sam lealofi header

Sam Lealofi

What is your official title?

The Executive Director of the Kalamazoo Center for Youth and Community (KCYC), which is a youth development organization place based in the Eastside. We support Eastside and Eastwood young people of Kalamazoo.


How did KCYC start?

There was a group of people that had been meeting for about 8 years talking about developing a center for the youth on the east side. The idea wasn’t “build it and they’ll come”. It was, let’s start an organization that has a track record with young people and support them in their success. The non-profit, the name, etc. were designed by that group that had been meeting for years. One individual in that group said, “hey Sam we would like you to apply.”

I hadn’t thought about coming back to the east side, but for all the years driving around town I saw some of those same young people that I worked with years ago and they weren’t going anywhere. I thought, people get second chances I want a second chance, I’m going to put my name in that hat. I applied and I was offered the position four years ago. That is when we started to build it from the ground up.


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

At KCYC there are really exciting days! We are building and have been working to support young people K-12 or 5-18 years of age for the last four years. Four years ago my role, as the Executive Director, was to build the direction and to support the mission of Kalamazoo Center for Youth and Community.

Every day, three years ago, was about building KCYC and its work from the ground up. Just taking the idea and building something different than what had been offered or available to young people on the Eastside. Really changing the outcomes for young people on the Eastside — primarily education. In our community education is the door that provides access and inclusion to other experiences. It’s also just exposing young people to new things and different things that they never would have been exposed to. Whether it’s food or someone that they never would have met or talked to.

Four years later, we are very focused on the academic success and the social emotional skill building of young people. We all need social skills to help us navigate, especially in different environments; whether it’s college, new neighborhood, or a new job, we need to figure out how to work with people we have never worked with before. Just to navigate those systems can sometimes be challenging. So that is our work today and we are hyper focused with supporting academic success of the youth we work with every day all year long.

During the day there is coordinating, follow up administrative work, operations support, staff support, meeting with partners, calling on new partners, talking with young people. Simply knowing the names of our young people and knowing who they are as human beings. And we do know their names, we know what their interests are, we know their parents, we even know their education experience and what they are struggling with. So there is a lot of time spent connecting and talking.

Really just continuing day-to-day to listen and be responsive to what is going on with the young people and what their parents are saying they want and need. Listening has been a huge part of our work! We know we aren’t where we need to be but we know we’re heading in the right direction. Our young people keep telling us it’s the relationships they have with individuals that are supported by KCYC they are really appreciating. The partners that we do have and the facilities that we have work really well, not to say we don’t need more people to be available to mentor and interact with young people.


What other local organizations do you work with for programming?

We are definitely not in it by ourselves. We have approached partners, men and women, as well as groups of people who are really passionate about building real relationships with young people, whether it be around activities or around teens just having an opportunity to talk among themselves about what it is like to be a teen living on the Eastside.

We’ve got eight partners — as big of an institution WMU Occupational Therapy Department that provide assessments to increase academic success by looking at learning styles to Kirk and Gabriel from Kinetic Effect and Speak it Forward, who have been working with our teens for three years. It’s a range of partners that we support to be in touch with our young people to help them be more successful academically or just to be able to stay in school for a day or week and be able to leave that grade and go to the next grade.

Some other partners include Kalamazoo Public Schools, Boys & Girls Club of Greater Kalamazoo and SLD Reads. We are in deep partnership with Northeastern Elementary, which is one of the KPS elementary schools on the Eastside our neighborhood. Our after school activities have great participation and during the day we have our academic support called Individual Student Services or ISS. This is a literacy program we started three years ago where we identified 15 first graders who were not at grade level reading. We brought in services so that they had intensive literacy ensure they successful in reading, spelling, and writing and occupational therapy to look at understanding learning as it related to the central nervous system. Now they are 3rd graders going into 4th grade and they are strong readers and most of them are at grade level. Eight of them just graduated last Wednesday! A confident reader can experience the world in a different way than a non-confident reader.

We have also started math tutoring and brought in some incredible young men and women that work well with the youth and can teach math and relate to youth. This is the first year doing that, but we are building that up even more for the next school year. It’s called Math Fun-damentals.

We also have another partner that offers what’s called Accelerated Student Athletes Performance (ASAP). This is a really important opportunity for our young people because a lot of our youth want to play basketball. They see themselves playing neighborhood basketball and then going straight to the pros, and that is probably not realistic. With ASAP those young people are actually getting trained on basketball skills that a coach, who is looking at a student athlete to play on their team, would look for. They train them like college athletes. They’re learning skills as basketball players and they are also doing study table for the academic part. It gives them a taste of what to expect as a college athlete. As a result, they are more motivated to turn in their homework in and keep their grades up and our teams are collectively working on a team grade point average, which keeps them accountable.

We also have Speak with Fire, which is the program that Kirk and Gabriel, of Speak It Forward, support helping our young people tell their life stories authentically about their stories in a supportive and confidential setting. There have been two public events, one in May 2014, and in May 2015 at Chenery Auditorium where over 600 people attended to see our youth tell their life stories. It is life changing! The youth that shared their stories did an amazing job.

When I say we support the programming for KCYC I mean that we fund them to be there. We work as an intermediary. We have tremendous support from The Kalamazoo Community Foundation, Irving S. Gilmore Foundation, Dorothy Dalton Foundation, Harold and Grace Upjohn Foundation and recently, Eaton employees had a cool fundraising event for our kids. We meet regularly with our partners to talk about how we can improve our services and support.


What is unique about the Kalamazoo Center for Youth and Community’s approach?

We are following evidence and research based models to work with young people called the Youth Program Quality Assessment (YPQA), which is based on quality experiences for young people to be successful. When I say experiences it can be anything they are participating in from tennis to homework help to basketball. The staff is trained on YPQA and when using that model we are able to understand and look at young people differently, creating an engaging and supportive environment for them. We know that young people will come to check out an after school program to see what’s going on but they will stay because of a caring adult. Mr. Kirk and Mr. Gabe are there or Ms. Yolanda is there — youth come and stay when they know someone cares about them.

Staff training is key, and because of training they are able to make sure every experience that a young person has is quality. 20 years ago we would not of known what quality looked like after school and in out of school time. Today we do know what quality looks like! I know what quality looks like for young people, I see it everyday. They need a supportive environment and an interactive environment that they are involved in and most importantly, at the highest level, that they are engaged in that builds their life skills and their leadership.

The YPQA is like Maslow’s Pyramid, the basics being that their physiological needs are met first and then it moves up the pyramid as supportive environment, interactive environment, and engaging youth through skill building — engaging being the highest. We want our partners to have the same understanding as the KCYC staff because it is applicable in every situation with a young person, so our partners are trained too.

Another thing is that we are very intentional about is decreasing the dropout rate. Young people can’t get to graduation and to the Promise if they stay in school and graduate. One of the ways that we decided to work on that is by implementing a program from the University of Minnesota called Check and Connect. They have an excellent track record nationally in training staff to keep young people from dropping out of school. The research shows that kids start to show signs of dropping out of school in the 2nd grade, but many times there is no intervention there to stop that. So what we have done is created a staff position, funded by our donations, which we are grateful for, to employ Check and Connect. Henry McCain runs the program as our Student Intervention and Engagement Coordinator and he is great! He values our youth, understands what they are facing, and he values education. He is intensively tracking those kids that are showing signs of dropping out of school, right now he has 15 young people that he is spending time with. He meets with the students, parents, teachers, he’s engaging with the young people on all levels all times not just Monday through Friday 9 to 5. We have learned that beyond simply getting young people struggling back into school, we need get them involved and engaged at school or they won’t stick around. This program was brought to our community to understand why we are only getting so far with dropout prevention. Not only does Henry get them back into school, he is connecting them back — thus Check and Connect.


What’s next? What new programming will we see in the future?

We have a new wonderful pilot that is starting this summer called EASEL (Eastside Arts and Science Experiential Learning). As our young people are getting stronger in math and reading we want them to be that same way for arts and science. Next week we are starting a 7-week experiential learning all about science for 1st – 5th graders in the neighborhood. We brought in a master science teacher and support staff who will be teaching young people anything from things about the human body, to Michigan habitat, to the Great Lakes. We will be thinking and operating as scientists.

We attended the National Science Teachers Conference in March. This is where people such as Bill Nye, The Science Guy, Arnie Duncan, the Secretary of Education and hundreds and hundreds of science teachers and organizations, come together. Anyone you could imagine from Disney to Lego to Sea World… We were really fortunate attend the conference in Chicago and we all get excited about science and coming back to the Eastside and putting EASEL together.

We have 20 youth from our neighborhood registered for EASEL. We intentionally wanted to keep it small so the one on one learning was high and a great experience. They will have lots of field trips, which is something that our young people wouldn’t normally have the opportunity to do. The Nature Center and Southwest Michigan Conservancy is doing an amazing job of supporting us and working with us to get the young people out there and talk with scientists. We are also visiting the new Medical School. This is part of changing the outcome for our kids. There is a lot of things to learn about in our community and the world in general and there is a lot that we need our youth to be ready to do. Young people of the Eastside, we need you t build Kalamazoo to be a place where people can thrive and be who they want to be, living a life that is fulfilled. That is what KCYC is about.

Our vision statement is: Creating an environment where all Eastside youth can reach their fullest potential. That has been our vision since day one. Whatever doors we can open so that young people can have their dreams fulfilled, that is what we are doing.


How does a child become involved?

We do outreach wherever our teens and families are gathered in the neighborhoods. That’s how we introduce our work. We partner with Northeastern Elementary and the Boys & Girls Club to offer a Club experience after school and in the summer. Families on the Eastside have wanted a Club in the neighborhood for many years now we have the Northeastern Unit which serves up to 100 youth a day and Kirk and Gabe and ASAP offer the expanded opportunities for our teens. I’d say our Middle School kids are the ones we need to do a better job with because they are in between, I don’t think we have quite mastered that yet.

We have several drop-in programs where the kids can come (and go) as they please, but we are trying to eliminate the drop in. We have a theory of change, called “dosage.” Our dosage theory is that if youth attend our sessions twice a week for the full time, and get an intense lesson or content, we believe that we will improve their academic experience. Our data shows we are impacting the outcomes of youth with the theory and all the other support we provide. We have an external evaluator Dr. Meg Blinkiewicz, who is a very well known subject matter expert in youth development. She evaluates whether we are meeting that theory of change or not.

For example, we have a program called Champs, that I supervise directly, it is an afterschool program that meets Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays 4:30 – 7:00pm. The program nearly went away, but we asked the youth and the staff “Do you want this program to stay?” and they said yes, so we funded it and four years alter our kids still have a quality youth development experiences which has created a sense of belonging for kids, with caring and trained staff, who know what outcomes will support our youth in being successful. Champs are youth driven and make do planning and have leadership roles. It’s primarily homework help and we also bring in enrichment activities — like the Fresh Food Fairy, the symphony, or The Nature Center might come in with an animal. And we also go out in the community several times a year as well.

Across all of our programs we serve roughly 200 – 300 young people in the east side neighborhood.


What is your background?

I grew up in a loving home where my parents went against the tide as a biracial couple; my father is from American Samoa and is Polynesian and my mother is from upstate New York. They met in the military, they were both in the military in the 1950s and they married in the 1950s in North Carolina. It was very taboo at the time, my father had to prove he wasn’t a black man marrying a white woman. I grew up in the military. When women got married and became pregnant in the military in the 50s, women were discharged, so my mother stopped working and my father made a career in the military. Later my mom went back to school and got her nursing degree. She is a very determined person which is what I love about her. I have an identical twin sister, named Deb, who I am very close to. She has a son and a daughter who live with their families in the Detroit area. My mother and my sister both live in town, my father died about 30 years ago.

In the 1960s, during the Vietnam war, my Dad got orders to Kalamazoo, MI. We lived in downtown, but we moved out to Comstock to be with other military families. My father was training people to go to Vietnam and then he went to Vietnam and we got transferred back to North Carolina. When he retired from the military in the 70s my parents decided they wanted to come back up north because they knew the community.. So we moved back to Comstock and my sister and I graduated from Comstock high school.

I left, went to Grand Valley State Colleges in 1976 for 3 years and then decided I wanted to go into the Peace Corp, but that didn’t work out so I left college to travel and then in 1980 the Iran hostage situation took place and I decided that I wanted to serve my country so I joined the Air Force. I was a cop for 12 years and also taught at a leadership and management school. I I traveled a lot in the Air Force and met some incredible people from all over the world. I lived in Arizona, Europe, and the midwest, and left the military after 12 years, and came to Kalamazoo where I wanted to be near my family and serve my community. From there I decided I wanted to serve my community. I was the director of Eastside Neighborhood Association for seven years while working on my Bachelors of Science degree in Occupational Therapy (OT) at Western Michigan University I didn’t go into OT as a clinician directly, partly because I was working in community and I wanted to stay in community based work. I learned quickly that supporting people in living independently can happen in many different ways.

I am still working to complete a Master’s Degree, but I have a master’s coursework in Development Administration, which is out of the WMU Political Science school. It’s a degree that would support International Development, such as USAID, water systems, food systems, at an international level. I had a dream of joining the Peace Corp and being in international development. Still could happen! Paul, my husband, and I are pretty sure we are going to join the Peace Corp when we finish up where we are at in our careers right now. We are both very passionate about international work. Paul and I lived in Zambia, Africa for 6 months working with women learning to start businesses to support themselves and take care of their families. Working and living in Africa and meeting the people changed my life.

I have worked in a variety of other sectors, too — non-profit housing with Kalamazoo Neighborhood Associations, Kalamazoo Community Foundation, Michigan Works, Goodwill, Human Services Department with the Michigan Prisoner Reentry Program and later with the Workfirst program. I am really appreciative of where I am at right now as the director of the Kalamazoo Center for Youth and Community.


What are your feelings on social media for the youth?

I like social media. I can’t say that it’s totally bad, because I think it’s exposing kids to things just like a book would. What I don’t understand and what I think is a common concern is how obsessed we all are with social media. I think it’s everyone, definitely not just young people. I see it in the youth and I see it in my own networks. It’s a good thing but it’s a challenge — for example we just had a meeting and we asked, do we want to have iPads, do we want to use TV, etc. and our community educator, Rebecca Joyce was saying “you know we want them to be thinking through things on their own and not searching for things.” There are times when it’s appropriate and times that it’s not. I also love all of the fun and crazy things we see on social media — the videos and pictures and music — that stuff is fun!


What do you love most about Kalamazoo?

There are so many things I could pick. I love the arts. I love the thinking, the opportunities and changes art makes happen. For the size of our community, the arts are fantastic. I have also always loved creativity of other people and art in my own life. You’ll see on the wall, I’m Polynesian and this is tapa cloth made by Polynesians and used for ceremonial purposes. Throughout our whole house you’ll see lots of art, my husband and I have collected from all over the world.


What do you think can be improved about Kalamazoo?

When you ask that I see this flash in front of my eyes of all of the different sectors I have worked in and all of the different people that I have met, professional and personal. I’d like to see Kalamazoo more integrated in places that it’s not. I think that says a lot. I think there are still areas where people are living because they don’t want to live around other people. People who decide to I live on this side or that side of town because they think they wouldn’t fit anywhere else. Keep working on integration and bridging the social capital. I don’t want to say its only across racial lines. I think it’s cultural, socioeconomic, and so many other factors. Lets make it so there is a real interaction.


What have you been jammin’ to recently?

Smooth Jazz. If smooth jazz would just play on loudspeakers in any environment I would be so happy.


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

Yes, I take my coffee black. No sugar. No cream. Gourmet is preferred — I like a Michigan Cherry or any flavored gourmet coffee.


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

My favorite spot is all of downtown Kalamazoo. Even when I was a teenager, I loved riding my bike downtown and walking on the mall in downtown Kalamazoo. I felt so independent and adventurous. I’m thrilled and excited that after living so many places I returned to Kalamazoo!


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

I grew up in North Carolina and I knew there wasn’t something right about racial lines and I wanted to work on equality. In the south I only saw certain people doing certain jobs when I was a kid. My parents are a mixed race couple and that definitely had an impact. I didn’t feel good in in my gut about the things I was seeing with race. It’s quite serious for a kid, but that is when it all started for me. Or a football player, I would of loved to have been a football player. I’ve watched it since I was about 12, and I just love it!


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

Stop worrying.


Who would play you in a movie?

I would like to be Melissa McCarthy, but I don’t think I’m that funny.


What will we see in the future Kalamazoo from these young people?

I truly believe that the direction, the success of Kalamazoo lies with our young people. I mean that in terms of the Gen X, the millennials, or even the youngsters in elementary school right now — what I am seeing right now are very smart interested young people. I grew up with that managerial, hierarchical, authoritative type structure and that is just not how things are organized anymore. That doesn’t energize young people or energize creativity. I’m excited about the possibilities for the future.


Sam, 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.