March 1, 2013 10:34:25 AM
Carmen K. Sisson - [email protected]
The second-grader hunches over the red cash register, his brow furrowed in concentration, his eyes cast toward the ceiling as he counts out the necessary change in his head. His "customer," HEARTS after-school tutor Ruth Rast, waits patiently.
"Seventy-five!" Demiji Bonner announces proudly, picking through the fake coins to find three quarters.
A few doors away, kindergartner Kalani Shumpert works through a list of sight words with tutor Dot Prestridge, who drives from Alabama each day to help with the after-school program in East Columbus.
Down the hall, past the baskets of crayons and educational toys, third-grader Tyeice Calloway and second-grader Morgan Glenn mull over the selections in the center's 3,000-book library, searching for slender volumes of childhood favorite Dr. Seuss.
Ten years ago, HEARTS -- Helping Every Age Reach and Teach Students -- began with little more than a dream and a prayer.
Sandra DePriest, vicar of Church of the Good Shepherd Episcopal in East Columbus, knew there was a need in the community for free after-school tutoring, but even she was surprised to see how quickly the slots filled.
When the outreach ministry opened its doors, they didn't even have pencils or paper, recalls HEARTS Executive Director Mary Ezell. Church members, volunteers and good Samaritans quickly went to work, donating money and supplies to the cause. Many of the library books were collected by the YMCA during a book drive. Freshmen at Mississippi University for Women created some of the cheerful posters that line the walls.
Little by little, the church's flagship ministry became a full-fledged school, serving 30-40 students each year from its location at 109 Lawrence Road.
Students come primarily through referrals from the city's elementary schools, but parents often approach the center as well, with Ezell fielding hundreds of phone calls about students in need of the one-on-one tutoring sessions HEARTS provides.
Sessions are held four days a week, with students attending either Mondays and Wednesdays or Tuesdays and Thursdays. Buses bring them from their respective schools around 3 p.m., and their parents pick them up at 4 p.m. The afternoon begins with a snack and a devotional, then students split off to work on their reading, writing and math skills.
The children benefit from both the tutoring and something many don't receive -- an hour of undivided attention from an adult. Some only attend one school year, and others return year after year and participate in the 16-day summer school session.
A heavy emphasis is placed upon reading, because studies have proven that students who struggle with reading typically have problems in other subject areas, too, falling further behind each year until they eventually become so frustrated that they drop out of school.
Ezell grew up in a home where education was a high priority, and her parents were able to provide the resources she needed to excel. She remembers asking them questions and being told, "Go look it up in the encyclopedia."
But that's not always the case for other children, especially those growing up in low-income households where items like encyclopedias and computers are often a luxury.
"Reading helps everything," Ezell says. "Not everybody grows up with parents like that. It takes the whole community. These are our children."
Beneath her quiet demeanor, there is a firmness -- an undercurrent of passion that fuels what is sometimes a challenging job. But she has never gotten discouraged, she says, not even in the beginning, when supplies were scant and the need was so overwhelmingly immense.
"It was a great adventure," she says, her eyes shining. "I'm one of those people -- I don't give up easily. I think if anybody came here, they would be enthusiastic about it. Just when you think a child isn't going to be able to do something, the light bulb goes off. That's what makes it fulfilling."
It is a sentiment echoed by the tutors who volunteer their time.
Rast retired from an 18-year career as a special education teacher, now devoting four afternoons a week to HEARTS.
Across the hallway, retired Noxubee County teacher Velma Davis looks up from helping a student with his fractions and multiplication tables and explains why she decided to teach at HEARTS after her 2005 retirement from Earl Nash Elementary School, where she spent 30 years in the classroom.
"I just love kids," Davis says. "I love encouraging them to do well and pushing them to do well."
Tutors are the linchpin of the program, and there can never be too many, Ezell says. Though it can be time-consuming, the only requirements are basic math and reading skills and a love for working with children.
"I'm looking for people who can be calm around children, who really care and want to be here," Ezell says. "This isn't for everybody. Children will be children."
She stops to help a student who needs to go to the restroom but is unable to unfasten the braided belt holding up her navy blue skirt.
It's not always easy to find tutors, Ezell says. That's why she tries to keep as many on-hand as possible. With more tutors, they could serve more students, and in a struggling school district, the need is great -- so great, in fact, that DePriest says if they had the resources, they could have a HEARTS center on every corner in Columbus.
But just as they have done from the beginning, they make do with what they have, growing a little every year.
At the end of the month, they will hold a free, community-wide Easter egg hunt at Church of the Good Shepherd. On April 25th, the students' last day of tutoring, they will celebrate with a graduation ceremony followed by a party. Their summer program, which emphasizes reading, writing, arts and crafts and good manners, will begin in June, concluding June 27 with another graduation ceremony.
And before they know it, September will arrive, ushering in a new school year, a new group of fresh-faced, bright-eyed HEARTS students and a new opportunity to make a difference in a child's life.
For more information about tutoring or donating to the HEARTS program, please call Ezell at 662-244-8444.
Carmen K. Sisson is the former news editor at The Dispatch.