Today’s guest post is by Jo Lord. Jo is a Northminster member and a talented writer who has been serving in our tutoring ministry this school year.
Northminster’s tutoring ministry combines education with empowerment
They say it takes a village to raise a child. Perhaps, then, it takes a neighborhood to give them a safe haven.
That was Rhonda Wells’ goal when she helped create the Northminster tutoring ministry in 2008. “The idea was to reach out to children in the neighborhood,” she says. “We wanted to give them a place where they could focus on their academics that was also a safe haven where we could love and care for them.”
For Rhonda, the tutoring ministry is about creating a safe environment. For Cassie Matthew, co-creator of the program, it’s about relationships. “It’s a chance for us to put our handprint on their lives,” she says. “It’s an opportunity to let them know they’re worthy of our love and attention.”
For Mary Beth El-Shafie, who’s on the leadership team, it’s about the profound difference an education can make in giving them options. Eureka Pendleton, also on the team, is motivated by the idea of intervention and encouraging academic success early in their lives.
Giving the children a supportive adult presence
The ministry began with 16 children. Since then it’s nearly doubled to 30, kindergartners to middle schoolers. The tutors working with them come from all walks of life. There’s a molecular biologist from MCV. An accountant. A writer. A banker. There are also retirees, Northminster members, members of other churches, VCU students and high school students.
I am a member of this eclectic group. We arrive at Northminster on Wednesday nights in time for the kids to eat dinner served by Rhonda’s coworkers at Sun Trust Bank. Later, we break into one-on-one tutoring sessions, in most cases with the same kids with whom we were first paired back in September. We usually end with story time, followed by joining hands for a prayer charmingly offered by one of the children.
Empowering them to choose a different path
Some of the kids in the ministry have what would generally be called a “normal” life. Many don’t. I remember an email that Cassie sent to this year’s tutors early in the school year. “Keep in mind that these kids come from far different circumstances than we do,” she told us. “They will be late,” she said. “They will have less manners than we do.”
Not so bad, right? It got worse.
She went on to write that many of them are beaten into behaving, cursed at regularly, threatened, and belittled at home and in school. Many have inattentive parents, absentee parents, irregular routines. One sixth grader in the program has moved so often that she can’t recite her current address.
I look at these kids – bright-eyed, well dressed, full of life – and I find it all hard to believe. And yet I know it’s true.
Many of them have young mothers overwhelmed with the task of parenting. They are part of a vicious cycle of poverty and violence. As Rhonda says, their children tend to walk in the same footprint unless they’re shown a different path.
Part of our job as tutors is to help them see that new path. We’ve been asked to listen. Encourage. Provide support with firm boundaries. Be there. Has it made a difference for the child I’ve been working with? I honestly don’t know. She’s hard to read. What I do know is that she’s wise beyond her years. She’s funny. And she has dreams. When I talk about how I love my work, and how doing well in school made it possible for me to create the life I wanted, I can only hope she’s listening.