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Peace at Play

The annual Peace Pizzazz festival attracts young and old. © 2018 Ken Campbell
Peace Pizzazz brings message of harmony to kids

If you want peace in the future, you have to start by introducing the concept to children now, say organizers of the annual Peace Pizzazz family festival.

“It’s better to teach children about the way of peace than to try to change the minds of young adults later,” says Deb Picard, secretary of the Kalamazoo Peace Pizzazz board.

The festival will take place in Bronson Park May 19 and will feature music, dancing and art. At its core, Peace Pizzazz is a children’s peace program that introduces the idea of peace to kids through a variety of activities and learning experiences.

“We’re helping youngsters recognize bullying so they can handle it in a peaceful way,” says Marilyn Eccles, one of Peace Pizzazz’s originators.

“We help teach kids how to use the Golden Rule as a tool for conflict resolution,” adds the organization’s former board president, Jim Pero.

“And self-responsibility about how to be kind to themselves so they can be kind to each other,” says Luana VanDam, another original Peace Pizzazz volunteer.

Sowing the seeds

The first Peace Pizzazz festival occurred in 2009.

“We wanted to teach children healthy ways to handle feelings in classrooms and on playgrounds,” says longtime local peace activist Lowey Dickason, who was the inspiration for Peace Pizzazz. “But we soon became focused on molding a child-centered culture of peace to emphasize empathy, compassion and ethical teachings found in all great religions.”

The theme of the first festival was “Children Set the Table for Peace,” which was artistically conveyed via ceramic and paper dinnerware created by area children that included quotes from famous peace advocates as well as the children’s own statements.

Kathy Murphy, then an art teacher at Winchell Elementary School (she is now retired), was a big influence on other teachers, encouraging them to become involved and create art projects for the Peace Pizzazz festival.

“We started with no knowledge whatsoever,” says volunteer Peg Bozarth, “but we learned. We pulled ourselves through. We got permission to use Bronson Park. We got it set up. Six hundred people showed up, and we had fun.”

“We had an attitude of ‘We can do this.’ I don’t think we ever decided that it couldn’t be done,” adds VanDam.

Prior to the first festival, Dickason and Bozarth contacted every church and mosque in the community. They met with Kalamazoo Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Michael Rice and engaged individual teachers. “That first year the core were people who were already thinking toward peace,” says Bozarth. “The second year, after we had a success, more people could see what we were about. That helped us grow a lot.”

The Peace Pizzazz group also obtained a proclamation from the Kalamazoo City Commission that designated May as “Peace Education Month in Kalamazoo,” a designation still in effect today.

In its first five years, Peace Pizzazz received annual grants and donations that averaged $5,000. Initial donors included the Kalamazoo Community Foundation, Irving S. Gilmore Foundation, Harold and Grace Upjohn Foundation, Kalamazoo Rotary Club, Arts Council of Greater Kalamazoo and many individual citizens. “This funding had a positive impact on more than 6,000 children through peace-promoting projects,” Dickason says.

Peace Pizazz is now officially a nonprofit organization with a clearly stated mission: “To give the children of the Kalamazoo area the tools to create peace in their schools, homes and playgrounds by teaching them to employ the Golden Rule as a way of peaceful conflict resolution.”

Making an impact

Despite its initial success, Peace Pizzazz almost fizzled in 2016 as the originators began to wonder whether they had the energy and desire to continue. Then some enthusiastic young people began to take on greater responsibilities.

One of them was Abby Pero, Jim Pero’s wife. “My aunt is Kathy Murphy,” she says. “She asked me to be the secretary; now I’m the treasurer. I work with at-risk youth at a camp and with foster kids at a shelter. I see what they’re growing up with. Peace Pizzazz is a good way to help them get what they might not be getting at home and to deal with conflict issues at school.”

Ken Campbell, now the organization’s board president, says, “When I heard about Peace Pizzazz and the idea of peace being introduced to children at a young age, I decided it was something I should be involved in.”

Julie Klick, who recently became Peace Pizzazz’s executive director, says, “We’re a fun group that’s a preventative resource for kids in our community.”

Diversity and inclusivity have always been the main components of Peace Pizzazz.

“The festival brings Muslims with Jews with Christians with African-Americans with Caucasians, all mixed together in one place,” VanDam says. “This is an incredible opportunity for people to work on solutions to bullying, to take responsibility for conflict resolution, to express commonality.”

Van Dam recalls a children’s Jewish/Muslim/Christian choir that performed at one Peace Pizzazz festival. “As I looked at the audience, I saw all those people smiling and taking pictures of their kids. The diversity was as beautiful offstage as it was onstage.”

By the book

The Peace Pizzazz festival is just one way the group imparts its message of peace; it also does so through book donations. Each year, Peace Pizzazz purchases up to four titles with themes of peace, conflict resolution and the Golden Rule to donate to each elementary school classroom in Kalamazoo Public Schools that participates in Peace Pizzazz. Books are also given to local religious schools, private schools and home-schoolers.

“In the second year, we brought in the books,” says Bozarth, who notes that it was partly because Superintendent Rice was an enthusiastic supporter who “wanted us to bring in some aspect of learning.”

Among the more notable selections have been Desmond and the Very Mean Word, by Nobel Peace Laureate Desmond Tutu;I Am Malala, by Nobel Peace Laureate Malala Yousafzai; What Does Peace Look Like? by Vladimir Radunsky; Seeds of Change, by Jen Cullerton Johnson; and Peace Baby, by Linda Ashman.

This year, the organization will distribute Can You Say Peace? by Karen Katz; Peace Begins with You, by Katherine Scholes; Most People, by Michael Leanna; and Peaceful Pieces: Poems and Quilts About Peace, by Anna Grossnickle Hines.

Organizers admit it’s hard to quantify the extent of Peace Pizzazz’s impact. Annual attendance at the May festival is 500 to 600 people, but dozens of teachers use the donated books as the foundation for peace projects in their classrooms.

“Consider Parkwood-Upjohn Elementary School,” says Picard. “We expect the books will reach 550 students there.”

“And that’s just one school,” Campbell interjects. “We involve 20-some schools. That’s 10,000-plus families.”

The ripples of Peace Pizzazz have also extended beyond Kalamazoo. In recent months, thanks to a new website design by Campbell, Peace Pizzazz is becoming known in Battle Creek and Grand Rapids. “Our message is starting to get out there and grow. We hope it continues to expand,” says Jim Pero.

VanDam gives much credit to the young adults who have been involved in recent years.

“They are more technologically sound. Last year and the year before, I found classroom activities that relate to the books we donated, and Ken (Campbell) put those activities on the website,” she says.

In addition to perennial donation baskets at the festival, the group is also expanding its fundraising opportunities through the website, special birthday donations on Facebook, and local musicians who give time and talent to perform at local cafés, where a percentage of the money spent by patrons goes to Peace Pizzazz.

“The Peace Pizzazz festival is for the children,” says Campbell, “but our ultimate goal is to make sure the children and their teachers have the peace books and the peace activities that go with them. That’s the truly long-lasting part of our purpose.”

Robert M. Weir

Robert is a writer, author, speaker, book editor and authors’ coach. You can see more of his work at

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