by Kaye Bennett
Matt Lager ’92 - director of Kalamazoo Neighborhood Housing Services, Inc. (KNHS) - sees just one difference between himself and the clients he serves: opportunity. To address that difference, he’s helped start a new program called Humanities for Everybody, a series of college-level courses in the humanities, taught by experienced Western Michigan University (WMU) professors, and offered to low-and moderate-income residents of the Kalamazoo area. Lager sees this as a way to share his love of ideas and art, a love nourished during his years at Kalamazoo College, with people who otherwise would not have that opportunity.
Lager’s own story has ranged far, both conceptually and geographically. A native of southwest Michigan, he was drawn to K after graduating from Portage Central High School because of its liberal arts curriculum (“I liked the ‘liberal’ part,” he laughs) and by its setting.
His major at K was art and he spent a lot of time in the campus studio. He studied Chinese at first, but when the Tiananmen Square protests occurred that same year, he decided against studying abroad in such a volatile political climate. Instead, he spent time in Ecuador, doing a series of drawings which he turned into paintings for his Senior Individualized Project (SIP).
When Lager graduated, his wife Gail was completing her senior year at WMU, where she was majoring in education. The two knew they wanted to live abroad and decided they would go to wherever one of them got a job first. That turned out to be Gail, who was hired to teach English in Kalamazoo’s sister city Numazu, Japan. While they were in Japan, Lager taught English to Japanese nurses, all of whom were required to learn the language.
After a year in Japan, the Lagers returned to Michigan, where they lived and worked in Ann Arbor. Lager had decided to enroll in an MFA program, but instead saw a sign on the University of Michigan campus, advertising a Kaplan study program for the LSAT test. It was the mid-90s. He’d never heard of Kaplan, didn’t know what the LSATs were, and had just gotten his first computer that year.
So he used that computer to look up “Kaplan” and “LSAT” and decided that an MFA program “sounded a lot scarier than law school.”
Lager enrolled in law school at Wayne State, and he found he enjoyed it. After graduation, he was hired by the Detroit office of Miller Canfield, one of the biggest law firms in Michigan. Two years later, having had their first child, the Lagers moved back to Kalamazoo, where Lager worked at Miller Canfield’s Kalamazoo office, then eventually moved on to a smaller firm.
Much of his legal work through those years involved corporate litigation, representing trustees in bankruptcy actions. Through that work, he’d learned about lending and how to put deals together, Lager says. That experience, plus several years as a board member of KNHS, made for a logical career move when the position of KNHS deputy director opened up in 2008. By 2012, Lager was director of the organization.
Started 31 years ago, KNHS is a not-for-profit organization that provides home ownership and personal financial education resources for Kalamazoo County. KNHS’s mission, says Lager, is affordable housing. The 20-member staff accomplishes this on two fronts:
The people side: KNHS offers educational and counseling programs to low-to moderate-income residents of the core neighborhoods in Kalamazoo, many of them what Lager calls generational renters, that is, people whose families have never owned homes. The focus in all these programs, says Lager, is to make people mortgage-ready by helping them to determine what their goals are and to figure out how to achieve those goals.
KNHS tries to make the banking process, including mortgages and refinancing, less intimidating for first-time home owners. It also assists current low-income home owners who need loans to make their houses sustainable and healthy.
The property side: KNHS is also in the residential and commercial real estate development business, says Lager. On the residential side, the group acquires about 10 houses a year, rehabs them, then leases them to selected families with an option to purchase. Commercially, one of the best examples of KNHS’s efforts is the corner where its own offices are, Vine and Westnedge. Ten or 15 years ago, recalls Lager, the complex was mostly empty, except for a barber shop. Today, the buildings house not only KNHS, but also Open Doors, the Bagel Beanery, Community Advocates, Community Homeworks, and Vine Neighborhood Association. Such commercial investment, says Lager, is an important part of neighborhood revitalization. KNHS also owns an apartment complex on the east side and multiple rental units.
It was about a year
"We're all constrained by our experiences."ago, while he was talking with one of his commercial neighbors, Rick Stravers, Executive Director of Open Doors, that the idea for Humanities for Everybody was born. Open Doors is a not-for-profit that provides mentoring and temporary housing for people emerging from homelessness, and affordable long-term apartments and counseling for low-wage workers (see story in this issue on Mike DeWaele ’97).
Their overlapping experiences with low-income clients had convinced both Lager and Stravers that there were no fundamental differences between themselves and the people they serve. “The raw intelligence is the same,” says Lager. “It’s the socio-economic status that is different. We’re all constrained by our experiences, both positively and negatively.”
So Lager and Stravers conceived a plan to help them share some of their own educational experiences.
Humanities for Everybody was introduced in winter 2012. Its first year comprised three five-week modules: “The Literature of Jane Austin,” taught by Dr. Thomas Bailey; “The Philosophical Foundations of Education,” taught by Dr. Dini Metro-Roland; and “The African Experience in the Americas from the Beginnings to the Civil War,” taught by Dr. Mariam Konate Deme. Classes met twice a week and included reading, writing, discussion, and critical thinking. Eleven students, most of them homeless or formerly homeless, graduated from the inaugural program, which was enthusiastically received by students and professors alike. Year two of the program started this fall, expanded to include five modules.
“It was never my goal to stay in Kalamazoo,” says Matt Lager. “But this community has many things for my family and for me.” The Lagers have two daughters, ages 13 and 10.
Lager says that another plus to living in Kalamazoo is interacting with other K alums who are involved in the community. “I think it’s exciting that we have a group of K grads who are in similar lines of business. We have a lot of shared values.”
Through his work at KNHS and his brainchild, Humanities for Everybody, Lager is trying to ensure that those K values can be shared by an even larger and more diverse community.
Photo - Matt Lager outside the KNHS office.