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‘Authentic Volunteering’

FOCUS Kalamazoo members build a garden at Woodword School for Technology and Research in the Stuart neighborhood.
FOCUS Kalamazoo aims to treat volunteers ‘like royalty’

When Tinashe Chaponda set out to connect college and high school students with community service opportunities, he knew better than to reinvent the wheel. Instead, he created the organization FOCUS Kalamazoo, using the same model as Derek Jeter’s Turn 2 Foundation.

Chaponda, who moved to Kalamazoo from Zimbabwe in 2001, was a member of Jeter’s Leaders, the youth leadership program of the Turn 2 Foundation, from 2009 to 2012 and says it was a Jeter’s Leaders conference in 2013 in New Orleans that inspired him to create FOCUS Kalamazoo. Upon seeing the suffering caused by Hurricane Katrina, “I committed myself to helping others through volunteerism,” he says.

The result was FOCUS Kalamazoo, an organization he describes as a “community service network.” Chaponda, who is now 20 and a sophomore studying marketing at Western Michigan University, says one mission of FOCUS Kalamazoo is to alter the way youth view volunteering.

“Young people across the country have participated in volunteer service projects as part of their school curriculum,” he says. “However, this approach has become more obligatory than authentic and ‘free.’”

This obligatory approach has created negative stereotypes about volunteering, he says. FOCUS Kalamazoo seeks to change that, he says, by “treating our volunteers and partners like royalty,” giving them an experience they enjoy while helping others, making an impact on the community and developing their own skills and confidence.

“What we mean by treating them like royalty is that we put volunteers first,” he says. “The events and nonprofits that we partner with are based off what the volunteers want to do, instead of pushing random events for them to participate in. We are also researching new ways to volunteer that are more connected to students’ majors and careers.”

FOCUS Kalamazoo began in fall 2013 with 16 volunteers who cheered for participants at the Bronson Children’s Hospital 5K Walk & Run. “We decided to make this first event social in order to have something easy to start out with,” Chaponda says. Since then, FOCUS Kalamazoo volunteers have served at 68 community events, with 260 volunteers giving more than 1,500 hours.

“Volunteers pick a project they want to do, and then we hold them accountable,” Chaponda explains. “They receive leadership training workshops, and we connect them with a community organization.”

For example, last year FOCUS Kalamazoo volunteers worked with Habitat for Humanity doing some construction and cleaning up the yard of a house on Kalamazoo’s North Side. This year FOCUS Kalamazoo received a $10,000 grant from the Turn 2 Foundation to build a house with Habitat.

One area that FOCUS Kalamazoo’s efforts are concentrated on is education and outreach to youth. In 2014, FOCUS Kalamazoo recruited 50 high school and college volunteers to enlarge and enhance the community garden at the Woodward School for Technology and Research in the Stuart neighborhood. The organization received a $6,000 grant from the Turn 2 Foundation to collaborate with Fair Food Matters to build a garden bed for each grade, clean up the pond and weed the baseball field. Volunteers also provided educational games for Woodward students.

Recently, through its Youth Engagement Program, FOCUS Kalamazoo worked with Kalamazoo Public Schools’ Phoenix High School to give students an opportunity to volunteer in the community. The students opted to hold a food drive — their first — and host a Literacy Night at KPS’ Middle School Alternative Learning Program. In addition, Phoenix students have established their own chapter of the organization, called FOCUS Phoenix High School.

FOCUS Kalamazoo picked Phoenix students to work with because Chaponda believes they are often overlooked for community projects and may not have the same opportunities as students at other high schools.
“They never had a voice, many options or resources,” he says. “However, after we contacted them, they came up with a three-page typed plan of action.”

FOCUS Kalamazoo and Phoenix students have also established a program to mentor middle school students. “Mentoring others can occur at any age,” Chaponda says. “Everyone has insights about their present age that they can share with others who are both younger and older than they are. The Phoenix students are trained to make an impact.”

FOCUS Kalamazoo also engages in school visits and presents motivational speeches to young people. Chaponda spoke to 150 middle school students at Milwood Magnet School for Math, Science and Technology (his alma mater) about the importance of confidence in achieving success in high school. FOCUS Kalamazoo Vice President Joe Boggan spoke to African-American boys at Maple Street Magnet School for the Arts about achieving “black excellence” in order to be successful in high school and adulthood. Both talks were filmed and are available on YouTube.

FOCUS Kalamazoo has high aspirations. Chaponda says the organization hopes to create a national organization called FOCUS-USA to provide the country’s largest volunteer database for college and high school students.

“We can be a voice for youth and be there for them when they need it,” Chaponda says. “They need someone they can look up to.”

Olga Bonfiglio

There was no better writer to take on our story about the economic redevelopment of the Northside than Olga. She has taught urban development at Kalamazoo College for several years and was the host of Public Voice, a Community Access Center show interviewing local urban redevelopment leaders. She has previously written for the Huffington Post, U.S. Catholic, Planning (the trade journal for urban planners) and the Kalamazoo Gazette.

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