they would like to in the future as the organization grows. 

“We’re trying to enter that culture,” says Gilmore. “Our first year, we had 35 kids, but we were struggling on game days. No one knew who we were yet.”

Gilmore anticipates 100 youth turning out for try-outs in the fall, though the Wolverines can unfortunately only accommodate 75 with equipment. 

“People have started hearing our name, have seen our T-shirts and our logos. Now other teams say, ‘What are you doing?’ We’re just being authentic. We just want to show some unity, some family. These kids grow up and go to different schools, but they will have some unity through the team.”

“During the season, we are close-knit,” says Gilmore, adding that the team has plenty of fundraisers and barbecues, and they also pitch in when a family is in need, which happened one year when one participating family’s house burned down. 

“We do a lot of yelling and talking, but we do a lot of messaging, too,” says Gilmore proudly. “And it shows when their parents come to us and say, ‘Hey, this has been going great.’ Or, ‘My kid has been an angel this season.’ We try to keep this going after the season for the whole vibe we bring.”

The Kalamazoo Wolverines are currently seeking willing coaches, as well as sponsors and help with fundraising. For more information about Kalamazoo Wolverines, please contact Gilmore at 269-569-9917 or send an email message here.

Read more articles by Theresa Coty O'Neil.

Theresa Coty O’Neil is a freelance writer, editor, and writing teacher with over two decades of covering people, places, and events in the Kalamazoo community. She is the Project Editor of On the Ground Kalamazoo.