What is your official titles?
Jerry: We don’t have any titles, we just run it (Peace House).
Mike: Or it runs us.
Molly: Sometimes we call ourselves community members.
Jerry: Community members, co-founders, co-directors — I think all of that applies.
What’s an average day in the ‘Zoo look like for you?
Jen: I would say an average day, whether it’s summer or during the school year, is a pretty heavy balance between raising our kids and doing outside work so we can continue to live here, and doing Peace House work — it’s a balance between those three things. Some days are a bit more heavy on one piece than the other.
Jerry: I’m an independent contractor doing residential work. So, I get to be my own boss and hopefully line up a work schedule that allows me to be here.
Molly: I work for Gryphon Place, with their Peer Mediation program. My work there revolves around getting kids to work together to create resolution to their own problems and minimize disciplinary referrals.
Jen: I work for Communities in Schools at Woodward. I coordinate a wide variety of interns, tutors and various volunteers who help the students there in many ways. I also help connect kids with eye care, dental care, counseling, medical care, food, clothing and a lot of other important things.
Mike: I get to stay home and do also of extra Peace House work. I manage the website and Facebook and a lot of paperwork and other various things we need to do to keep up with everything. I’m also our representative to E-Net, which is a group of Eastside individuals and organizations working to lift the Eastside up and bring it closer together.
Tell us about Peace House.
Mike: It’s really interesting because Peace House is our home; we live here, and the kids we have in our home every week are our neighbors. It’s quite an experience to have your own house be a community center for the neighborhood. When we got together we decided we wanted to do something good for our community. Working together in cooperation with one another and focused on helping kids. What we decided to do is make a safe, nurturing place for kids to come, learn, be supported, and play. At the time that we got here there wasn’t really a heck of a lot going on for people in this part of the neighborhood — and that has gotten a lot better since. We wanted to make sure that kids were getting a little bit of fun, a little bit of nurturing and some positive attention.
Jen: The neighborhood is really split in two by East Main, so a lot of kids don’t cross East Main. KCYC and Eastside Neighborhood Association are doing great work with kids on that side of the street, but there is large section over here with lots of kids that need positive things to do.
How did you start it off?
Molly: We all met each other at Kalamazoo College a long time ago; we were all classmates there, so we have known each other a really long time.
Jerry: We are going on being friends for half of our lives. We are really close now.
Molly: Jerry and I were dating at the time, so we were together, but after college we all went our separate ways and lived in some different communities in different parts of the country; we moved around quite a bit. We reached a point where we wanted to just settle down in one spot. We had our oldest son at that point and we wanted to stop living in other people’s communities; we wanted to do our own thing.
Over a random New Years Eve we had a conversation with Jen and Mike about starting a community together. When we first started seriously discussing it we didn’t have a spot in mind. We were living in Northern Wisconsin and Jen and Mike were living in Kalamazoo at that point, but over the course of our conversation we decided on Kalamazoo and Jerry and I decided that we were going to spend a winter at my mom and dad’s house in Niles and meet with these guys regularly during that time because there were a lot of decisions to be made during that time. It was a very intentional process. It wasn’t just like “let’s just do this!” We talked about everything from our personal lifestyle habits to how we want to make the world a better place to how we were going to raise our kids — we talked about everything. Over the course of those three months we worked out those pieces and then we started networking in Kalamazoo to figure out where to locate the community.
We started out renting the blue house and living together, which was great until we started to have kids, and it was chaos. We have expanded into two houses and acquired quite a bit more land, which is a long story, but really everything just fell into place. It was kind of miraculous actually. Everything was just available when we wanted it to be amazing.
Jerry: To back up just a second, for us and for a lot of our friends at K College the defining moments of our college experience was the independent extracurricular social justice work that we got involved in, especially towards the second part of college. Just having really deep conversations about the state of the world and lamenting a lot of how things were set up in terms of economic injustice and endless war. We were all pretty convinced that things didn’t need to be this way and yet, there were, and that they could maybe be different and that we could have a part in that. So, a lot of our experiences after college were in intentional communities and they were engaged in doing the work of peace and justice. I would definitely say that that was another element in our formation, for the four of us, especially that we were living in these often intense situations, with passionate intense people. Sometimes thing were more healthy and sometimes they were less healthy and we knew we wanted to keep on in that life, but we also knew we wanted to have more control over those circumstances — especially since we had kids now — and that we could trust one another in that situation.
It was the best thing we ever did — aside from getting married, that was good too.
Mike: I want to give a quick definition of intentional community for some context. There are lots of different kinds of intentional communities, but it’s basically people becoming interdependent on purpose. For example, your family, you are interdependent with your family because you are related, but in an intentional community you aren’t related, but you come together to share resources to share work, to share shelter. Communities share because they believe in the concept of sharing sharing or because there is an important work they want to do in common. The intentional communities that we have been involved in did different things — Jerry and Molly were helping to provide housing for homeless folks in communities in Minnesota and Connecticut. Jen and I lived in an intentional community farm in upstate New York that was serving a very rural and poor population. Also, Jen and Molly went on a tour visiting 33 different communities. So there are obviously a lot of intentional communities out there, but every one of them picks their own model. Some are more justice oriented than others. We were definitely interested in more of the justice side of things.
Jen: So the way it works here is that we help one another out. We meet once a week to talk through the process and how it’s working here. It’s evolved a lot over the time we have been here and that is very much because of the previous experiences we had in other communities and our ability to back each other up on ideas we have to make it happen. But also just in the day-to-day. We have dinner over there twice a week and we cook dinner twice a week so during the school year when we’re doing programs out of our dining room, the other family is doing the cooking and hanging out with our kids — that way we can all do the work and we can all do the support. We’re interdependent in lots of ways. It’s worked out really well.
Jerry: So to pick up on the historical narrative, from where Molly left off, we were renting the blue house and networking and trying to figure out what sort of work would be helpful to engage in in this neighborhood, keeping in mind we wanted to do something to help kids, and looking for property. At that point this backyard didn’t exist in any way. We lived here for like 10 months before we realized there was woods here because the whole thing was filled with weeds, trash, and it was just a complete mess. When we realized what was back here we started to realize the possibilities and we thought, what if we could get the lot next door and some of the land by the woods and build a garden and a playground back there? So, we made an offer on the house and started fundraising; lots of people sent us money to get going. The next thing you know we were off and then a bit down the road this house came on the market too and we bought it as well.
It was just kind of one big work party after another to knock down the forest and pick out the garbage. Work party came over to help us build the retaining wall, and in 2009 we built the playground and we were open that whole summer and we have been open ever since. We have done improvement to the property and continue to do that ever since. This area was built in 2010 and has become our central hub. We also have a great and growing group of volunteers — they need a huge shout out because we couldn’t do that without him. On any given day we have an average of 10 people helping out and making this happen. It’s awesome to know that there are so many people that are willing to give their time and their gifts for free.
What does programming look like?
Jen: It really depends on the time of year. During the school year we do two hours of homework help around our dining room table and serve a snack. Every day we are open we are running some sort of incentive program — tickets are awarded for study and eventually add up to a prize. During the school year, three days a week are elementary and two days a week are high school and middle school, which is a little bit more conversation, talking about the issues of the day and how that affects them, more field trips and service projects. During the summer we run 8-weeks of 2:00 – 4:30 Monday thru Thursday and a couple of evening hours too. We pack it with anything we can think of to do during that time. We have five to six activity usually — a reading porch, a math porch — both incentivized with ticket programs and both hugely popular. 23+ kids came to the math porch the other day. Lots of sports; today we have three different ones going. Arts and crafts are a staple. And this year we are really excited to work with the Nature Center; they are coming to do programming once a week and we are going there for a field trip once a week. It’s been a lot of just growing partnerships — the Jeter’s Leaders have been really influential — they come like six or seven strong to help out.
We started out the same year that Open Roads started and we have had a great partnership with them. For this summer they will be coming here every Tuesday to fix bikes and that’s a much needed service in this neighborhood.
Mike: We’re very much a drop-in sort of program, so it’s a different group of kids from day to day and week to week, but we are careful to do registration with each participant. We want their parents to know where their kids are are and what they are doing while they are here. We also encourage parents to come check us out and stay if they’d like, and some do. We love it when parents participate in Peace House programs.
Molly: Our registration is pretty basic — contact information, allergies, permission slips for field trips. We definitely tell parents that, unless we’re on a field trip, kids can come and go. We don’t make them stay here the whole time.
Jerry: Although most kids don’t want to leave before we are done.
Jen: It’s really just been word of mouth. Kids started to come over here and just play in the sand box and then they tell their neighbors and friends and it grows.
Jerry: There is one wrinkle that has been interesting for us throughout the time here and that is that there is a really high renter’s occupancy here. So kids and their family might get involved and be here a year and then move because of certain circumstances. Sometimes that happens pretty abruptly and then new kids move in. We are always beginning again in a sense of explaining what the rules are here, what they can expect, and also what our hopes are for the lives that we touch. We have had a lot of kids come through here the entire time.
Jen: There is really only one family we have known the whole time that Peace House has been open. This area has so much movement.
Mike: We should mention that a few times a year, we put on some major events. In the fall, we have a big Halloween party, where we carve about sixty Jack O’ Lanterns. In December, we throw a holiday party for all of our families, with dinner, games, and presents for everyone. In July, we’ll have our annual Talent Show and Barbecue, which brings out a lot of folks. And of course, there’s our Back-to-School party at the end of the summer, with lots of good food and fun and a free backpack full of school supplies for every kid who spent the summer with us.
What organizations do you work with in Kalamazoo?
We love borrowing the ingenuity of the other great organizations in town. Trybal Revival Gardens, People’s Food Co-op, Loaves and Fishes, Habitat for Humanity, Kalamazoo Nature Center, Jeter’s Leaders, Open Roads, Fire — we recorded a song with them, the mp3 is actually on our website; that was lots of fun. Bookbug and Treat Street. We have done stuff with Parks and Rec — a couple of summers ago they came to pick us up in vans and brought us to the beach. RAWK is becoming a new partner- we’re really excited to be bringing their creativity into the mix.
We’ve gotten great support from the Sisters of St. Joseph, St. Thomas More Student Parish, St. Joseph Catholic Church, St. Catherine of Siena Church, Sunnyside United Methodist Church and Kalamazoo Friends Meeting.
Thanks to all of our partnerships and support, from groups and individuals, we’re able to give kids a rich, varied experience that is absolutely free to their families.
What are your hopes/wish/dreams for the kids that pass through Peace House?
Molly: We all recognize that we come from privilege and that we have a lot and other people don’t have a lot and so we don’t want to just live our lives and be selfish about it. So we are learning from the people of our neighborhood just like they might be learning from us; it’s a mutual thing.
Jen: I think we have all thought about about privilege through connections because we aren’t making money off of this. We live really simply so we can do all of this, but we have endless privilege when its comes to connections — the people we know really help with this experience.
Jerry: I think we’re also aware that society is unfair in how it is set up and that is not ok. We share that conviction. We want to be a part of trying to live differently than the prevailing norm. Everyone can be an agent for positive change. Beyond that we have come to care deeply about the kids that we work with and we hope that they grow up healthy and safe. We have hopes in the possibility of education and ultimately have a lot of hope in the Kalamazoo Promise – that some fraction of the kids that come through here can take advantage of that and get the tools to make a good life and help to change things for the better for others. We really want to share that idea.
Jen: We try really hard to help remind kids that this is that sanctuary for them and we need their help to uphold the positive values that we try to deal with everyday. We try really hard to teach kids and learn with kids the best way to deal with conflict in a different way than most people are use to. And to let them have those tools in their toolkit so they can use that when they approach those types of situations.
Mike: Open Roads does that thing when they are teaching a skill but they are also bringing in soft skills. We try to do that too. We create a safe place here and we really try to give the kids a break and give the kids a place where they can just relax and be kids, which can be difficult for the kids in our neighborhood. A lot of them are experiencing poverty and experiencing racism; often, their experiences in school are very negative. So we try to create a place where working together is fun, doing homework is fun, talking with adults is fun, the way that you talk to each other and the way that you play together is positive. You learn to cooperate, to find value in yourself and others, and to learn non-violent ways to work through conflict — talking through it instead of throwing punches. It keeps them healthier and it keeps them in school longer. It sets them up for a better future.
We want them to know that they are important. A lot of kids are getting the message, either on purpose or inadvertently, that they’re not important. They hear it in lots of different ways and we want them to know that we love you, we think that you can do amazing thing and that you can take control of their life. For a lot of the kids it takes lot of convincing that they can do that. Some kids come here as natural leaders with a well developed support network; others don’t have that sort of range and they need to be build up more. Almost always, we can create that bubble when it’s mostly peaceful at Peace House, but we have also had a few, let’s say, memorable days.
We try to set up clear expectations and we reinforce them with positive support. We model good behaviors and let kids see how it works. When they see how it works and see how much fun they can have when they are doing that you can see a difference in the kids. We have had kids where at the start of the summer they were just miserable and at the end of the summer they really turned around. Sometimes our hearts are broken too, but we do see a lot of stories of kids that come here, enjoy something positive, and draw real value from it.
Jerry: We believe in the small scale and we believe in our human relationships. We might not be changing federal policy by what we are doing here but if we are effecting the kids here and they are effecting our lives and the lives of the volunteers, then we are all changing and growing together. In terms of a macro concept I am reminded of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s vision of the Beloved Community, which is a possibility that human beings can live together and can be good to one another and we don’t have to be shredding each other all the time. But what are the alternatives? For us the alternative is small and steady, and that happens here.
What has been the most surprising thing?
Jerry: I still can’t believe we get to live here, I’m having so much fun.
Jen: How much fun it is to have kids in your home. How excited they can get. How excited parents can get when you can brag on their kids to them. How generous people are. There are lots of good surprises.
Jerry: And then the possibility. We just get a phone call and someone’s says “we heard about you guys and we want to do this.” Next thing you know is that it’s on. Patrick Hershberger, whom you guys should interview, we called him up and said maybe we can do an art piece with some kids. He donated his time and painted with the kids — it was a fun time and some great programming too. The doors that generous people are able to open for Peace House; it’s a ride.
What do you love most about Kalamazoo?
Jen: The people.
Molly: For me it feels like people in Kalamazoo really believe in Kalamazoo and I don’t think you get that feeling in other places in the same way. In the other places we have lived in I haven’t felt that nearly as much. Maybe we are just in the right circles or something, but everyone really believes that Kalamazoo is really awesome. And it is. Jerry’s mom, who is from Baltimore said it right, I took her downtown and she said “wow, this city is really proud of itself.” We have a sense of pride here that is really amazing.
Jen: I also think there is a belief here that when you have an idea you can actually make it happen. I think about all of the amazing things going on in Kalamazoo, they were all ideas and the community supported them. It’s really incredible.
What can be done to improve our beloved Kalamazoo?
Jen: I think Kalamazoo is really separated in many ways. In my experiences it’s a small enough town that I don’t run into people I know every day but I do run into people I know. So the circles are small, which is fun and great, but I also think there are circles over here and circles over there and there’s a lot that doesn’t intertwine with one another.
Molly: I know that Kalamazoo has one of the highest poverty rates in the state of Michigan. We feel it, but if you compare it to other cities, like we were comparing it to South Bend, there is just a lot more of this non-profit work that is holding Kalamazoo together and that’s really whats making up for this really high poverty rate. It does make a difference, but you kind of wish there could be a change on a larger scale so that these local efforts wouldn’t have to be keeping it all together.
Mike: I agree that the amount of poverty that people experience in Kalamazoo, we have the obligation to do something about that. As much as we are getting into the conversation of racism, that is still a problem that we need to work hard on. We have a lot of the same challenges that other communities have too. We need to be deliberate about those conversations and put in some muscle work to do something about it. Kalamazoo is a really cool place but not everyone gets to experience it as cool. Many of the kids that we see barely make it off the block, let alone go to a festival or do any of those really fun things that Kalamazoo has to offer. I want to make the coolness available to everyone.
How do you take your coffee? Or do you?
Jerry: Actually, when we were trying to get Peace House off the ground I was speaking to a church group in Portage and this kind older gentleman raised his hand and said “do you people drink coffee?” and I said “we need coffee”. He told me, “I run the Equal Exchange program at St. Catherine’s Church and we aren’t aloud to make a profit so can I bring you a donation of equal exchange coffee? He now comes with coffee drip every month. So our brand that we would like to represent is Equal Exchange French Roast. I take mine black. I take a pot minus one cup.
Molly: I drink a cup. A cup is my limit.
Jen: Half a pot, black, nothing in it.
Mike: I drink whatever Jen has left me at about 3:30 in the afternoon. I believe in drinking coffee in the afternoon. More people should, it’s the best time to drink coffee.
Do you have a go-to spot in Kalamazoo?
Jen: My favorite place is the KRVT, just to go and run and take the kids to be outside. I think that is such an incredible gift in Kalamazoo.
Molly: Ours is definitely the library, we hit it every week, we know where everything is, we have our system, we check out 50 books a week.
Jerry: Bells is always good, but let me give a shout out to two other breweries in walking distance; Arcadia and Old Dog. They are both wonderful for what they are. Also I would say we spend a lot of time at the Kalamazoo Community Soccer Complex on Drake Road; we are always cheering on our kids, and I am also in an adult league. We have neighborhood kids that play with our kids too; we’ve been able to help make that happen and that is a wonderful thing.
You have talked a lot about your kids, do you want to give them shout out?
Jen: We have to give a shout out to our kids. They are all a big part of this and they see us planning it and working on it together. There are 5 kids between the two families:
Amos – 11 years old
Jona – 8 years old
Clara – 8 years old
Alice – 5 1/2
Leah – 5 years old
If you could give your younger self a piece of advice, what would it be?
Jerry: It gets better.
Jen: Relax a little bit.
Mike: Get your sleep now.
What are your goals for Peace House in the future?
Jerry: I think we want to be here, doing this in the future. Beyond that, I think we are committed to a process where Peace House grows organically and is relevant to the people that we are in a relationship in the neighborhood and we are just helping them make this all happen. One thing we have been careful about is the knee-jerk decision to get bigger, be more relevant, serve more people. We are always inclined to think through if something will be sustainable. We don’t want to start things that we can’t finish. So I would hope that we would be here this week or eight years from now, kicking off the summer camp. And I’m sure it will evolve and be different by then, but also a lot of the same.
How did you come up with the name Peace House?
Mike: That was Molly’s idea.
Molly: This is actually the second Peace House. We were part of the non-violent student organization, and we have a house on campus, called Peace House, where we all lived. When we moved to Kalamazoo and we started thinking of a name and we were like, what do we do, and that came up. It wasn’t like “lets relive the glory days, yeah, throwing it back!” We just wanted to be really clear about what we were all about, so the neighborhood, and everyone really, knew about what we stand for. That has always been a part of our work.
How do people get connected to Peace House?
Thank you for taking the time to meet with us and sharing your thoughts! Keep up with Molly, Jerry, Jen, Mike, & Peace House on facebook. Also, be sure to follow us on facebook and twitter for updates.