Six-year-old Harrison, ruminating over each word of “The Tortoise and the Hare” yellow storybook, glanced up at his counselor to shyly talk about the moral of the story.
“It’s not always about how fast you go,” said Barbara Parker-Hayes, sitting next to him and holding the book. In the classroom, she goes by Mrs. Parker. “Slow and steady wins the race.”
Harrison, along with about 25 other students from Kindergarten through sixth grade, spend their afternoons after school at the Community Family Life & Recreation Center at Lyon Park in Durham. They are part of CommUNITY Scholars, an afterschool and summer program that provides tutoring, mentorship and socialization to underprivileged or at-risk children living in Durham’s West End neighborhood.
“Some of them come in, and they’re not reading at all,” Parker-Hayes said. “The program is wonderful for the kids. …They might not all get there at the same time (academically), but they get there.”
CommUNITY Scholars receives annual funding from Duke’s Doing Good in the Neighborhood employee giving campaign, specifically through the “Youth Empowerment” giving category. This funding from Duke employee donations helps cover CommUNITY Scholars’ operating expenses such as staff salaries, snacks, supplies and enrichment activities.
On a recent Monday afternoon, students were finishing their homework, which included drawing pictures and learning about adjectives, as well as picking out who they wanted to learn about for a Black History Month report. Up on the whiteboard, students chose trailblazing figures like Martin Luther King Jr., Barack Obama and Serena Williams.
Three paid staff members, along with a high school senior and Duke student volunteers, sit one-on-one with the children and help them finish their homework assignments in the recreation center’s classrooms. Homework always comes first, and finishing assignments means students can then play on the computer or in the gym.
In the recreation center’s auditorium, Eric Ho, a Duke University Chapel PathWays Fellow that is volunteering with CommUNITY Scholars and teaching music once a week, led groups of students in a song. Every student clutched their own sheet music and fidgeted as Ho instructed everyone to sing louder and more confidently to “Ode to Joy.”
Emma Harper, one of CommUNITY Scholars’ lead counselors, sat in a plastic chair and watched the music class unfold.
“We want to make learning fun for them,” Harper said. “We want to boost their self-esteem, their confidence. We want them to know the sky’s the limit. We don’t want them to think there’s something they can’t do.”
CommUNITY Scholars provides more than homework help. They have fun Fridays where the children participate in spelling bees and games. Every student gets three snacks throughout the afternoon and paper and pencils for their studies. The counselors celebrate every student’s birthday, as well as hand out coats to the children during the holidays.
“They become our kids,” Harper said. As a counselor, she gets to watch every student as they progress and mature, and mentor them along the way. “We never know who we might be working with. We might be working with the next president of the United States.”
CommUNITY Scholars began in 1993 and has always been free for Durham families in the West End neighborhood. The program is always looking for additional funding to pay for new technology such as computers as well as field trips for the children so they can gain new life experiences, said lead CommUNITY Scholars organizer Wilhelmenia Thornton.
“We try to make learning fun as much as we can. Without the program, we’d have a lot of students walking the streets and participating in dangerous activities,” Thornton said. “Because our program is during afterschool hours, we have them participate in activities that keep them safe.”
To make a gift to the “Youth Empowerment” category of Doing Good in the Neighborhood, Duke staff and faculty can make a payroll gift or one-time gift that will benefit the CommUNITY Scholars program as well as other organizations helping local youth year-round.