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Giving ‘Til It Helps: Tough Upbringing Inspires a Life Devoted to Serving Children, Families

John Matias was late for our interview, but something told me to hang in there. I’m glad I did.

“I’m sorry, I apologize,” he said, after breaking through the door of Wealthy Street Bakery, where I sat with a cold cup of coffee. “I was trying to find some boots for one of our kindergarteners.”

And maybe that’s all you need to know about John Matias. That he is a giver. And that grownups must sometimes wait, especially when it comes to protecting a little boy’s cold, wet feet in winter.

To know more, though, is to become enthralled with the many hats Matias wears, and how well he juggles the responsibilities attached.

Father. Husband. Counselor. Ordained minister. Survivor of a tough Chicago neighborhood. First and only one of 16 kids in his family to earn a post-secondary degree. Automotive fix-it guy. And most recently, a member of the Grand Rapids Board of Education.

But what drives him even more than the autos he’s able to repair and maintain are children – yours, his, ours – especially those enrolled in public schools.

“There is a lot of shame,” he says, pinpointing one of the causes contributing to lackluster results in some buildings. “And you often see them wearing that shame. But when you build a relationship with those students and their families, it’s a step toward removing barriers.”

Matias, 56, spends the bulk of most weekdays at Burton Elementary and Middle Schools, working as a Community School Coordinator for Kent School Services Network (KSSN), a widespread helping hand of Kent ISD, Kent County and other partners.

It’s a huge responsibility, marrying goods and services to children in need – more than 560 at Burton’s elementary school, and 530 more in the junior high.John Matias connects with a student at a school board meeting

Drugs. Alcoholism. Fighting. Neglect and abuse. Family dynamics. Too little money. Too much idle time. It gathers like storm clouds inside some homes, tearing up people who set out to love one another, who allowed or were forced to endure elements of destruction seeping into their lives.

Matias sees it all from varying perspectives. By day, he works the trenches, rubbing shoulders with kids seeking anything from mittens to food to mental health therapy.

On Sundays, he might serve as a guest preacher, embracing children from a Biblical point of view.

But he also sees the educational landscape from what some might arguably call an embattled ivory tower – the Board of Education, whose members often grapple with both policy and people.

It’s a role he eventually accepted with deep reservations, throwing his hat into the ring following the resignation of a standing member. “I talked to my wife and I said ‘What do you think?’ and she said ‘I think you would make a really good member because you bring people to the table.'”

He was chosen, and as one of his very first actions as a novice, gritted his teeth and voted yes to ratify a plan to lay off 100-plus educators, some of them his friends. He had not been part of the process, just the gut-wrenching vote.

In a word? “Painful.” But from a larger perspective, something else as well: “A privilege to serve.”

For a while, though, Matias mistakenly believed his term ended at the close of 2014. Not so; it runs through 2016. He smiles. “I guess that was in the fine print.”

Not that he’s a quitter.

He discovered as much long ago, while a youngster growing up in a challenging Chicago west side neighborhood where Puerto Ricans like himself fought turf wars with blacks, Polish, Ukrainians and others. Gangs strutted their stuff as members of the Latin Kings, Young Lords, Pulaski Venture Playboys, Harrison Gents.

Though there was a park near the Matias household, you didn’t play in it unless you had a “look-out” in force who watched for other kids moving in on your fun. “Or,” as was the case most the time, “you just didn’t go,” and instead played kickball in the open streets.

Eventually, young John and others in his chaotic Humboldt Park neighborhood were rescued by a young white couple who moved in around the corner with the express desire of providing opportunities to disenfranchised kids.

Randy and Sue Baker were students at Wheaton College back in the 1960s, and chose to turn their home into a haven they dubbed the “Christian Youth Center.”

The deal was this: You study hard and keep your nose clean, and the run of the house is yours – the bumper pool table in the basement, the hoops out back, and all the friends you want to make.

John embraced the terms, and to this day, maintains close ties to the Bakers, who more than 40 years later now live in Philadelphia.

“Early on, I saw in John his development as a leader,” says Randy Baker, now 70. “I’ve always thought of him as being a humble man, a man who would do well to serve others, and very invested in what God wanted him to do.”

John Matias loads up supplies and food that will be distributed to students who need themThe 15th of 16 children born to working-class parents who emigrated here from Puerto Rico, Matias pocketed lessons learned from the Bakers and vowed to give back.

He graduated from Roberto Clemente High School with dreams of becoming a counselor. But even with a 3.3 GPA, he found himself at a disadvantage, forced to enroll in remedial classes for everything during his first year of college. “That,” he remembers, “was devastating, to realize that my high school had not properly prepared me for the rigors of college.”

An aptitude test hinted he should become a mechanic, so he earned a two-year degree in automotive technology, acquiring skills he still uses today. Later, he snagged a bachelor of arts degree from Calvin College and a master’s in counseling education from Western Michigan University.

But he continued to thirst for more, and spent six years in pursuit of a degree from Calvin Theological Seminary, from which he graduated in 1991.

By now, he and wife Sarah, a social worker, were starting a family. Their children include Sophia, 23, Gabriella, 21, Isabella, 17, and John, 16. The oldest is a proud member of the Army National Guard. Gabriella has her eyes on a career in marine biology. Isabella is a senior, and John a junior, at Grand Rapids City High.

Before their father accepted his role as a GRPS board member, he hired on at Arbor Circle as one of more than 170 professionals who serve more than 12,500 annually with three dozen programs dedicated to mental health, substance use, family development and more. Sarah works there as well.

It’s through Arbor Circle that Matias is enrolled at Burton with the KSSN. Many there know him as “The Lunch Man” for his role in coordinating Kids’ Food Basket’s function at the school.

But Matias also intervenes to provide tutoring and counseling – plus an array of goods and services available from the dozens of businesses and agencies that partner with KSSN to lift up the Kent County’s children at risk. The fact he speaks fluent Spanish is a boon; most of Burton’s kids are Hispanic.

“I figure out what their real needs are,” says Matias. “I’m there to serve.”

Same goes for his post on the school board.

“I’m not a ‘yes’ man,” he says, and his fellow board members and district educators know it. He’s regarded instead as pensive, and given to doing personal research before weighing in, especially if some faction is going to suffer.

While cheerleading the public schools, he insists they have work to do, and though it will be tough in the midst of closings and consolidations, itwill happen.

He feels that some students graduating from GR high schools are – as he was nearly 40 years ago – ill-equipped to handle college. And he thinks we have to better dignify students who eschew four-year degrees and opt instead for trade schools, tech centers and community colleges.

He believes partnerships and mentorships are part of the formula, and points to daughter Gabriella as an example, who as a high school student at City, crafted a summer internship tagging turtles and feeding parrots in Puerto Rico. “You talk about an eye-opener,” Matias says.

Matias believes that success begins with how well you build relationships, and that’s an integral part of the formula for both KSSN and the GR schools where he serves as board member.John Matias keeps this plague in front of him at school board meetings

In his role with the KISD, “I provide a go-between in reducing barriers between kids and teachers, between teachers and parents.”

That doesn’t mean it’s a perfect system. “We’re struggling in certain areas,” says Matias, and he points to deficiencies in science. But with more and more mentors, and streamlining of services, he’s confident students will gain ground in those subjects as well.

Again, he stresses, it’s all about connections, taking a personal interest in whatever conflict might stand in the way of resolution: “When we get a referral, or when someone comes to our attention, our questions are, ‘What’s going on with that particular child, and what’s going on in the family, and how is that affecting things?’ Once we know that, then we have to figure out how to seamlessly connect so that that child can achieve.”

As a new board member for GRPS, he’s hesitant to detail what it needs to do or change. But he can attest first-hand what it feels like to fail, and he hearkens back to the day when he discovered that his high school GPA had been artificially enhanced, delaying his entry into college.

What he learned from that episode  — and wants to instill as a board member — is that every kid deserves a chance, and that it’s the responsibility of GR Schools to provide those opportunities.

His pathway toward becoming a school board member actually began several years ago, when Matias was invited to be part of a group exploring the dropout rate of Hispanic students in area schools. He already was employed at Arbor Circle, counseling at-risk kids, learning first-hand how a lack of mentoring and relationships was contributing to mental health and other issues.

His impact with that initiative drew the attention of other area educators, who urged him to run for the board when Bernard Taylor was superintendent, but Matias didn’t feel ready. Aligning himself with KSSN since has helped to bolster his self-confidence, though, and when he was approached most recently, he acquiesced.

“The moment it crystallized for me,” he recalls, “was one day at a PTO meeting at Burton, with my KSSN hat on, and some parents had been told their child was doing fine, but at report card time received a ‘D.’ Even though the parents did not speak English, they knew John Matias-Father. Husband. Counselor. Ordained minister. Automotive fix-it guy. And most recently, a member of the Grand Rapids Board of Education.what an ‘A’ was and what a ‘D’ was, and they were furious. They said they’d been checking up on their kid throughout (the year), and so there was a huge disconnect.”

Matias takes a long breath. “What the parents were really trying to say to the teacher was ‘Tell me how to help my student succeed.'”

It doesn’t seem that long ago, says Matias, when he doubted his ability to soar in any way, and so he marvels at his lot in life today. He credits a personality that is slow to anger.

“I professor once told me that I was a very different kind of person,” he recalls. “He said that anger can turn people off, but that I made him want to listen to me, to think about things.

“I guess if I had to define a strength, it would be seeking ways to come to consensus.

“My calling? Perhaps to build bridges.” Randy Baker would attest to that, having had the opportunity and the joy of watching Matias grow and give for the better part of four decades.

“His life,” he says, “is an exciting story.”

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Tom Rademacher
Tom Rademacher
Tom Rademacher was long-time reporter and columnist for The Grand Rapids Press, where he specialized in wringing the extraordinary from the seeming ordinary.


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