FINALIST: Kalamazoo, MI

"Unbelievably great"

Named a Finalist Because: For the people of Kalamazoo, investing in each other is the top priority, especially when it comes to the next generation.

From the Editors: Emily Olivares, 24, just graduated from Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo with exactly zero college debt. How did she manage that, when the average grad shoulders nearly $40,000 in loans? The same way many other high school graduates in town do: thanks to The Kalamazoo Promise.

The Kalamazoo Promise is a nonprofit supported by a group of anonymous donors who offer a simple proposition: If you go to public school in Kalamazoo and want to go to college, it’s paid for—as long as you keep your grades up.

For the past 12 years, the nonprofit has been paying tuition fees for students who graduate from Kalamazoo Public Schools and go on to get a degree at any of Michigan’s state-supported colleges or universities. To date, donors have awarded around $100 million to Kalamazoo grads, and this year they plan to give out some 600 scholarships totaling $15 million.

Generosity is part of the fabric of this city of 76,000. Locals tend to donate about $500 more than the national average to charities. The Kalamazoo Foundation for Excellence aims to raise half a billion dollars by 2019 to invest in the city’s future. A fund-raising and community-outreach group called Kalamazoo Strong was founded after the city suffered two terrible tragedies in the past two years: a mass shooting that left six dead and a car accident that killed five cyclists.

A grateful Olivares puts it simply: “There are a lot of people here who want to help each other. I’ve been to nice places, but there’s nothing like Kalamazoo. When I travel and tell people about the Kalamazoo Promise, they think it’s fake.”

— The Editors

Volunteers at the Friends of Kalamazoo Public Library. (Credit: Sherry Ramsford-Ramsdell)

The Kalamazoo Promise was started by the kindest people in the world. They had money to share, and so gave every child who attends and graduates from Kalamazoo Public Schools a free four-year college education. Then, as if they hadn’t done enough, they gave the city enough money to lower residents’ taxes by a third, and save for future projects. This is the city that hosted The Parade that Never Was in the 80s, which finally honored all those who had served in Vietnam and received national attention. The streets were packed, and I wasn’t the only one crying. When a driver plowed into bikers, killing five, just a few months after a gunmen let loose on our community, we became “Kalamazoo Strong.” Our citizens, who have always cared deeply for our city and each other, hit new heights of support for one another.

Stories About Kalamazoo

I moved here right after a tornado tore right through the middle of Kalamazoo, destroying homes, parks, department stores — everything — but only a few lost their lives when it could’ve been much worse. I have heard the stories of how everyone pitched in and helped, friends and strangers alike supplying food, chainsaws, shelter, and childcare. But here’s the thing about Kalamazoo which I have discovered after living here 35 years: this isn’t only reserved for times of disaster. People are always helping, and they so love their city that when I first moved here, I almost got tired of hearing about how great the schools, orchestra, Civic Theatre, and everything else were. Now I am one of those people telling everyone how great this town is.

It’s not the geography, architecture, or many craft breweries for which we are becoming known. It’s the people. People who run after you to give back your keys when you’ve dropped them without realizing. People who get silly in our Do-Dah Parade each June. People who shovel each others’ walks. People who volunteer in so many ways that they just become kinder and kinder. When I had my third child just months after arriving in Kalamazoo, a stranger to the area with no family handy, I mentioned to someone from patient transport how hungry I would be by the time the baby came and how the kitchen was closed when my second came in Pittsburgh. They pitched in and brought me a pizza in recovery. It was the best pizza I will ever eat because these strangers cared. Our pride in Kalamazoo pushes us connect with everyone around us — people really talk with strangers. All the time. So it’s hard to stay a stranger in Kalamazoo.