At 4 p.m. on a Monday, 22 kids, ages 4 to 13, gather in the All Souls Episcopal Church and Community Center in the Lower 9th Ward. Their voices echo out in unison.
“I pledge to give my best at all times. I pledge to be great. I am beautiful and smart. I am a leader. I love my city, and I love All Souls. We are one family. Thank you, God, for my family and supporters,” and here they all pause for a moment before calling out enthusiastically, “because I am going to college!”
This is the pledge of the Scholar Success After-School Program, created by All Souls Episcopal Church with a very specific goal.
“Study after study has proved that the after-school hours — around 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. — are the time where young people are most likely to get into trouble with things like gangs, drugs and violence,” said All Souls’ Rev. Edward Thompson. “So our goal from the beginning has been to provide a safe haven — a place where kids can come and get help with their schoolwork, and parents don’t have to worry and don’t have to pay anything if they can’t afford it.”
With child care prices that can easily reach into the hundreds per month, the Scholar Success After-School Program charges a suggested donation of just $5 per child, per week.
“Many of our families are run by single parents working two or even three jobs, and they still can’t afford that,” said program director Happy Johnson. “So we tell them they don’t have to pay.”
Far beyond a baby-sitting service or just a safe spot to hang out, the Scholar Success Program provides pickup service from various local schools, a healthy snack, outdoor playtime followed by an hour of tutoring — currently primarily by volunteer Tulane University students. Each day finishes up with music lessons and a hot meal, courtesy of Second Harvest.
“Again, we’re out to try and break that cycle of poverty and violence, and that means preparing these kids to be scholars and giving them the best we can,” Thompson said. “Studies show that those who learn music do well academically, so we were fortunate to get some donated musical instruments, and we have a paid violin instructor every Monday and Wednesday for an hour-and-a-half.”
Chelsea Hines, a violinist for 12 years, teaches the children not only to play an instrument, but how to read music, along with principles of music theory.
Thompson stresses that the continued survival of the Scholar Success Program relies heavily on the kindness of others, something he hopes will prove abundant at the program’s biggest fundraiser, Soul-A-Bration III, from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. on Friday. For $25 per person, the ticketed event will include a gumbo cook-off, performances by local musicians and children from the program, along with a silent auction.
Lora Cohea has high hopes for the fundraiser. Her three great-grandchildren attend Scholar Success, and she said they love it so much that they chastise her if she arrives early to pick them up.
“I don’t know what we’d do without this program,” she said. “It’s been a life saver.”