All posts by Sonya Bernard-Hollins

A Taste of Italy to help support study abroad

Invest in girls as they explore the possibilities of life through travel! Six area girls will serve as travel writers and earn 3 college credits as they visit Paris and Italy!

Enjoy the amazing sounds of Soprano Rhea Olivacce as she performs from the famous opera, Carmen!

Enjoy great food and entertainments, all for a good cause! Buy your tickets today:

3 Fun Ways to Help Girls Study Abroad!

6 girls in Europe + 3 study abroad college credits= Priceless Experience!

MICHIGAN-Invest in the futures of six Michigan girls who will take part in a study abroad journey of a lifetime as they visit Paris and Italy. This 10-day adventure as travel writers will conclude their final assignment toward three college credits as they learn of the culture, language, history, and geography of Europe. In collaboration with students from Kalamazoo Public Schools, and Portage Public Schools, the Merze Tate Explorers will take part in their second team travel abroad experience.

Some of the upcoming fundraising events that will help provide funding for the girls include:

#1- Passport and Paint Party: This event will allow individuals or groups to participate in an interactive portrait painting project they can take home. The event will be held from 11-2 (1-hour slots), on Saturday, April 29, at Galilee Baptist Church, 1216 N. Westnedge Ave. (in their Counting to One building across the street from the church).
Wet Paint and Palette art gallery, owned by Kimberly Thorpe, will instruct the fun art project as a great gift for Mother’s Day! Participate with Mom, or create a masterpiece to surprise her! Cost is $15 per person. Purchase tickets on our Paypal Fundraising button on our Home page! Those who purchase tickets will have their name on the reservation list at the door.
Participants will also have selfie station opportunities to pose with oversized passports and fun Paris and Italian-themed costumes. Cost is $15 per person. Purchase tickets on our Paypal Fundraising button on our Home page! Those who purchase tickets will have their name on the reservation list at the door.
#2- Motown the Musical Performance: Portions of the tickets purchased through our link for the May 11, 2017 show will go toward our organization! Those who purchase tickets will pick them up at Miller Auditorium’s Will Call window.
#3-Before the Motown show, take your family to Family Night at Old Country Buffet, 5520 W. Main St., in Kalamazoo, where proceeds from your ticket will go toward our organization. Remember, during Family Night, kids eat for $1.99! So, buy your adult ticket and take your kids out for a great meal that will benefit area students! Purchase tickets on our Paypal Fundraising button on our Home page!

In 2016, 25 Explorers traveled to Canada where they experienced one of the world’s great natural wonders, Niagara Falls. In addition to travel, the Explorers, in grades 4th-12th, are trained media specialists who capture their experiences through photography, videography, and writing, to create their annual Girls Can! Magazine and video presentations. These media projects are unveiled during their annual Girls Can! Unveiling Fundraising Banquet in August.

The Merze Tate Explorers was founded in 2008 by Sonya Bernard-Hollins. What began as a Saturday program has flourished into a one-of-a-kind career exploration through travel and media. Initial excursions were day trips to meet women in various careers at places such as Stryker Instruments, headquartered in Portage, Michigan, and hands-on experiences at Best Buy as Geek Squad members for a day. Each experience is coupled with lessons in journalism, geography, and career exploration.

Over the years, the program has grow to include a week-long residential Travel Writers Academy, where Explorers visit unique places, participate in once-in-a-lifetime experiences, and write about them for their annual Girls Can! Magazine, in collaboration with Season Press, and Community Voices magazine.

Hundreds of sponsors has provided everything from in-kind to financial contributions to allow experiences students will never forget. Sponsors also allow for financial assistance to be offered to girls who qualify for the program.

Contributions from $5 and above are welcome as we continue to provide an experience that will set the foundation for students’ education and career goals.

For more information, contact Sonya Bernard-Hollins at:

Explorers Get One-On-One with Hidden Figures Author

By Shi’Terriona Straham (second from left)

Thursday, January 24th, The Merze Tate Explorers traveled to the University of Michigan to meet and interviewed Margot Shetterly, the author of the breathtaking book, Hidden Figures.

ANN ARBOR (MICH.)-Hidden Figures is a true story of three African American women who worked at N.A.S.A and whom were very intelligent individuals. Until today, these women were “Hidden Figures” in history. These women worked at N.A.S.A during segregation and the time when women were not treated equally. The story focuses on the women and how humble they were during these times. We saw how strong they were in their personal and work lives, how they fought for what they believed was right, and how they stayed together as a powerful team throughout their journeys.

Hidden Figures is a story that everyone should become familiar with by seeing the  film or reading the book. The majority of the Explorers were more familiar with the movie than the book and they ask Mrs. Shetterly a few questions about how involved she was with the making of the movie and her favorite parts of the movie.

Mrs. Shetterly was a very kind lady and she was very open to answering any and all questions that were asked in the 20 minutes we had exclusively with her. She treated us as if we were a group that she was familiar with, and she kept a smile on her face during the entire interview. Although answering questions and smiling at us may seem like small things, they made a huge impact on me because she noticed us and she acknowledged the fact that we exist.

Meeting Mrs. Shetterly was a very memorable moment in my life. She spoke up about stories that she heard about (the women in her book) as a child and never  realized the significance of their roles in the space race. This implanted knowledge in my head about three wonderful women who I never even knew existed. The women in the story reminded me that there was a time where African Americans were not given the same privileges as the whites were and they were not always treated fairly. They made me realize that the opportunities that we as African American young women have today should be cherish and most definitely not be taken for granted.

Thank you Mrs. Shetterly, you have truly left a mark on my life and I hope to one day be like you and leave a mark on someone else’s life also.


Albion teen is an Explorer in a world-wide travel club

Header image: Shi’Terriona Straham of Albion (in sweatshirt that reads “Michigan”) poses with other Explorers on the Friends Good Will sailing ship in South Haven, MI. Program leader Sonya Bernard-Hollins is in the middle of the photo. (Courtesy photo)

Shi’Terriona Straham makes a presentation at the Albion District Library about her upcoming writers’ group trip abroad. (Photo by Michelle Mueller)


Contributing Writer

Copyright 2017, the Recorder

ALBION (MICH.)-Shi’Terriona Straham, 16, is a shining star, representing Albion youth at their best, much the way Jontaj Wallace (selected as a Build Albion Scholar, he is currently a freshman at Albion College) did while he, too, was a student at Marshall High School. Both are examples of local youth making Black history.

Straham, an eleventh-grader, is a busy young lady: she’s dual-enrolled at the district’s Eastern Calhoun Early College, is president of the Albion Junior Optimist International chapter; until recently served as vice-mayor of the Mayor’s Youth Council; a talented poet, she is a member of the Albion District Library’s Word Journey writers’ group; and was recently a co-recipient of the 2017 Substance Abuse Prevention Services’ Across Age Mentoring Program “Coretta Scott King Outstanding Youth Leadership Award.” She is also a member of Sisters Influencing Society (SIS), an Albion group founded and overseen by Joyce Spicer, and of ASCEND (Achievement, Self-Awareness, Communication, Engagement, Networking and Developmental Skills), a group that Alpha Kappa Alpha members from the Calhoun County area coordinates.

Today, Straham is filled with excitement anticipating a July European trip that she has been selected to be a part of: along with Bernard-Hollins and five other members of the Merze Tate Explorers, she will have the opportunity to visit Paris, Versailles, Rome, Venice, Florence, Pisa, and the Vatican this summer.

Sonya Bernard-Hollins, formerly a writer for the Battle Creek Enquirer and now a Kalamazoo resident, founded the Merze Tate Explorers in 2008 to “inspire young girls through travel and media.” Bernard-Hollins, a 1993 graduate of Western Michigan University, learned of Tate in the university’s archives while researching African American Firsts of Western Michigan Univ. for a story for the Kalamazoo Gazette, and became enamored.

She relates this information about Tate on her Merze Tate Explorers website: “Vernie Merze Tate was born on February 6, 1905 in Blanchard, Mich. The grandchild of the first Negro settlers in Mecosta County, Mich., she lived a country life, however, longed to see the world outside the pine trees and dirt roads which surrounded her. In 1927 the Blanchard, Mich. native graduated from Western State Teacher’s College (later Western Michigan University) with the school’s highest academic record at that time—all A’s and 3 B’s.

“Despite her stellar academic record, Colored teachers were not hired to teach secondary education. With the assistance of the college’s administration, she would go on to teach at Crispus Attucks High School in Indianapolis, Ind. The school, founded by the city’s Klu Klux Klan, was an effort to segregate races. Merze Tate, along with others, was hired by the school’s African American principal with the intent to teaching Colored students to excel beyond the founders’ intentions… As a history teacher at Crispus…from 1927-32, Merze Tate wanted her students to see the world they learned about. Her determination led to her founding the school Explorers which went to such places as Washington D.C., Niagara Falls, and Pennsylvania. One news article criticized her efforts of taking these students into the world, as they were not expected to be more than domestics. Merze Tate proved them wrong. All of the members of the club were honor roll students and many went on to college.”

Merze Tate ended up traveling the world twice: as an international reporter for the Afro American Newspaper in Baltimore, and, working as a photographer, filmmaker and researcher for the U.S. State Department, all while being a college professor and eventually a dean for Barber-Scotia College, Bennett College, Morgan State College, and Howard University where she worked from 1942-1977.

Bernard-Hollins , who has curated a traveling exhibit of the photos Tate took on her travels, says that although the amazing woman “died in 1996 at the age of 91, … her legacy lives on. She has left millions to institutes of higher learning who looked beyond her race and gender to provide her with a stellar education. Western Michigan University, Radcliffe College-Harvard University, and Howard University received everything from million-dollar contributions, to archival documents upon her death.”

Inspired by this ground-breaking African-American woman from history, Bernard-Hollins founded the Merze Tate Explorers in Kalamazoo, starting out with twelve girls interested in traveling around their community and world “to discover other women who have left an impact on the world.” The girls also learn communications skills in journalism and film, and even created a documentary of Merze Tate’s life as one of their projects. The documentary can be viewed at Bernard-Hollins estimates she’s had about 100 fourth through twelfth-grade racially-diverse girls in her club over the years.

At 16, Straham is one of the older girls, and, according to Bernard-Hollins, has played a key role in mentoring the younger ones during the three years she’s been in the group.

“Shi’Terriona is one of those girls who you meet, and know she’s going to be a winner,” says Bernard-Hollins. “I’ve been excited that she’s been so open and gone above and beyond in our Explorers program.”

For the past four years, the Merze Tate Explorers has held a summer Travel Writers Academy. During a week on the Kalamazoo College campus, the students not only experienced college life, but also travelled throughout the city, region, state, and internationally (a visit to Niagara Falls), to learn of various careers. “Through their travel writing adventures, they met amazing women who share their careers, how they got there, and what it takes to make in their industry,” Bernard-Hollins explains.

“We talk to them about what they do for a living and how we, as young women growing up, can have any career that we want to,” Straham recounts. “We make ‘reports’ on what we see and learned from organizations that we visit, take pictures, notes, video recordings and make articles about the different organizations in our ‘Merze Tate Explorers Magazine’.”

Straham, one of three children of Albion single mom Shymetha Wilson (who diligently gets her daughter to Kalamazoo for the group’s activities as she can), has a big challenge to be met before she can make the trip this summer: funding. She needs to raise $4,600 for her portion of the expenses.

“I have always wanted to visit France and I hope to gather enough money to attend this trip,” says Shi’Terriona, who became connected with Bernard-Hollins through her mentor, Harry Bonner, Sr.

Tax-deductible donations towards Straham’s trip abroad with her Merze Tate cohorts can be made by sending a check made out to “Merze Tate Explorers” (with Straham’s) name in the memo line to Merze Tate Explorers, 841 Gibson Street, Kalamazoo, MI 49001. Or, donors can contribute in Straham’s name through the website. Donations over $25 will receive a receipt letter for their tax records.

Explorers Serve During Ecumenical MLK Event in Kalamazoo

by Sonya Bernard-Hollins, Founder-Merze Tate Explorers

Explorers set up table to help serve the hundreds who attended the celebration.

KALAMAZOO (MICH.)- Nearly two dozen Explorers came out to serve the guest of the 31st Annual Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration on January 15 at Mt. Zion Baptist Church. More than 200 community leaders, public officials, and residents joined in the celebration that celebrated the Rev. Dr. King through song, community service award presentations, and keynote address. The event was hosted by the Northside Ministerial Alliance with the theme: The Transformative Power of a Unified Dream.

Layla helps serve as the other girls also take their positions in various volunteer roles at the event. Photos by Shemaiah Lawler

Explorers Sierra and Aliah Ward, and Kennedi Patterson, also were part of the MLK Youth Choir where Sierra was featured in a brief solo (see Sierra on the newslink above). In addition to the girl Explorers, the new chapter of boy Explorers (led by Daniel Patterson) were debuted in this joint-community service effort.

Angela Daniels and myself (right) share our view of King’s dream with the reporter from WWMT Channel 3 of Kalamazoo. -Photo by Sierra Ward.



The opportunity to serve the community, is one of the ways Explorers give back to the community. In addition, the service allows the girls to thank the many supporters who have contributed to the success of the organization over the past nine years.

Explorers pose with the new Explorer boys chapter led by Daniel Patterson.

Girls Seek Support from Ministers For Study Abroad Experience

KALAMAZOO (MICH.)- As six girls from Michigan plan to experience the culture and geography of Europe and earn three college credits, they have plenty of work to do. The cost of this all-inclusive educational experience  is $4,500 per student. While this price seems astronomical to the families of each student, the priceless experience is worth it.

The girls began 2017 on a mission to experience Europe debt free. Their first “ask” was to  nearly two dozen ministers of the Northside (Kalamazoo) Ministerial Alliance. Each presented a different aspect of the program, what they’ve learned, and what they hope to accomplish in their European study. Girls will visit such places as Paris, France, and Venice and Florence in Italy, in addition to hands-on experiences that they will remember for a lifetime.

For the first time, the Explorers will partner with Kalamazoo Public Schools for this experience headed by high school art teacher, Cindy VanLieu. VanLieu, who has traveled around the world through the program, will guide the nearly 25 participants from area schools and the Explorers, through the process. Weekend language and culture prep classes will be held in addition to group-wide fundraising efforts.

Through upcoming fundraising luncheons, garage sales, snack sales, and plenty of hard work, this will be the second European study abroad opportunity funded in part by the Merze Tate Explorers. The first in 2015, allowed Explorers Natasha and Claire the opportunity to study in France for 30 days. During this experience the Explorers participated in daily language courses, visited historic landmarks and museums, and experienced French cuisine.

Please help the girls as they prepare for a life-changing experience! Donate on our Paypal button above! Contact Sonya Hollins, executive director of the Merze Tate Explorers for more information at: 269-359-7895, or email: