At times, the best way to learn how to do something is just to do it.
That’s the idea behind experiential learning, a teaching method that engages students in hands-on, real-world activities to learn the skills needed to succeed in their fields. It is also the driving force of the Kalamazoo Experiential Learning Center (KELC), a new nonprofit organization that provides college students with paid community-engagement and event-planning experience in Kalamazoo.
“My vision is to have students use what they learn in the classroom to serve as an event-consulting street team to local nonprofits,” says Deb Droppers, the center’s coordinator, owner of The Event Company and co-founder of the event management minor in Western Michigan University’s College of Education and Human Development.
The KELC is funded by grants (including a start-up grant from the Irving S. Gilmore Foundation), donations and client fees and was started in 2014 by Droppers, who is known in the greater Kalamazoo community as the event-planning maven behind the Do-Dah and Holiday parades, June Jubilee and several festivals.
The KELC currently employs six student interns who advise nonprofits on the creation and planning of fundraising events, marketing campaigns and festivals, and organizational growth.
Droppers’ own Event Company, which she started in 1995, is very similar to the KELC; it’s also an experiential learning company specializing in public relations, marketing and event management. The difference between the two is that the KELC is a nonprofit, which allows it to receive grant funding so the students can work with smaller or start-up nonprofits that wouldn’t be able to afford the type of event coordination The Event Company provides.
The KELC does charge clients a fee to provide event management services, and 60 percent of the center’s funding comes from client fees. The KELC’s clients include DKA Charities Inc., the Open Roads bicycle repair program, The Community Healing Center and New Year’s Fest. Since its inception, KELC has steadily grown and acquired new clients, but Droppers says she can’t take all the credit.
“Start to finish, this has all been designed by interns,” she says.
One of those interns is Evelyn Gordon, an organizational communication major at WMU. Gordon is helping to organize Tips for Kids, a part of Roof Sit, the annual fundraising event for the Community Healing Center’s programs to treat and prevent child abuse. Tips for Kids will take place May 14-16 and have volunteer teams at local Shell service stations washing windshields and pumping gas for tips, which will then be donated to the Community Healing Center. Last year’s event raised $7,800; this year the KELC crew hopes to raise $13,500.
“It is so fulfilling to work on this cause,” Gordon says. “I really believe in it and its impact on the entire community.”
Working at the KELC, Gordon says, has “brought me closer to the community by allowing me access to community events that I would have otherwise not been a part of.”
That fulfillment and community impact are part of “placemaking,” which is at the center of Droppers’ mission to instill ownership of community in college students while giving them practical experience. The purpose of placemaking is to redefine and transform perceptions of public spaces in Kalamazoo, Droppers says, by having nonprofits host fun events in underutilized and underappreciated locations in the community.
The KELC’s first placemaking event, a Downtown Music Jam, was held in September and featured local musicians performing on the steps of the 8th District Courthouse, on West Michigan Avenue. Another Downtown Music Jam with live entertainment will be held May 19 outside of the Kalamazoo Community Foundation offices, at the corner of Michigan and Pitcher streets.
The KELC’s crew is also organizing several summer block parties with Community Oriented Policing Services, a division of the Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety.
“We really have an opportunity to change the perception about certain downtown areas with placemaking,” Droppers says. “And it engages the students in the community, which aligns with the goals of our legislators — we want students to stay here and to keep their talent here.”
Aside from boosting community engagement, the placemaking and event planning that the KELC provides also allow students to learn by doing and making mistakes.
“Through experiential leaning, we have the ability to empower students to learn the top five successful traits — flexibility, people skills, organization, passion and time management,” Droppers says. “Believe me, this is learned through doing … time and time again.”
Staff writer Tiffany Fitzgerald assisted with this story.