First you hear them coming: the squeak of rubber on linoleum, the squawk of excited voices in the hallway. Then comes the chaos of 40 elementary-school kids-yellow polo shirts and khaki pants in various states of disarray at this late hour-swarming the cafeteria. It's 6:30 p.m. and STEPdc's evening tutoring is about to begin. Children munch pizza and salad but keep an anxious eye to the door. "There's Miss Melissa!" A little girl's face bursts into a smile. Tutors in sartorial styles ranging from laborer to lawyerly file in, some with their ID badges dangling.
Operating on about $200,000 a year, and with only two full-time employees (but almost 200 volunteers), STEPdc-Strategies to Elevate People-has served the Petworth/Columbia Heights neighborhood of Washington, D.C., since 1992. There are 175 households in the government housing that surrounds Bruce Morton elementary school; only 11 are headed by men. STEPdc's goal is to build children's relationships with caring, committed adults. Its roster of programs includes Bible studies, summer book clubs, and camps and field trips around the city, but it's the tutoring that builds ties that bind, as adults make a year's commitment to a particular child, three Thursdays a month.
In the transition from pizza to curriculum the energy stays high. On Thursday nights Jamia Chiles oversees tutoring here at the elementary school. By day she is a fifth-grade teacher at a Prince George's County public school in Maryland. She tutored for STEP in college 10 years ago and returned to direct the tutoring program.
One of STEPdc's volunteers, Melissa Carder, has been at it for 18 months and remains impressed by the diversity of families that she has met. She says she expected the typical "at risk" situation but has been surprised. Some families are financially stable but emotionally fractured; some are relationally intact but struggling financially. But for each child the need is the same: "Even kids who are in really solid families want to have a mentor. They just need that additional time with an adult."
She has begun to spend time with 8-year-old Maya outside of formal tutoring on Thursday nights. "Most of our interaction revolves around going to Subway and having lunch," she says, smiling. STEPdc requires a parent or guardian's permission for tutors to spend time with a child outside the program, so Melissa met with Maya's aunt and uncle. "Sometimes Maya just wants to run errands with me, so we do that. Her aunt is very supportive of the relationship."
Chiles says rarely has she had a bad tutor-student match, but when it happens she asks the kids to dig deeper, make it work, and leave behind feelings of entitlement: "I had one fifth-grade girl who came to me complaining that she didn't like her tutor. She was being ungrateful. I said 'They don't have to be here. They think you are special enough to come here and take time away from their own families.' I had her go back and apologize to him."
A more common complaint comes when students have to share a tutor. These kids relish one-on-one adult attention. It's one thing they don't give up easily. One highly placed, well-dressed Homeland Security official finds himself explaining to an 8-year-old where he has been the last two weeks before she allows him to get on with the lesson.
Phillip, a middle-aged truck driver, has volunteered with STEP for a year. He recently remarried and has four children. Even so, after a long day in the truck he fights traffic to head downtown to tutor 9-year-old Isaac on Thursday nights. Isaac is a challenge. He has a little extra energy, a little louder voice, and a little extra anger in his eyes. But Phillip's gentle strength is the antidote. He sees the possibilities rather than the frustrations. "He's smart. If I can get him settled, he gets the whole thing done in an hour. If not, he takes an hour on one problem."
How to get Isaac focused? Phillip's technique: "I just pull him in a little closer next to me and he gets settled faster." Isaac is still intense but now focused and wants to work. But all evenings don't end happily. On this one, Phillip begins to droop. He is becoming ill and has to leave early. He apologizes to Isaac, who looks crestfallen.
Volunteers do not have to be Christians, but they have to know and accept STEPdc's focus on Jesus. Most of the tutors come from large churches in the area that financially support STEPdc. Each volunteer must pass a criminal background check. After a day of training "we ask them to try it for three evenings," Chiles says. "After that they are usually hooked"-and then they tell their friends. One woman from the World Bank brought five friends from work, and they are now committed volunteers.
Rev. Jim Till joined the STEPdc board in 1991 and has directed the organization since 1992. That year a D.C. city councilman attended a public-housing conference in Dallas and saw individuals volunteering at a public-housing project. He was anxious to put in practice what he had seen and suggested a similar project to STEPdc. "We went around and spoke to the resident councils in the housing projects" Till says. "We asked what the basic needs were and how we could help."
STEPdc steers clear of the "touch and go" approach that sometimes characterizes suburban ministry to the "inner-city." The organization has worked hard to recruit African-American volunteers and to keep parents involved. Till lives in the neighborhood and is an elder at the nearby New Samaritan Baptist Church, as well as its only white member. Till's understanding of the church has helped STEPdc to resist offers of government funding: "We are a faith-based organization," Till says. "We talk about Jesus and there could be some restrictions on that. You never know what the city might require."
The program has been around long enough now to follow some kids from second grade all the way through graduation. Till says, "We've had kids go through our tutoring program who came back to tutor others when they were older. Of course we've had guys in jail too."
There's nothing quite like a background in counter-insurgency to prepare you for building community in Southeast Washington, D.C. Clay Hanna, a former military officer who is now executive director of the Cornerstone School, says both in Iraq and at Cornerstone his work has been about "getting to a place of mutual trust" with communities that have "seen a lot of turmoil."
Christian Capitol Hill staffers over a decade ago founded the school, which concentrates on both academic and spiritual needs and has a clear mission: to "glorify God by serving families who are committed to the future of their child, but merely lack opportunities." After petition drives and extensive wrangling with several city agencies and inspectors, Cornerstone opened its doors in the fall of 1998 in the basement of Washington Community Fellowship on Capitol Hill and set about teaching its first 23 students.
Now Cornerstone serves 189 students from preschool through grade 8 and occupies a former Catholic school building in Southeast Washington, D.C. Its annual $7,000 tuition is a bargain in a town where many private schools cost upwards of $25,000. Most Cornerstone families receive between $2,000 and $6,000 in scholarships. Although 64 percent of the students' families fall below the poverty line, no full scholarships are given. "We believe everyone should pay something," Hanna says: "Educational success for a child requires parental involvement." In this spirit Cornerstone asks its parents to volunteer a minimum of 20 hours of service a year and to attend parent seminars.
Maritza White always considered herself a supporter of the public schools and was committed to using them until she got a call from her babysitter one afternoon. Her son Michael had come home with a bloody mouth. White says the school had disciplined the boys who were responsible but never bothered to call her. "He never set foot in that school again," she says. "I never felt I could trust them after that." When White visited Cornerstone to look it over for her son, the principal suggested she come to a morning chapel: "I was so undone by that service. The kids were worshipping and putting their hearts in it." She enrolled her son and now goes in to work a little late a few days each week so she can attend the chapel service herself.
Jackie Mills-Fernald says that churches are not always the welcoming places they should be. "People see a kid [with disabilities] melting down and think, 'C'mon, can't you parent better than that?'" She is on a mission to change that by directing the Access Ministry for disabled children and adults at McLean Bible Church in the Washington suburbs.
The ministry "began 13 years ago with four students in children's ministry who needed a level of help we couldn't provide at that time," explains Mills-Fernald. "Now we have 25 different programs at two campuses serving 500 families with disabled members, using 600 volunteers. We have moved from just making Sunday mornings work to supporting families with a holistic approach addressing physical and spiritual needs."
What does all that mean for a parent of a disabled child? Often it means regaining a healthy perspective after a time of respite. The Break-out and Breakaway respite services offer five hours of fun activities for a reasonable fee with two nurses on-site to administer medication and care for this more fragile and accident-prone population. Experienced professionals manage the dreaded moment of drop-off: Therapy dogs at the check-in line hold the attention of children as their parents register. Those who won't let go are offered the chance to "have Mason walk you in." Escort service from a genial shepherd is rarely declined.
Aundrea Foster recently came on staff for Access but remembers well her first encounters with the program as the mother of a son with autism looking for help. Volunteers "were welcoming and smiling and glad to see us. We were so used to getting stares because our son was melting down." It probably saved her marriage. "I know the staff could see it in my face the first time we came. We were in a dark place as a family. Our spirits were broken. We had basically stayed in the house for two years following our son's diagnosis. Knowing he would be safe for a couple of hours made all the difference." (Parents of special needs children have an 80 percent chance of divorce.)
Access also offers a yearly conference, a monthly community lecture series, and an array of parent support groups, mentoring programs, friendship clubs, and Sunday morning classes. Its four-week summer camp for disabled kids and their siblings comes without the sticker shock of a typical special needs camp-but with Access' characteristic compassion. "I kept waiting for that call from the camp saying 'Um, this isn't working out,'" Foster said. "Our son had a bunch of bad days and finally I said to his counselor, 'If you want to pull him out, that's OK.' She just looked at me and said, 'No. That's not what we do here. We will find a way to work it out.'"
Foster was so taken aback that she told her husband, "I want to see what this church is all about." On a Sunday morning they put their son in a Beautiful Blessings class and Foster says "for the first time since he was a baby we were able to sit in a pew and worship together."