Making A Way
Helen Brown has called the St. Elizabeth’s neighborhood home for 57 years. She has lived through this lower North Philadelphia community’s slow and painful decline over decades – the loss of jobs, the deterioration of properties, the stresses of struggling families, the infusion of drugs, the increase in violence. She has often watched with breaking heart as young persons, with decreasing educational resources and shrinking hopes for a future, take to the culture of the streets, angry and surly, hanging out, flirting with crime.
Located in the second-poorest zip code in the City of Philadelphia, it was here that Project HOME came in 1995, and, with the friendship and partnership of Miss Helen and other neighbors, began a long-term plan of community development. It was here in 2004 that the doors to the Honickman Learning Center Comcast Technology Labs (HLCCTL) opened. And pretty soon, some amazing things started happening.
As Miss Helen will attest, during those tough years, it was an almost unheard-of rarity for a teen to go to college. But as of this fall, 37 students who have been through Project HOME’s programs at the HLCCTL are currently enrolled in a college, university, or some other post-secondary education program.One of the newest of those 37 is Denise Perkins. Like most kids in the neighborhood, Denise didn’t think much about college when she was growing up. After all, no one in her family ever went to college – that is, until her mother Taryn started taking classes at Peirce College.
The Perkins family lived at Project HOME’s Rowan Homes residence. Denise was part of the After School Program for years. When the prospect of college became attractive to her, she came into the College Access Program (CAP). “Even though I wanted to go to certain colleges, I had to realize I needed to find a college I could manage financially.” CAP helped her in negotiating through “millions of applications,” as well as empowering her in public speaking and “thinking on my feet.”
A few days before starting her college career, she acknowledged being nervous – about the academic challenges, about the social challenge of living with someone else in a dorm, even about the food. She intends to take some important advice from what she learned in CAP: “I know I will need to use the campus writing center.” Denise is now in her first semester at the University of Maryland-Eastern Shore, where she plans on studying business management.
The HLCCTL has a variety of programs for young people, starting with kindergartners, all aimed at empowering them to overcome the significant obstacles in their economically disinvested community and to succeed. The results are starting to show: Since 2008, students from the programs have moved on to a variety of colleges, universities, and post-secondary institutions, including Albright College; Bloomsburg University; Fairleigh Dickinson University; Howard University; Community College of Philadelphia; Millersville University; Muhlenberg College; Gwynedd-Mercy College; Penn State-Mont Alto; and others.
Participants in Project HOME’s Teen Program receive strong academic support, with a goal of achieving academic standards that will make them college-eligible. In 11th grade, they begin participating in the CAP, with an emphasis on the SAT test. In their senior year, students begin working on practical issues like the college application process and financial aid (including help from many Project HOME donors), as well as receiving social support, mentoring, and counseling. The goal is not simply to get into any college, but to find the appropriate college or other post-secondary education for each particular student that gives her or him the best chance of success.
“Students come into the program interested in college, but they have little idea where to start,” says Tomika Brown, CAP Program Coordinator. “The reality of going to college is foreign to them.” A key component of CAP is exposure: visiting campuses and hearing from current and past college students what it’s like.
The final stage for students is the summer Prep For College (PFC) program. “The main message we give them is ‘You are not ready for this,’” says Tomika. She and CAP Assistant Coordinator Jessica Golson equip the students with information about resources available to them that they will need to manage at college, such as learning centers and tutoring programs. They orient students to issues of both academic and social life on campus. “We want them to understand they will facilitate their own success.”
CAP staff stay connected with high school graduates, providing ongoing academic, social, and financial support to empower the students to succeed in college. CAP students then come back to the HLCCTL during winter break for a day of workshops, to continue working on critical skills for college success. All the students know that whenever campus life gets challenging, they can call Tomika and Jessica, who will be there for them.
In 9th grade, Leonard Buckner was close to being kicked out of school. He was scared as he pondered an uncertain future. And he made a conscious decision to change paths – which led him to Project HOME's Teen Program, and eventually into CAP. There he learned practical information on the process as well as skills he will need to navigate college life – time management, deadlines, prioritizing work and study. The most valuable lesson he learned from CAP is an attitude of maturity, responsibility, and open eyes: “Everything’s on you now. It’s up to you what you make of yourself.”
Leonard, who recently started at Bloomsburg University, believes the benefits of CAP extend beyond just the college-bound students: “It makes a way for the next generation. We become role models for young people. They see teens who aren’t making bad choices, but good ones. The whole community sees that there is one less person doing bad and instead making something of himself. That makes them excited.”
Miss Helen concurs. “The younger kids see that. They see they can have that in their future.” She is also encouraged that many of the college students come back, “helping the little kids, instead of just hanging out.”
Another school year is beginning at the Honickman Learning Center and Comcast Technology Labs. The students – from the young kids to the teens – are filling the Center, with their hopes, their energies, their possibilities. The older ones are starting into the rigorous College Access Program, working with Tomika and Jessica, exploring their options, charting their paths. They are doing something many of their forerunners didn’t have the luxury of doing – dreaming of their futures. And as they turn those dreams into reality, they are forging a brighter future for all of us.