One day in early May I left Sojourners Neighborhood Center for about an hour to run to the post office and the bank. When I returned to my office, Keisha was there waiting for me. “Are you going to be hiring classroom aides in the Freedom School this summer? Can I apply?”
Keisha, 15, began participating in the center’s children’s program when she was 8 years old. Last year she worked here in her first summer job, serving as a classroom aide for the Nkym-Nkym sisters (8- to 10-year-old girls). During the Freedom School summer program, Keisha learned how to lead the group in reading exercises, how to resolve conflicts that arose, and how to be a good role model for her younger sisters, even when they tested her to her limit.
Next was a phone message from Michelle: “Be sure to save me a place in Freedom School. Last summer was great!” Michelle, now a 20-year-old college student, lives just a few doors down the street. She also began participating in our children’s program at age 8. Last summer she worked as a Servant Leader Intern (primary group leader) for the Ngomas, our 5- to 7-year-old boys and girls.
Since then, I have been stopped on the stairs and on the street by other young people who want to work and are willing to learn how to be good workers. In Columbia Heights, our neighborhood of Washington, D.C., almost all of the families with children live below the poverty level, more than half of our children still do not graduate from high school, and 40 percent of our young adults are unemployed.
Street violence is at an all-time high. Between January 1 and April 1 of this year, there were more than 150 street robberies on just the few blocks surrounding our center. Despite these statistics, most of the young people who live here want to graduate from high school and they want to work. What they need to “make it” is opportunity—access to academic support and training for employment.
Our summer Freedom School provides both. Fifty elementary and middle school students will come daily for reading support, computer training, conflict resolution, and community service. For the second year in a row, we will be participating in the national Freedom School curriculum designed by the Children’s Defense Fund/Black Student Leadership Network.
Six college students will be trained at the Ella Baker Training Institute in Tennessee and will work as group leaders. Six high school students will be trained to work as classroom aides in the program. Parents will volunteer time in all areas of the Freedom School. Other community members will provide food and volunteer technical and professional assistance.
This outpouring of support affirms the importance and impact of our efforts, not only to those who participate, but to the greater community. Together, we can provide opportunities for our young children and our young adults to find their place in our society and lead us into a healthy future. We are looking forward to a great summer of learning and serving for everyone involved.
BARBARA TAMIALIS is a founder of Sojourners Neighborhood Center and currently works as its executive director. Your partnership in the Freedom School program of Sojourners Neighborhood Center would be greatly appreciated, as it costs $600 per child for this eight- week program. Gifts to help support the summer Freedom School can be sent to Sojourners Neighborhood Center, 1323 Girard St. NW, Washington, DC 20009.