Jack & Jill More Than Nursery Rhyme For Black Children Glen Burnie Program Provides Role Models

November 07, 1990|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,Staff writer

Ashleigh Davenport huddled over a nursery book with one of her big "sisters," completely ignoring the grown-ups talking family business across the room.

Paging through the book with 16-year-old Vonnita Pinkett, Ashleigh spotted a picture she liked. "See, the daddy's cutting the bushes," the 4-year-old crowed.

The two girls, reading side-by-side on a library bench Monday night, were the unsuspecting focus of the adult discussion. Their easy companionship reflected the "family bond" that's the goal of Jack & Jill of America Inc.

Ashleigh's mother, Christine Scott Davenport, decided to organize an Anne Arundel chapter after talking to parents from the national association during a 1988 convention in San Francisco. She was impressed by the group's objective to provide family-centered activities for black children.

"I saw a real need for something like that in the predominantly white Glen Burnie area," Davenport said. "Basically, the way schools are set up in communities, many Afro-American students are isolated. This organization gives them an opportunity to meet children with the same interests."

By calling her Delta Sigma Theta sorority sisters and friends, Davenport quickly enlisted five other families to start a Jack & Jill chapter in Glen Burnie. The group grew to 15 families in the two years before the national, Philadelphia-based organization gave its stamp of approval.

Jack & Jill's focus is on cultural and educational activities. In an age when media images are dominated by rampant crime and drug use, the parents are determined to show their children powerful, positive role models.

They have taken their children on field trips to Afro-American museums, toured predominantly black colleges and met for a candlelight memorial service to honor the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Although parents also have sponsored writing workshops and prep courses for the Scholastic Aptitude Test, most of the 25 children still consider the program "fun," not work.

"It gives you an opportunity to meet people your age and stuff," Vonnita said.

Asked whether they believe Jack & Jill emphasizes education, Ben Henderson, 12, and Jason Smith, 13, shook their heads.

"You don't get report cards," Ben pointed out. "We write down stuff sometimes, but mostly we just talk about things -- school and girls."

Dee Smith of Arnold chuckled about her son's response. She said he has learned everything from writing skills to black history at Jack & Jill.

"The reason why I became interested and a lot of us became interested is that it focuses on the whole family," she said. "You've got a lot of good role models."

The parents come from every walk of life. One father is a doctor, another is a computer analyst, and a third is a senior auditor for the Board of Education. Some of the mothers work, while others are full-time homemakers.

Despite the differing incomes and backgrounds, all 15 families share one trait. They cherish traditional family values. None of the parents is divorced.

The group has adopted children from broken homes and invited them to join pizza parties or the annual Easter egg hunt at the White House. But membership is limited to those who share the family goals of the national Jack & Jill organization, founded in Philadelphia in 1938.

More than 10 families have joined the waiting list since the Glen Burnie chapter officially opened Oct. 27. The next initiation is scheduled for April.

Davenport said she believes families are lining up at the door because the Glen Burnie chapter is the only one in the area -- the closest Jack & Jill chapters are in Howard County or Baltimore. But she also said the strong interest shows the need for a black organization emphasizing family values.

As increasing numbers of young blacks succumb to the lure of alcohol and drugs, she said, parents must fight to save their children. They must "provide educational opportunities" and urge their children to go to college or receive professional training.

They also must fill the gaps in the public school curriculum and teach their children "to be proud about being black."

"I think this gives them a chance to really deal with their heritage," said Smith, who is teaching the teen-agers to tie-dye, an art form invented in Ghana and Senegal.

"A lot of us have talked about African history and our heritage. This gives us a chance to share it in a large setting."

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