St. Mary’s education center to expand services

April 25, 2012

Breanna Hurley, 8, said she remembers being intimidated by the idea of visiting the Education Outreach Center at Leonard’s Freehold in Leonardtown.

“The first time I was nervous,” Breanna, a second-grader at Leonardtown Elementary School, said one afternoon while at the center. “There were a lot of people here.”

Nevertheless, she got up the courage to go in and look around at the activities taking place inside the little blue house at Dorsey and Barthelme streets, where volunteers come in three afternoons each week to help neighborhood children with their homework and have special events, such as pizza parties and movie nights, throughout the year.

The next time Breanna came to the center, she brought homework with her. A volunteer sat down with her at a table and helped her work on vowels. She demonstrated her mastery of the topic April 13 by pointing to a poster on vowels hanging on the wall at the center and reading off the long and short sounds.

The Education Outreach Center is in its fourth year. Initially sponsored by First Saints Community Church, the program is making a transition to being completely run and financed by a nonprofit organization called Bridges of St. Mary’s County. The move to nonprofit status allows organizers to pursue grants and funding not available to faith-based organizations, said Terry Bonnevier, chairman of the Bridges of St. Mary’s County board. It also frees up the church’s funds to finance other outreach projects.

“We started working on the nonprofit status soon after we began the Educational Outreach Center in the fall of 2008,” she said. “The operating expenses are approximately $15,000 a year, which are coming from the First Saints Community Church budget. By pursuing other grants and corporate donations through Bridges of St. Mary’s County, we will help remove some of the EOC expenses from the church so they can continue to do other community outreach projects like the Loaves and Fishes soup kitchen. It took approximately 13 months before we received our 501(c)(3) status in late 2009.”

This summer, Bonnevier said, Bridges of St. Mary’s County will be holding a 10-week, Tuesday through Thursday program that, with resources to be provided by Health Connections at St. Mary’s Hospital, will be health-and-wellness-themed. The summer program, which will start accepting registration May 14, will be designed for children who have finished kindergarten and up to those who have finished eighth grade.

The program will be free and will be facilitated by Sarah Nicholson, a student at Lancaster Bible College in Pennsylvania, who is interning this summer with First Saints.

The additional program is an expansion from what the center currently offers, Bonnevier said.

The house where the center offers homework help during the school year is small — maybe 650 square feet, Bonnevier estimated. To accommodate the summer program, she said a tent likely will be set up outside.

“We plan to do a lot of water activities,” she said. “We’re taking this in baby steps.”

“I think the kids, not having that structure of school during the summer,” could use it, Bonnevier said. The plan is to incorporate an educational component, physical activity and crafts into each day’s event.

“And we’re going to give them a healthy lunch,” Bonnevier said.

Bonnevier said the center could use the community’s help in putting on the summer program, as well as its regular homework help, which, like everything offered at the center, is provided free.

“We need volunteers. We need sponsors. We need resources,” she said. The program will end with the center’s annual backpack distribution, where neighborhood children are given backpacks filled with school supplies in time for the start of the school year. Bonnevier said about 15 volunteers help during the school year with homework, and the summer program organizers are anticipating they will need about 15 volunteers each week, or five each day, to run the program.

The outreach center would like to expand throughout the year; the organizers would like to be open more nights to offer homework help, Bonnevier said. They’d like to offer services to adults, too, such as cooking classes and other life-skill classes.

Lexy Eberhardt, 12, a sixth-grader at Leonardtown Middle who wants to be a teacher some day, has been a regular visitor for homework help since the outreach center opened.

“If I didn’t have it, my grades would be really bad,” she said. “And I wouldn’t have the experience of meeting all the wonderful volunteers. They’ve been really awesome.”

Although Lexy has benefited particularly from the help with math and social studies homework, she said she has appreciated how the volunteers take the time to get to know the visiting students.

“They’ll sit down and talk to you,” she said.

Liah Williams, 7, a first-grader at Leonardtown Elementary, said she has received help at the center for reading, math, science “and anything else my teacher gives me,” she said. “It makes it easier for me.”

For the previous two school years, there were about 300 visits from students each year. So far this year, the center is on track to assist more than 400. And that doesn’t count the children who stop by, just to say hello or get a quick hug from a favorite volunteer.

Bonnevier said that although many of the volunteers at the center still come from First Saints, others outside of the church also are getting involved. The hope is that if the community as a whole can get behind the effort, the little blue building that houses the outreach center will be utilized throughout the week.

“We want to have this place bustling,” Bonnevier said.

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