This Small City Made a Huge Promise That’s Keeping Hope Alive

“I’ve been to nice places, but there’s nothing like Kalamazoo.”

Courtesy Kalamazoo Public Schools

Editor’s Note: Kalamazoo, Michigan, was selected as one of Reader’s Digest’s Nicest Places in America. Meet the winner, find out how the finalists were selected, and hear from our chief judge, Robin Roberts.

With student loan debt in America reaching a whopping $1.5 trillion in 2018, politicians across the political spectrum and the country are fighting over how much college should cost and who should pay for it. The one special place where that’s not an issue: Kalamazoo, Michigan.

If you go to public school in Kalamazoo and want to go to college, it’s paid for, no questions asked. It’s called the Kalamazoo Promise, and it’s how a group of anonymous donors are teaching the youngest residents of this Michigan city of 76,000 that an important part of kindness is caring about (and investing in) the future.

For the past 12 years, the non-profit has been paying up to 100 percent of tuition fees for students that graduate from Kalamazoo Public Schools and go on to get a degree at any of Michigan’s state colleges or universities. It started in 2006 as a pledge from anonymous donors and, to date, they have awarded around $100 million to kids from Kalamazoo. This year, the non-profit estimates that it will give out over 600 scholarships totaling $15 million.

School in KalamazooShutterstock/Susan Montgomery

“When I tell people about the Kalamazoo Promise, they think it’s fake,” says Emily Olivares, 24, who attended Western Michigan University and graduated without a penny of debt—as did her sister. “The Promise probably saved me 500 hours of overtime,” jokes their father, Joseph Olivares, who works in a factory.

Kalamazoo isn’t just charitable when it comes to scholarships; locals love to give. In 2012, folks in Kalamazoo County donated about $1,500 per person to charities and non-profits, about $500 more than the national average—and they’re not done yet. Launched just last year, the Kalamazoo Foundation for Excellence aims to raise half-a-billion dollars by 2019 to invest in the city’s future.

Perhaps it’s this charitable spirit that is keeping Kalamazoo vibrant at a time when other cities in the upper midwest are hollowing out. But in Kalamazoo, folks are flocking to get their kids into the public schools, and kids who benefited from the Promise are opting to move home after school. In other words, residents aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.

“Before the Promise, it was hard to sell a house in Kalamazoo,” said Dr. Janice Brown, who was the superintendent of Kalamazoo schools when the Promise was conceived. “Unlike in the suburbs, when people listed houses, there was no mention of the school district. Now, it’s a prominent selling point, and it’s hard to even buy a house in Kalamazoo.”

But it’s not just in times of peace that the Kalamazoo’s kindness and generosity take center stage. The city has suffered two terrible tragedies in the past two years—a mass shooting that left six dead and a car accident that killed five cyclists. In response, the people of the community formed Kalamazoo Strong. Within days, money poured in for victims and their families. Nonprofits formed to organize the support efforts. With names such as Kalamazoo Strong and ForeverStrong, they embodied residents’ focus on keeping the tragedy from defining or dividing their city.

“We want it all to be about how we go forward,” says Laurie Smith, who leads ForeverStrong.

And forward is exactly where Kalamazoo is going. Thanks to their unparalleled investment in their students’ future, Kalamazoo has only the best ahead of them. And the next time a local needs to feel the love and support of their community in the hardest of times, Kalamazoo Strong will be there.

And, thanks to the Kalamazoo Promise, the next generation will be there, too.

Just ask Emily. “I’ve been to nice places,” Emily says, “but there’s nothing like Kalamazoo.”

She really means it. When Emily graduated with her degree in travel and tourism, she received two job offers: one in K-Zoo, as the locals fondly call it, and one in China. Guess which one she chose?

“I chose here,” says Emily. “I want to be here to help build the next generation of my family.”

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