Helping with homework is ‘doing justice’, appeared in The Georgia Bulletin, the newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta.
By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published Thursday, December 19, 2013
ATLANTA—The classroom walls are covered with reports on field trips to Clark Atlanta University, certificates celebrating students as “rockin’ readers,” and books line the shelves. The students file in, stuff their bags and jackets into the cubbyholes and take a seat as homework help begins. Today, it’s special: there’s a chocolate birthday cake.
This classroom is across the hall from rooms that make up My Sister’s House, a homeless shelter. The school bus drops the youngsters blocks away so other students don’t know they are headed to the homeless shelter. And it’s where Ginger Cashin has worked for eight years. She coordinates the program so youngsters who live in this shelter can make headway on their education.
Some may see it as simply math help. For Cashin, it is much more. It’s justice everyone is called to do, said Cashin, who works for Action Ministries and attends the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in downtown Atlanta. Charity is feeding the homeless families, said the social worker, but it is justice to help them get an education.
“The education is what is going to lead them out of poverty,” she said.
Charleston Watson, left, a seventh-grader at St. Jude the Apostle School, sits with a young boy as he reads a book. A group of students from the Sandy Springs Catholic school comes to My Sister’s House Shelter, Atlanta, once a month to assist the children with schoolwork.
The number of homeless students in U.S. public schools is at an all-time high, according to national data. Some 1.2 million homeless students enrolled in school in the 2011-12 academic year, from preschool all the way through high school. That’s up 24 percent from the 2009-10 school year, according to the National Center for Homeless Education, which is funded by the U.S. Department of Education. Georgia, in three years, has seen a 29 percent increase in homeless students, according to the federal report. The Georgia Department of Education reported 35,764 homeless students in 2012-13, the most recent year counted.
Two dozen students fill this classroom, and they attend a handful of Atlanta public schools. Parents appreciate the program for giving students extra school help, while mothers attend classes and find stability at the 264-bed facility, on the west side of the city.
Dearria Warbington, a resident for two months, came here to get away from a bad relationship in Gwinnett County. She is 26.
“I can say I love it. My kids love it more,” she said about the classroom help.
The afterschool program has given her three children “an enthusiasm for learning,” she said. The field trips keep them engaged and excited, she said.
Latoya Smith, 31, moved here in July from Florida. She recently earned a certificate in word processing, she said, and hopes it helps to land her a job. Her son is benefiting from the program.
“He gets all his homework done. He doesn’t miss out,” said the mother of three.
She moved from Florida to “pursue my dreams,” and the shelter gives her and her family a chance to do better, she said.
These youngsters face classroom challenges, in addition to their living situation. The federal report found nearly half of students who are homeless do not meet proficiency standards in reading, math and science. That’s where volunteers from parishes and schools across metro Atlanta come in.
On a recent Tuesday, middle school students from St. Jude School in Atlanta sat beside younger students, some counting on their fingers to solve math problems. Delaney Sheehan, 13, has been to the classroom a handful of times. For her, it’s an eye-opener to see how other youngsters live far from her home in the north Atlanta suburbs.
“At times, we can be ungrateful for the things we have that others don’t,” she said. “I like to go as much as I can. I like to work with the kids. They always seem so happy when we are there with them.”
Maureen O’Brien, who worships at the Shrine, first came to the classroom as part of a Just Faith program. Three and a half years later, she still tutors the youngsters.
“I believe that nothing gives a child more confidence than being able to read out loud,” she said in an email. “I also enjoy watching the kids help each other—whether it is an older helping a younger or like what happened last week: I was working at the second-grade table while they were struggling with a math sheet when one of the girls said ‘Wait, I remember how to do this!’ and took off showing her tablemates. Priceless.”
“I am very proud of our children. Even with their challenges, many are routinely on the honor roll and have received some outstanding awards,” she said.
Other volunteers also give of their time. Vincent Pope, 24, is a biomedical engineering major at Georgia Tech and is a member of the Church of Christ. He’s been volunteering for a year and a half.
After arriving from school, the students and participants in Action Ministries Atlanta’s program for children have a snack and then they do their homework. On this particular day St. Jude the Apostle School students and volunteers like Vincent Pope, standing, background center, were on hand to provide help. Pope is a fifth-year senior and biomedical engineering major at the Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta.
“One measure of success is whether or not a child has learned something new and if I have made the child’s day better in some way,” he said.
Other groups have stepped up to serve the children. Lollie and Chris Sertich, who attend St. Brendan the Navigator Church, in Cumming, open their home to the children every spring, letting them try out things they may never have done, like use a fishing pole, ride in a canoe, and other outdoor activities. Teens from Immaculate Heart of Mary Church youth group invite the students for a Saturday morning of games, jump rope, and simply hanging out. The Bible study groups at Holy Cross Church and Immaculate Heart of Mary also collected school supplies and snacks for the children. The Catholic Foundation of North Georgia also has contributed to the after-school program.
Cashin has been doing this work for nearly 20 years at Action Ministries, a nonprofit with roots in the Methodist Church. Despite the numbers going in the wrong direction, as the homeless student population grows, she sees her work as too important to be discouraged.
“There are a lot of possibilities with children. You can see a lot of hopefulness in a child, no matter their circumstances,” she said.