Program helps children to find their sparkle

Minister created Gems and Jewels to reach out to students, awarding points for good behavior

December 30, 2007|By Susan Gvozdas | Susan Gvozdas,Special to the Sun

If Santa Claus fell sick, he could always count on the Rev. Sheryl Menendez, assistant pastor of Light of the World Family Ministries of Annapolis. She keeps a detailed list of who is naughty and nice in the Gems and Jewels after-school program.

Less than a week before Christmas, Bates Middle School students got the opportunity to shop based on points for good behavior, perfect attendance and good grades. Students who succeeded in each of those categories were awarded points that were converted into shopping dollars.

As Menendez called out names, students came up to get their certificates and added up their points. Then each table of students took turns shopping through tables of donated purses, pingpong paddles, lotions and jewelry. Students with good behavior or honor roll certificates won extra shopping rounds.

Eighth-grader Chantel Henriques picked out two pink pens with pink bristles bursting from the tops. She is in her second year with Gems and Jewels, which provides meals, homework help and mentoring three days a week.

"We learn respect and different emotions," Chantel said.

A $21,000 grant from Anne Arundel County this month allowed Gems and Jewels to boost its membership from 23 to 53 students. But, in a sign of its popularity with students and parents, it still has a waiting list of 62 children.

Menendez expressed gratitude for County Executive John R. Leopold's support of the program, saying he is the first county executive to become involved in the program's nine-year history.

"It's an example of a school program that provides hope and opportunity," Leopold said. "I wish we could do more."

It costs about $43,000 annually to pay the transportation and food costs for the program, Menendez said. Until now, the program has been funded through donations from the church's nonprofit arm, Restoration Community Development Corp., and the Anne Arundel County Management Board.

The program is the brainchild of Menendez, 57, a retiree who once aspired to be an English teacher. She worked at AT&T in its various incarnations as a Bell company for 27 years and took a buyout in 1995 to become a minister. She and her husband, the Rev. Frank Menendez, are pastors of Light of the World. Sheryl Menendez runs Restoration Community Development Corp.

Gems and Jewels originally was called Rubies in the Rough and targeted teenage girls at risk for pregnancy and juvenile delinquency. Officials at Annapolis High School called Menendez and asked if she could develop a program that would reach out to middle school students.

"Middle school students suffer from middle child syndrome," Menendez said. "They're the forgotten group."

She renamed the program Gems and Jewels to include boys and reached out to Bates Middle School. It ran once a week until Menendez could get transportation funding.

Students spend the first 45 minutes doing homework with help from tutors -- high school students, church members or businesspeople-- then another 15 minutes writing in their journals. Afterward, they go to the gym to jump rope or play basketball. Then they have a snack or a meal and sometimes listen to a speaker talk about health issues: avoiding alcohol, drugs and cigarettes; and being safe on the streets.

Menendez said she always has seen her group as a part of the solution to behavioral problems and low student achievement -- issues her program cannot tackle on its own. She met with the principal of Bates early on and has developed a relationship with teachers over the years. Teachers give Menendez progress reports on students and let her know about children's behavioral problems.

Those issues are addressed during Gems and Jewels. Misbehaving students might be asked to write apology letters to teachers or say they are sorry in person. Those who don't are not allowed to stay in the after-school program. However, few have been asked to leave, Menendez said.

Sometimes Menendez meets with teachers to discuss students' behavior. Often, she has insight into what problems a student is facing at home.

"We see ourselves as a dot on the continuum," Menendez said. "We're an advocate of the teachers. We're an advocate of the students."

Diane Bragdon, principal of Bates Middle, said the program has made a difference in children's lives.

"It really supports the kids all the way through their day," Bragdon said.

Parents love the fact that their children come home with their homework done. David Smith, whose daughter, Olivia, 13, is in the program for a second year, likes the reward system for good behavior and the lessons they provide.

"It kind of teaches them how the real world is," Smith said.

Sixth-grader Brandon Elliott said he looks forward to coming to Gems and Jewels. He said he doesn't have problems with homework on days when he isn't at the program.

"If they help you here on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, you will be ready when you go home," Brandon said.

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