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Jennifer Young Heymoss

What is your official title?

I am the Program Director of the Kalamazoo Jeter’s Leaders.


What’s an average day in the ‘Zoo look like for you?

Every day is different, which is why I love this job so much. I usually get to work around 9:30am, and my office is at Western Michigan University. Some days I’m out earlier meeting with someone in the community to see how we can work with them or how our group can be utilized. Sometimes I meet with people to set up professional or personal development opportunities for the Jeter’s Leaders.

I do a lot of emails in the office – a lot of emails! When I was a teacher it was much easier to communicate with my students because I physically saw them every day, but with the Leaders it’s more email, texting and calling. We really try to listen to them and find things they are interested in doing or have never had the chance to do before, then try to make those things happen.

During the school year, from October to May, I observe the Leaders at their different mentoring sites. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, we work with a group of kids at Washington Writers Academy and Boys and Girls Club on Lake Street in a program called Proud 2 Be Me. I’m at Peace House with the Leaders on Wednesdays to work with their middle and high school mentoring group, which is so much fun. Twice a month I’m at St. Augustine’s with Leaders, working with their student leadership. All of that is to say in the afternoons, we are hardly ever in the office because the Program Coordinator and I are out and about. Sometimes we work evenings when we have events like Girls on the Run.

I’ll admit, sometimes it’s nice to sit in the office and get caught up with program development, but I love being busy, so it’s really fun. I’m also training for a triathlon, so I get up early in the morning to do my workouts. I’m pretty much busy from 6:30am until 9:00pm every day, but it’s great!


What is Jeter’s Leaders?

I’ll start with the Turn 2 Foundation, because Jeter’s Leaders is a signature program of the Turn 2 Foundation. The foundation was established in 1996 by the former Captain of the New York Yankees, Derek Jeter. It’s a reflection of the values of Derek Jeter and his family, and the family is very involved in the foundation, which is something that I love. It has a great family feel that way.

The Foundation serves hundreds of young people in New York City, Kalamazoo and Tampa through programs that foster leadership development, academic excellence, positive behavior and healthy lifestyles. Jeter’s Leaders is one of those programs. Other programs are Turn 2 Us, a healthy lifestyle program called Jeter Meter and baseball clinics in New York, Kalamazoo and Tampa. The baseball clinic in Kalamazoo is in August, and it’s free to any kid– you don’t necessarily have to be an expert at baseball.

Jeter’s Leaders is a really intensive leadership development program that I could talk for days about because I love it so much. It’s application process is selective– we just finished our recruitment season and we had over 50 applicants from the Southwest Michigan area. Applicants are at the end of eighth grade and we can only pick 10 of them. One of the hardest parts of my job is working with the Leaders to choose our new Jeter’s Leaders. So many of these eighth graders are amazing, and I want to choose them all!

We have Leaders in New York City and Kalamazoo, and they are freshmen through seniors. They are inducted as freshmen and stay with us for all four years. We induct 20 young people in Kalamazoo and New York every year at the beginning of the summer. This year, we will have 73 – a total of 37 from all five boroughs of New York City, and 36 from the Greater Kalamazoo area, so Portage, Parchment, Comstock, the whole area.

We have high expectations for our Jeter’s Leaders. They are expected to model positive behavior and deliver a positive message to their peers. We expect them to have a high GPA – a 3.0 or above – and we want them to maintain that all through high school. Our current Leaders have an average GPA of 3.5. They pledge to remain drug and alcohol free, give back to the community and get involved in social change activities. We meet twice a month, and on top of that we have various events and projects where we promote healthy lifestyles, explore social change topics and volunteer in the community. We also provide professional and personal development for the Leaders.

Since 2008, 100% of our graduates have gone onto college. At the end of the program, every Leader gets a $3,000 scholarship. Our Leaders are interested in achieving academically and becoming leaders who are involved in the community. I think it’s a unique program. There are programs out there that touch on the college preparation or healthy lifestyle pieces, but we focus so much of our time on the community involvement piece along with the others.


Can you tell us about your background/passion?

It’s a long and winding story. I grew up in Saginaw, Michigan. I was always really interested in helping the community; I’d read articles about kids doing something to clean up graffiti, or something like that, and be like, yeah, I could do that! I worked with my church, and liked working with kids. When I was in high school, my dad was really sick. He was dying of cancer my whole senior year of high school, but was pretty sick throughout my high school career. I was involved in everything because I didn’t want to be at home, but wasn’t very engaged in school, and was kind of mouthy. When I look back on it and people ask me why I wanted to be a teacher, I’d tell them that I loved English and teaching high schoolers, but looking back, it was because of kids who are going through a lot in their lives, and maybe don’t have people to talk through those things with. That’s really why I became a teacher, so I could provide students with that outlet; I didn’t really have that and didn’t really fit in in my high school. I felt busy, but alone a lot of the time because I didn’t know how to deal with what was going on with my family.

I left to go to college at Western. I only went on two college tours, one of them was a formal tour at Western and I thought Kalamazoo was really cool, and hilly and green compared to Saginaw! When I moved here, the first week of my freshman year, my dad died suddenly. I had this moment where I really didn’t know what to do with myself. I took a few weeks off of school, then came back to Kalamazoo and became a music therapy major instead of education, which was what I was originally looking at. I was a classically trained pianist and had played for over 12 years, so I thought, well, let me try this out and see where it goes. I started doing my field work and decided it wasn’t for me, then went back to teaching. I did my pre-internship at Kalamazoo Central, and just loved it there.

My first teaching job was at Kalamazoo Central and I stayed there for seven years. I started to get really disillusioned with what I was doing when I was working on my Masters at Western in Sociocultural Studies of Education, and was able to get a fellowship to research in Senegal. For five weeks in 2010, I studied globalization and the affect it has on education. While I was there, I started thinking critically about the public school system and what schooling looked like in the U.S. I came back with a lot of questions about the way we school students, especially high schoolers; so much of my research was really eye opening.Some people would argue my leaving teaching was teacher burnout, but I was still really passionate about working with kids and teaching at the time. If I hadn’t have gone to Senegal, I would probably still be teaching.

I went back to Dakar, Senegal the next summer as well. We worked with a hip-hop organization called Africulturban, teenagers from Kalamazoo and teenagers from Dakar. The young people I worked with were so passionate about what they were doing; it was so cool. I was like, this is what I want to do – help kids and work with kids, but not be in a school. I wanted to work with them on what they are passionate about.

I left Kalamazoo Central and started working at Kazoo School, and worked in the middle school for a little over a year. I liked the progressive atmosphere there. The former Director of Jeter’s Leaders called me and asked if I wanted to apply for the Program Coordinator position, and in looking into the foundation I was like, wow, this is everything that I’ve been looking for! Everything fell into place. I had to leave Kazoo School, which was really hard, but I ended up starting with the Foundation and Jeter’s Leaders as the Program Coordinator in December of 2013. I became Program Director this past March.


What is your favorite program in Jeter’s Leaders?

There’s so much that I love doing with them. I really like our Spring into College tour. We talk with the Leaders in the fall about where in the U.S. they want to go, and what colleges they are interested in; we have them do some research beforehand and bring some schools to us as suggestions. One is always a school in Michigan, and the other one is a school anywhere else. They always say Hawaii. I work with the Leaders to plan the trip, and we try to see 7-10 schools while we are on spring break with them; we always go on spring break together for all four years of high school. By the time they are done with high school, they will have seen almost 40 colleges and universities! This year we were in Georgia, and it was so fun. We talk about the schools and what they like about them, but we always do something else during the trips too that maybe they wouldn’t ever try otherwise.

We were in Savannah this year, and toured the Savannah College of Art and Design; it is one of the coolest schools I’ve ever seen. The next day we traveled to Tybee Island and went to the Marine Science Center there to do some career exploration to see what marine biologists do in the education field. We got to go seining, which I’ve never done. You take these nets and go out into the water, dip them in and try to catch fish; they caught some jellyfish, actually. I was sitting there watching the Leaders on the beach, seining and laughing and catching jellyfish, and the Program Coordinator and I looked at eachother and said, this is my job, we’re at work right now!


What do you love most about Kalamazoo?

Wow, there’s so much. Every time I talk to people, they think I’m from Kalamazoo. I like the sense of community here. I was at the latest Art Hop, and was walking down the mall, and kept seeing people I knew. We’d go into a shop and see someone, then come back outside and run into someone. Finally one of the guys we were with was like, man, everyone here knows everyone! It wasn’t just me; it was everyone we were with, too. It’s what I love about this town.

People are also so supportive of each other. When I was done teaching and felt like I couldn’t do it anymore, people were very supportive in telling me different places to look for jobs and different opportunities that might fit my skill set. I don’t know if that happens in other places.


What do you think can be improved about Kalamazoo?

This is something I talk about a lot with different groups of people. I think there are silos in this town, and that people are working on various things, and some of those things are the same things, but they’re not communicating. I think that’s the same with youth development here too. A lot of people are running separate programs, when we could be partnering up and talking about what we are doing across our programs. I just started working with the Kalamazoo Youth Development Network; they have this meeting called Action Fridays where everyone that is working in youth development can send representatives and we all get together and talk about what we’re doing in our organizations and how we can help each other out. It’s the first time I’ve seen something like this, something that happens every month, and we share what we’re doing.


What have you been jammin’ to recently?

Everything! I love hip-hop and R&B and soul. The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill basically saved my life in high school. I used to carry around my discman, just listening to it all day. I love Erykah Badu, Miles Davis, Grant Green. I listen to a lot of Radiohead, I always fall back on Radiohead. And Lord Huron; he’s got some beautiful music. I could talk about music for a long time. My husband is a musician. It makes sense, because I was a musician and always wanted to be talking about music. He is the guitarist for The Mainstays. I listen to them a lot too; they practice in our basement.


How do you take your coffee?…or do you?

Just black – really dark roast, and very strong. Waterstreet is one of my favorites, I love Sumatra. I stopped drinking coffee for a while back in November; I was getting all of these sinus infections and thought it would help, and started drinking tea instead. But, I’m back! Just started drinking coffee again this week; life just wasn’t the same without it.


Do you have a “go to” spot in Kalamazoo?

Probably the Kalamazoo River Valley Trail. I ride my bike there two or three times a week. I try to do a ride up to D Avenue from my house on the east side. I like the downtown Waterstreet. I used to go there a lot more while I was in grad school; they pretty much had a table reserved for me.

There’s also this house, that when I ride my bike up D Avenue, there is a kayak drop. There is a place you can park and drop a dollar in a box. You can take your kayak all the way to Plainwell, and that’s where you pull the kayak out before the dam. It’s so fun; it feels like you’re up north when you’re on that little stretch. It feels like you’re on vacation. We like to do that on Sundays in the summer. I call it the one house by the bridge; shout out to the guy for letting people park there and drop their kayaks!


When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?

I wanted to be a teacher, obviously! I also really wanted to be a fashion designer. I used to sew all of my own clothes. I never learned how to use a sewing machine; I did everything by hand. I was looking into going to school for it, the Savannah College of Art and Design actually, but it was too expensive. I wanted to be a music reviewer. I was close to Detroit, so I went to all of these punk rock shows. I’d dance around in the mosh pit, and then write about it in my school paper. I waited in line to see Radiohead for eight hours in Grant Park in Chicago, and wrote my review of the show; I felt so cool.


Who would play you in a movie?

Have you ever seen the show Garfunkel and Oates? It’s so funny! I would just want my movie to be like an episode of Garfunkel and Oates. It’s on Netflix, it’s hilarious. They’re awkward and talk too much just like me.


If you could give your younger self a piece of advice, what would it be?

I think it would be what I tell all of my students and any young person – you can advocate for yourself. If you want to change something, you can do it. You have a voice and you should use it. I’ll never forget, I was going to a school outside of our district because my parents thought it would be better for us, and I was sitting in a classroom my freshman year listening to the teacher talk about what we were going to be learning. I was so excited, it seemed right up my alley, when a woman walked into the room and called my name and told me that I wasn’t supposed to be in Honors English. I really loved English and was pumped to be in this woman’s class. I was so ashamed that I got called out in front of everyone. I didn’t say anything until I was a senior, when my teacher, Mrs. Richardson, told me that I needed to be in AP English. It took that long for me to realize that I should’ve been able to speak up for myself when I knew something wasn’t right.


Do you have any big upcoming projects?

We have the Leaders working with different summer programs, which is upcoming since school just got out. We are going to go to upstate New York this summer with the New York Jeter’s Leaders to work on a social change project. We are also going to be talking about cyberbullying; it’s something that continues to get brought up as an issue to address.


What do you think of education in the U.S. today, and how do you think it could improve?

I used to present to teachers on this topic. I spoke to them about being more of a facilitator instead of a teacher who is wagging their finger at you, you need to learn this, you need to memorize this. I used to talk to my students a lot about schooling versus education, and what were they really getting out of my class.

After my first trip to Senegal, I took a look at my curriculum, and took a good hard look at why I was teaching the things I was, and what were the students supposed to get out of it, and what were they actually getting out of it. Some English teachers are really passionate about teaching novel to novel – read a novel, write a paper. Were my students getting anything out of that, though? I really started to get into progressive and experiential education. I felt like teachers were teaching “to the test” because they were nervous about what would happen to them if the students didn’t do well on the test.

When I was teaching at the high school, we were pulling students out of class to test three or four times a year, and for what? It was frustrating. The graphic I show teachers is a funnel with books pouring into it, into an open head with a blank look on the face. I feel like a lot of the disengagement that kids experience today is to that point: what am I supposed to learn and then spit out next? What is the next thing that I have to memorize? I don’t think kids know how to independently think for themselves. I developed this curriculum framework during my Masters that encouraged kids to wonder more. I presented a lot around the country to teachers about the subject and progressive learning. I am still very passionate about it.

I teach at Western sometimes, and once asked my students to complete a very broad project to get them to think creatively. I gave them a rubric with my requirements and that was it. They all came back to me and asked what exactly I wanted, what format, how many words, what materials should they use, what were the resource restrictions? I just wanted them to be free to creatively come up with what they wanted, but the formality of it all has been so ingrained into their thinking that we struggled to get there. I want them to advocate for themselves and speak up for what they want out of a situation. I could go on forever about this topic.


Jennifer, thank you for taking the time to meet with us and sharing your thoughts! Be sure to follow us on facebook and twitter for updates.