Over the years, we’ve remained true to our core mission of supporting the residents of Peoplestown as they prepare for the next chapter of their lives. Hear stories of resilience and hope for the future in the lives of the people and community we serve.
Deaquan, a 17-year-old senior, grew up in Peoplestown. He faced the challenges that come with growing up in poverty with a young, single mother. He has fond memories of time spent at Emmaus House after school with Miss Ann. Snacks, homework time, games, walks to the park — these were opportunities that helped to shape Deaquan’s early years.
When he was 8, Deaquan went to Camp Winona in Bridgton, Maryland as part of Emmaus House’s Summers Away program. For nine years, he made new friends, learned about ecology, camping, hiking, and other outdoor things, and experienced a world that is quite different from what he experienced in Peoplestown. He says he learned about brotherhood, about the power of friendship, about how to be in life.
Deaquan is a young man on the move. Last summer, he served as a counselor in training, learning what it means to take on increased responsibility and to lead other children. Of that experience, he says, “I like that I can help the kids with activities. I like to see smiles on their faces.” Deaquan will serve as a counselor in 2015. He wants to help shape the lives of young people as counselors before him shaped his.
Deaquan has a helping spirit. When his time as a counselor concludes next August, he will head to the College of Coastal Georgia School of Nursing where he will study to become a nurse. Deaquan is breaking the cycle of poverty. With his giving spirit, no doubt he will help other young people to do the same in the future.
When asked what Emmaus House has meant to him, Deaquan says, “Emmaus House gave me opportunities that I wouldn’t have had. It gave me a path to the right life.”
“What I really want is for my children to have a better life than I had.” These are Geneva’s words. She was born and raised in Peoplestown. Her mother, a single parent, was an alcoholic who struggled to care for her daughter. Often, they went without food and electricity.
Geneva first came to Emmaus House when she was 12 years old. That’s when she met Dee, one of our longtime volunteers. Geneva came to trust Dee and the people of Emmaus House. Over the years, she received food from our pantry, furniture vouchers, rental assistance, and referrals to Threads, the clothing ministry of All Saints’ Episcopal Church. She used Emmaus House as her mailing address because it provided stability during turbulent times.
Geneva spent the first 10 years of her adult life caring for her children as well as her sick mother. When her mother died in 2010, Geneva and her children found themselves on the street. They bounced from one shelter to another — scared, hungry, and with little hope for a better future. However, one day she came into the Emmaus House drop-in center and spoke with Mark, our volunteer who helps people to find jobs. Despite the long odds, Mark helped Geneva find a job at a recycling plant. When standing on a line all day aggravated her bad knee, Mark helped her to switch to a job at the airport cleaning sky clubs.
Geneva and her children now live in an apartment where they feel safe and comfortable. She says, “If it weren’t for Emmaus House, I wouldn’t have a job.” Life is the best it’s ever been. She no longer needs rental assistance and can provide for her children. For the first time, she feels good about herself and hopeful for her children’s future. There’s still much to do and many challenges, but Geneva is on the right track.
Last November, Emmaus House featured Latoya’s story as an example of one of the many people who come seeking help when there is nowhere else to turn. Latoya spoke about how she had lost her job and quickly was in a situation that she never thought possible. She was overwhelmed with past due notices, a job market that offered little in areas in which she had experience, an empty cupboard, and a hungry child.
Fortunately, she was able to connect with Emmaus House and begin moving in the right direction with a few emergency services and connections with some partners. She began taking those next seemingly giant steps back to self-sufficient living. However, “notices kept coming, and searching for the right job when you have children can be really slow. And then came the summer when my girl was out of school and had nowhere to go,” says Latoya. The fear at times felt “paralyzing.”
This is a problem for people across the country. They reach out to social service agencies, receive a few emergency services or “Band-Aids,” and they’re out the door — that is until next month or even next week. People like Latoya need more than just a few tangible items and a couple of referrals to get back to a level of self-sufficiency.
For this reason, Emmaus House has launched the Peoplestown Family Initiative, an in-depth case-care program for families of Peoplestown. Our goal this year is to work with up to 25 families that need extra care and assistance by assessing their needs, setting goals, and helping them navigate all the opportunities in the community that are available to them. We are happy to say that Latoya’s family is one of the first admitted into our new program.
When asked why she was interested in the Peoplestown Family Initiative Latoya responded, “There were so many things I needed, and people here had already been so open and had been such a positive support to me. I felt like I could trust and confide in them, and they were so great at motivating me and let me feel like for the first time that there was a future for me. I felt like I had a family again supporting me.”
Identifying goals and envisioning an outcome to create an individual service plan is important for every participant so that they have a set of goals to which they can work. When asked what she wants to accomplish through the Peoplestown Family Initiative, Latoya’s answer was clear. “I want to be able to provide certain things on my own and be a light to others who are in my position now.”
Latoya has only been in the program a short while. However, she already notices the progress that she has made. “I can feel each week more and more of my future being put into my hands. I’ve worked out a plan that will slowly but surely pay off my debts to the water company, which ensures that my landlord will not have to kick me and my family out. I don’t have this cloud of worry about whether or not I will have enough food this month. I feel a great sense of self-worth, which is something that was one of the first things to go. And I feel prepared to do things. I have a plan for each thing that I’m facing, not just reacting anymore.”
Given the opportunity to say something to whoever may be reading this, Latoya was quick to comment, “I would want someone else to benefit from this experience and feel like they are worthy. This program keeps me smiling and allows me to sleep at night knowing someone out there cares."
Lee Beaty's Story
Last summer, I had the tremendous opportunity of working at the only Children’s Defense Fund Freedom Schools® program in Georgia at Emmaus House. The Freedom Schools program hopes to develop literate and independent children who want to make differences in their lives and the world. Thankfully, Emmaus House selected me to be the fourth-grade servant leader intern (or SLI). SLIs are the interns chosen to work at the Freedom Schools sites all over the country. Once chosen, SLIs go to a yearly training held in Tennessee at the Alex Haley Farm. There, we are taught all of the Freedom Schools program’s ways of how to address scholars, how to teach the curriculum, and what Freedom Schools is about in general.
The Freedom Schools program came out of the civil rights movement from the mind of Marian Wright Edelman, who envisioned a world in which, truly, no child is left behind. In this program, where we encourage children to believe in themselves no matter how small or young they may be, we are constantly letting the scholars know that they can make positive contributions to their families and communities.
This program is unique in a lot of ways, from the books that have characters that look and talk like our scholars to the fact that we call the children “scholars” instead of “kids” or “students.”
We call them scholars so that they feel that they are equal to the interns.
Equal here does not mean that the interns have no authority over them, but rather means that they see we are all works in progress trying to better ourselves and make differences in our lives. Learning about this program, it was clear to me that I had a daunting task ahead of me, but it was also clear that if I did a good job, the rewards would be well worth the work. Walking into Emmaus House on that first day of the Freedom Schools camp, I had a couple of expectations.
I had heard my scholars would be difficult, that they would be different from “normal kids.” I heard they had attitude, and that some of them were just plain “bad.”
Now to give a little bit of background on myself, I am a rising sophomore at Barnard College in New York. I am pre-med with an intended major of neuroscience. I also am a martial arts instructor and have been for the past eight years of my life. So coming in, I thought I might have an edge over my co-workers who were also starting their first year working at the Freedom Schools. I thought, “Oh, I’ve seen every kid there is out there. Nothing can surprise me anymore.” I was wrong on all fronts.
The first day of camp was daunting, to say the least. Of course, we had been trained and had an idea of what to expect, but practicing by myself is different than being put in front of kids. We learned lesson plans, cheers and chants, and classroom management, but all of that left my mind that first day and came back to me in fragments. The rest of the interns and I stood outside waiting for the kids to arrive. And so they came little by little.
Once everyone was gathered, we went to eat breakfast, and I finally got to see which 10 out of the 70 were mine. At the table, I was a nervous wreck as one by one they came to sit down. I smiled and introduced myself as Miss Lee as each of them took a seat, and then… nothing. I stared at them, and they stared at me. I didn’t know what else to say. What do fourth-graders talk about, anyway? Thankfully, some of them knew each other and started talking while I had my moment of speechlessness. Eventually, I came out of it, and I asked all of their names. They eyed me tentatively, answered, and then went about their conversations while eating their breakfast.
From breakfast we moved onto Harambee. Harambee is a Swahili word meaning to come together, and it was the only time guaranteed that the entire camp would be together every day. At every Harambee, we gathered to hear a read-aloud guest, someone from the community who came to read to the scholars and talk about themselves; sang the Hallelujah Chorus and the Motivational Song, which was Something Inside So Strong by Labi Siffre; and do cheers and chants, which were mainly about reading.
Seeing their first reaction to Harambee was quite a gift. We sang, we read, and we chanted, but on the first day, the scholars had no idea what was going on. They had never been through anything like that before. Eyeing the interns hesitantly as we jumped and danced around the chapel, they laughed at our silliness. Little did they know that Harambee would become their favorite time of day, and soon they would be the ones jumping around.
After Harambee, the camp split into the different grade levels, and my 10 and I went to our classroom. Once we got to the classroom, it was time for the integrated reading curriculum (IRC). IRC is a major pillar in the Freedom Schools program and was allotted the time in between Harambee and lunch, from 9 a.m. - 12 p.m. That was three hours I was going to be alone with my kids in the classroom, and I did not know whether it would be a long or short three hours. I still did not know what to expect from them. We hadn’t had time to really talk yet.
Going into the classroom I came in with smiles, and, asking them to sit down in a circle, I began to explain the curriculum to them. I explained how every day we would eat breakfast, get all of our energy out at Harambee, and then come to the classroom to read a book and discuss different topics. To help with the subjects, we would be completing different projects and assignments to keep them interested and thinking of how certain issues related to their lives. Now, the night before, I had thought out how I would introduce the IRC to them. I rehearsed every sentence in my head over and over, trying to remember everything they taught us in training. I drilled that speech into my head only to realize, as I regurgitated it out of my mouth, that it was falling on deaf ears.
No one was listening to me. Instead, my scholars were all over the place. They were talking, singing, dancing, jumping, playing, screaming, doing anything but sitting down quietly and listening to me. Nothing I said could make them stop. And so the morning continued. Me, getting hoarser by the minute as I begged my kids to settle down and listen to the book, and them, ignoring my requests and continuing to do, quite literally, whatever. To put it simply, we did not get through IRC that first day, and I was so relieved to be able to get out of that classroom after lunch and go to afternoon activities. During afternoon activities the scholars went to art, P.E., or drama. They also went swimming and on a field trip once a week. Those activities on that first day gave me a much needed break, as I did not have to give any instructions to my 10 extremely active scholars once I brought them to the art and drama teachers.
When the day was over, I went home feeling defeated.
I am ashamed to say that I had thoughts of “maybe they are bad,” and “I don’t know if there is any hope for them.” But, thankfully, I brushed it off and gave myself a pep talk.
The next day, I got up and came back with a hopeful attitude. I resigned with myself that I was too nice that first day and that even if I have to be firmer, it will help all of us in the long run. I mean, I was here to help improve their reading scores, not to be their friend. I had just hoped I could do both and keep control of my classroom. I went in scared that they would start to hate me and think I was no fun, or ask to be in other interns’ class rather than mine, but they didn’t. They responded positively to the new sterner Miss Lee, and we had a great second day.
Of course, it was not perfect. As Miss Dasha, another intern who had been working for the CDF’s Freedom Schools for several years, always said, “Even your perfect days are not going to be perfect.” Yet it was such a step up from the day before that I could not complain at all. That day, the kids started to engage more in the reading, and we got to talk about their lives more, so that I got to know them better.
The energy that they had the first day was redirected and made into something positive and constructive.
Once I got to know my scholars more in the following weeks, I started to change some of the activities to fit their strengths. By far, my scholars’ greatest strength (and weakness) was talking. They hated to be still and quiet and write, but if I told them to come up with a song, or have a discussion, they were all eager to participate. Working with them and seeing them grow in the classroom made my job more worthwhile every day.
We, of course, had more bumps and bruises throughout the summer: outbursts, people not getting along, and attitudes, but that’s all a part of life. Not everyone can have a good day every day, especially kids. All of the problems we encountered in the following weeks only made my class closer. By the end, they were looking out for each other, almost as siblings do, and they came to me not only just for problems, but also to talk and hang out during their free time.
In those six weeks of Freedom School, those kids proved every stereotype, every rumor, and every statistic about them wrong.
By the end of the summer, all of the scholars were reading at or above their grade level, improving so much from the beginning of summer. And for me personally, I got to see that these kids were not “bad.” I can’t believe that any child is bad. Yes, they may have their guard up at first, but if you give them love and attention, they give you twice as much love back. As much as I might have yelled, talked to, or had to discipline my class, I realized, by the end of the summer, that I never stopped caring about them. My scholars are some of the most special, intelligent, and loving kids I have ever met, and it was an absolute privilege to be with them and get to know them.
Leaving them for a year to start my second year of college is one of the hardest things I have had to do, and the only way I could get through it was to remind myself that I am coming back next summer to teach them again. The memories I made with them, I will cherish forever, and I cannot wait to make more.