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Q&A: Operation Kid Equip and Taking Action

Words are powerful; actions even more so.

So what happens when people who love words take action? A whole lotta good.

Meet Menachem-Michael Kniespeck and Operation: Kid Equip. OKE is a Berkley-based nonprofit organization with one mission: to put educational gear into the hands of area students and teachers.

Kniespeck is always running with a day job, a nonprofit consulting practice and the multiple efforts OKE is working on. There's the annual backpack distribution in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties. There's the new  Teachers'Annex, where educators can “shop” for free to properly equip their classrooms without their typical out-of-pocket expense.  Research shows the average teacher spends $500-$1,500 a year out of their own pockets for their classroom.

My current favorite is a collaboration with The Dictionary Project, which puts age-appropriate dictionaries in the hands of third graders, and some of my favorite Detroit-area female bloggers. The two groups are raising funds to get dictionaries to at least 25 percent of Oakland County's third graders through online efforts and a really cool “Trash Talk” event this Saturday. (More to come on that.)

I stole a few minutes with Kniespeck recently to find out more.

Q: Why did you and your co-founder launch Operation: Kid Equip? Wasn't it enough to work in nonprofits…you had to start one of your own?

A: When we started this, we were shocked like many people to find out that Oakland County (where  OKE is based) has more than 51,000 kids on the free and reduced-lunch program. All 28 school districts from Ferndale to Bloomfield Hills to Birmingham have students on the program.  Even more startling is that each, yes, every single one, of our 28 school districts have served students who are experiencing homelessness under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act.  Our preliminary research is showing that three school districts – Pontiac, Hazel Park and Madison Heights – have around 70 percent or more of the entire student body applying for the free and  reduced-lunch program this school year. Oakland County has experienced  a spike in economic hardship in the areas  not traditionally known for this – it's affecting everyone..

We started OKE with the idea of providing for an underserved need in underserved areas.  No one else in the area was providing school supplies on the same scale OKE is.  There is also the issue that many people believe that Oakland County is “rich” and therefore no needs exist.  This causes the needs of our children to be often ill-addressed or mistakenly overlooked. Besides unemployment and underemployment, there are other issues that leave our families in an economic hardship.  Some examples include death, disability, illness, divorce and fire.  Based on the needs of our schoolchildren, we could easily work entirely in Oakland County without venturing into parts of Macomb and Wayne.

Q: How big has the response been?

A: Last August, we had a direct-to-family backpack distribution (where students receive free school supplies). Between Aug. 15 to Sept. 15, we had  qualified online family applications totaling 8,000 children. We had to turn the online application off earlier than expected. Between August through Dec. 31, we distributed free school supplies and new books to over 14,000 children. This was a huge task for our all-volunteer organization; no one gets a salary. We implemented the  Teachers' Annex service model because there were just two guys working all these applications, and we felt there had to be a better way to remain a lean, all-volunteer organization and still be able to serve more children in need. Now, teachers can go shop and get what they need from our free store because they know the needs of their students firsthand. It's easier to work with a few hundred teachers instead of thousands of families.  We're still going to maintain a smaller version of our direct family distributions in order to continue hearing from and responding to the needs of our families.

Q: How has OKE changed?

A: Four years ago, we envisioned (the program) in my living room. We imagined handing out backpacks that we'd buy  ourselves.   In those four years, the thing has exploded. It has taken on a life of its own. One of our biggest joys has been moving from my living room to a storage unit. Then, there were multiple storage units. Now, we're getting warehouse space and our own standalone building. It just keeps growing. Last year, we distributed over  $400,000 in items: brand new books, school supplies and the like.  We expect to surpass that value by the end of the second quarter of this year.

Q: How did the Dictionary Project collaboration come about?

A: This is not just about breaking the cycle of poverty; it's about breaking all the cycles that are out there facing kids. OKE is also about providing all kids with the tools succeed in school…and life.  We started working with the female bloggers because they're passionate about education, too. We've done all of Ferndale and Clawson. Now, we're trying to raise the rest of the money for Hazel Park. … One principal told me she's so amazed at how much her kids love the dictionaries. When they got them, she said they were outside on recess sitting down to read the dictionaries, sharing words with each other.

Q: So does this leave you with any time for a social life?

A: Social life?! What's that?!  I work my day job as a nonprofit chief financial officer at a national nonprofit, then I work on Operation: Kid Equip.  It's been seven days straight for the last four years. And I've never gotten tired of it. I could keep going and going and going. It's my passion in life and I just love it. I wake up in the morning and think about how can I carry this organization forward one more day and find something new.  More importantly, I see every action we take as yet another step in creating the future of our community.

Feeling the warm fuzzy? If so, get out your pocketbook. There's two big ways to help right now. First, Operation: Kid Equip is trying to raise money to get a semi-truck full of school supplies donated. If they can raise the funds for delivery, the truck will arrive. The web site has a widget on it that let you donate toward OKE's $1,260 goal. After this truck arrives, Kniespeck is also negotiating for another semi truck full of school and classroom supplies.

Also, you could support the female bloggers' project by not only donating to that cause, but attending their “Word Up! Trash Talking for Kids” event. They will meet to do verbal battle (in vintage 70s athletic gear, I hear) from 9-11 p.m. Saturday at the Birmingham Racquet Club. Tickets are $10 at the door but you can give much, much more than that! Scheduled participants are Erin Rose (Positive Detroit), Nikki Stephan (Essential Elements), Becks Davis (Detroit Moxie), Lauren Weber (Staircase to Earth's Loveliness) or Jennifer Wright (Looking Glass Lane).

I threw in my two cents. How about you?

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