An alternative to hanging out

Opportunity: Center's once-a-week program serves tutoring, activities, meals to neighborhood children.

April 18, 1999|By Ron Snyder | Ron Snyder,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Richard L. Connor recalls looking out the window of his Corpus Christi Community Center in West Baltimore a few years ago, seeing children hanging out on the streets after school.

"You look around and wonder how you can make a difference," Connor said. "I wanted to offer an alternative to children who needed something to do."

A result of his concern is Corpus Christi's after-school program, in which 20 or more children receive one-on-one tutoring Wednesday afternoons -- with safe recreation and a meal.

"Most of the kids who come here are from low- to no-income families," said Connor, the center's director. "We hope to give them a place where they can get a hot meal and provide a place [to do] their school work."

The children, ages 8 to 14, are tutored in reading and math for an hour. Those who have no homework receive work sheets to complete, or books to read. After studying, they are rewarded with the chance to play games or work on arts and crafts projects.

"We make sure each child has their own tutor," Connor said.

While many of the tutors are parishioners at Corpus Christi Church or community volunteers, the center has looked to college students for help -- including some from St. Mary's College in San Antonio, Texas.

The college has formed a partnership with the center, and St. Mary's students traveled to Baltimore in July to help tutor children and plan activities with them. They returned recently, on spring break.

"These kids are really smart," said Mary Pina, a 19-year-old from St. Mary's. "This week we worked on verbs and prepositions, and while some may have needed a little help, they were able to understand them fairly quickly."

Connor said the tutors ask to see the children's report cards to gauge their improvement, and check with guidance counselors at school to see how the youngsters are doing and in what areas they need the most help.

Connor said improvements have been noticeble. Many of the children are no longer reluctant to talk about their grades.

"Some kids just needed to find out they can do well in school if they put their minds to it," Connor said. "It's very rewarding for us and the children when they work on a subject or a project for weeks and they come back smiling when they get an A on it."

One of those children is Kenita Williams.

Kenita, 13, first went to the center in summer 1998. At first she was shy about displaying her school work. However, this semester she returned smiling as she earned some of her best grades ever.

"It has been very beneficial to me and the other children," Kenita said. "We have learned a lot."

As part of the partnership with St. Mary's, Williams and other children from the center flew to San Antonio in the summer to take part in a youth leadership conference. While there, they learned about Texas history and toured important sites. The most valuable parts of their experience were the ideas for leadership they brought back with them, Connor believes.

He noted that Kenita "wants to lead a youth group and help organize activities with the center. Now, instead of just being tutored, she helps out teaching some of the younger kids."

Along with its partnership with St. Mary's, Corpus Christi Community Center has ties with Mother Seton Academy, a tuition-free Catholic middle school in Fells Point. Connor said children from the center have gone to open houses at the school and taken trips to the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall with Mother Seton students.

While the center has provided youth programs for 20 years, it would like to expand its tutoring program to five days a week -- a project Connor said would need local college students as volunteers.

"We have had discussions with Morgan State, but so far have not been able to work everything out," he said.

Connor said the center operates on a yearly budget of about $85,000, raised through donations and grants, including $30,000 from the Society of Mary religious order.

Just as important is the support of community residents working as volunteers -- not only tutoring, but cooking.

"It's a great thing this center does," said one of them, Jeanette Harper, who volunteers at the center five days a week. "We as a community need to stay involved, though, if it is going to remain successful."

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