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2015 Inspire Event hosted by The Learning Network


KALAMAZOO, MI – What would happen if everyone’s talents were nurtured and doing “work” meant fulfilling a life purpose? These were the big questions posed to over 1,000 educators from Kalamazoo County by speakers at the 2015 Inspire conference sponsored by The Learning Network of Greater Kalamazoo Wednesday at Miller Auditorium.

Educators, administrators and support staff from all nine public school districts in Kalamazoo County, from pre-kindergarten programs, from Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo Valley Community College and other counties in the region participated in the event, which was offered as a token gesture of appreciation by The Learning Network and its lead funder, The Kalamazoo Community Foundation.

“Whether you’re a teacher who works individually with our students, or you’re part of the administrative backbone of our schools… whether you’re a coach or a volunteer or one of the people who keeps the school clean and safe, the walks shoveled in the winter and the lights working … there is an entire network of community that recognizes your work,” said Amy Slancik, director of The Learning Network. “We appreciate what you do. Today is one small token of our gratitude.”

Guest speakers shared stories and insights around a theme of purpose, paying goodwill forward and the enduring legacy of teachers on individuals and our collective community.

First, Know Your Strengths

Speaker Nancy Stefanick, human resources manager for Stryker Instruments, told participants to “Begin with your natural talents and do work you love.” It was a theme that ran throughout the conference with each presenter sharing real-world, personal examples of the transformative power of this simple philosophy.

To give conference participants a path forward, Stefanick explained the concepts and practices of talent-based teaching from the writing of Rosanne Liesveld and Jo Ann Miller in their book, Teach with your Strengths. Liesveld and Miller’s work comes from strengths-based practices pioneered by Donald O. Clifton through his work with the Gallup Organization. The book focuses on the unique challenges and opportunities within education. Conference attendees received a copy of the book and the first 500 to register received access to an online assessment to help them identify their strengths and talents.

“When we live our talents we can change the world,” Stefanick said. “We change the world through strengths by giving them a name and being proud of who we were born to be.”

Do What you Love and Change will Follow

Speaker Amy Kaherl’s success as founder of Detroit SOUP personifies Stefanick’s advice. Kaherl’s work combines her love for theology and pop culture. An ordained minister, she chose not to pursue a life path from the pulpit but instead found ways to transform her Detroit community, beginning in her own neighborhood. Detroit Soup brings people together over a meal to fund micro-grants for neighborhood projects, often using rehabbed spaces.

“Raw space engages people with raw ideas,” Kaherl said. “We created an environment where people of all walks of life are welcomed, empowered, loved and connected.”

The program has gained international accolades. Detroit SOUP’s success, BBC News, says, “is helping the city get back on its feet.”

Pay it Forward

“On the road to purpose it’s pretty simple,” said advertising executive Roy Spence, who delivered the keynote address. “Someone helps you, you help somebody else.”

Paying it forward, Spence said, is what teaching is all about. Now founder and CEO of The Purpose Institute, Spence spoke of his mother, a teacher for 37 years in rural Texas, who instilled a deep love and respect for teachers and encouraged him to pursue his own career passions.

“My mother told me, when I was 14 years old, ‘I don’t want you to spend a second of your life trying to be average at what you’re good at,’” Spence shared. “’I want you to spend the rest of your life trying to be great at what you’re good at.’ We need to stop asking kids what they want to do. We need to ask them what they love to do.”

The Inspire event, the second of its kind, is now regarded as the largest voluntary gathering of educators in the State of Michigan.  Many teachers received continuing education credits for attending.

“Our schools are filled with people drawn to education because of their passion for children and their love of learning,” Slancik said after the conference. “And these folks are at the heart of the network we’re building to sustain students from cradle to career in Kalamazoo County. We hope today’s event will inspire everyone who was able to join us, and that their enthusiasm will spark continued forward momentum for us all.”

Other highlights of the event included the announcement of The Learning Network’s Inspired Learning Grant series, which has been expanded from last year. Community submissions are due Sept. 18. Full grant rules and regulations are provided at

Carrie Pickett-Erway, President and CEO of the Kalamazoo Community Foundation, and chair of The Learning Network’s Leadership Council provided opening remarks, including background on The Learning Network as an initiative of leaders from several Kalamazoo County institutions. It is now housed at and supported by the Foundation. Emcees for the event were Amie McCaw, principal of Sunset Elementary School in Vicksburg, and Von Washington Jr., Executive Director of community relations for the Kalamazoo Promise and a member of The Learning Network’s Leadership Council. Tim Terrentine, Executive Vice President for Southwest Michigan First and a member of The Learning Network’s Leadership Council assisted with on-stage event hosting.

Crawlspace Eviction provided an improv comedy break. DJ Chuck provided music. Door prizes were provided by Kalamazoo Valley Community College, the Air Zoo and Mophie.

The Learning Network, in partnership with its anchor entity, the Kalamazoo Community Foundation, sponsored the half-day event. Stryker and Consumers Credit Union provided additional sponsorship. The event was organized by Southwest Michigan First and based on their successful Catalyst Leadership Series.