One morning early this school year, when Justin Stermin was dropping his kindergartner daughter, Waverly, off to Mulick Park Elementary, he noticed some students picking on each other and rough-housing as they stood in line waiting to go inside. He admonished the kids to treat each other better, and promptly told Principal Thomas Standifer his concern about what he’d seen.
Standifer stationed a staff member outside the following day, which Stermin appreciated. But he wanted to do more. He approached be nice., an anti-bullying and suicide-prevention program of the Mental Health Foundation of West Michigan, about getting the program into Mulick Park. They were receptive but said the curriculum cost $2,500.
Powered by Parents is a series highlighting the parents, grandparents and other family members who give their time in schools to help students and teachers do their best.
Stermin didn’t have that much change to spare, but he did have something else to offer: his skills as a chef. He donated catering to a be nice.-sponsored poetry slam at the Grand Rapids Ballet. In exchange, the program donated its curriculum to the school.
Impressed with his new parent’s initiative, Standifer invited Stermin to join Mulick’s parent-teacher council. He did, along with his wife, Heather. Since then they have been active in the school, Standifer says, “helping us plan family events, programs, and discussions on the direction of Mulick Park for our students.”
“You make your community by putting into your community,” says Stermin, 28. “We just see the value of volunteering, and giving these resources to the school that maybe they can’t afford or don’t know of.”
Teaching Healthy Eating and Job Skills
He also sees value in helping children overcome barriers at a young age. He is cofounder and co-director of Kitchen Sage, a workforce development program serving students ages 18 to 24.
It offers an eight-week course on food safety, first aid and marketable skills, and sets up 90-day paid internships with community partners to help get young adults jobs in the food and restaurant industry. Based on Grand Rapids’ West Side, it also prepares lunches for about 1,500 students at seven preschools of the Early Learning Neighborhood Collaborative.
Stermin is well-qualified for the role, having been a chef at several local restaurants, as a board member of the American Culinary Federation and advisory board member of the Culinary Institute of Michigan. He has taught classes for low-income parents through Steepletown Neighborhood Services, helping them prepare nutritious, economical meals with crockpots.
He sees firsthand what barriers many young people have had to overcome to be successful adults. He wants to help the children of Mulick Park – and GRPS more broadly — get on the right path, whether through donating a kindness program or teaching them good diet.
“Nutrition is so huge in not only a child’s development, but their attitude,” Stermin says. “I would love to be part of a team, getting them more education on healthy eating,”
For now, he and Heather are doing what they can to help Waverly and her classmates do well, and treat each other nicely.