Students create after-school program to point underserved kids in a positive direction
BY KENT BOOTY
If Jarvis Randolph needed any help with his math homework, it was just over his shoulder. The sixth-grader seemed to be managing well by himself this day, so his study buddy, Amelia McConnell ’16, was content mostly to look on. McConnell’s passion for underserved youths like Jarvis, however, is anything but passive. That’s why she and four other Longwood students were hanging out with 10 energetic kids in a Farmville community center on a Thursday afternoon.
The Longwood students are members of Beyond the Numbers, a student organization started by McConnell, Molly Kabis ’16 and Bharani Sankar ’16 that provides mentors and tutors for youths in after-school programs. Currently numbering 25 volunteers, the group has been active since January 2015.
“Tutoring is part of what we do, but mainlyit’s a mentoring program—showing these kids love, showing them that we care,” said McConnell, the organization’s president. Our motto is, ‘Changing the CommunityOne Kid at a Time.’”
During the spring semester, the mentoring took place four afternoons a week in the community center at Parkview Gardens, an apartment complex a mile from campus. Volunteers also worked with children four afternoons a week at New Life Christian Academy, a church-affiliated school on the outskirts of Farmville.
Jarvis, a student at Prince Edward County Middle School, is one of about 10-15 elementary and middle-school students who participated regularly in the Parkview Gardens after-school program, which is affiliated with the Southside Virginia Family YMCA.
“On his last report card, his grades had gone up in all areas. The biggest improvement was in math—from an F to a C,” said McConnell. I told him, ‘I’m proud of you,’ and he said, I like knowing that people are proud of me.’ He just needed someone to care about him.”
On a typical afternoon at Parkview Gardens, several Beyond the Numbers volunteers, clad in blue T-shirts with the organization’s logo, are waiting when the kids get off the bus at 3:45 and burst into the community center’s cheery, light-filled room. The volunteers chat with them over a snack about their day, then help them with their homework and, once homework is done, play with them outside (basket-ball is popular) or inside (often card or board games or on one of two computers).
“I love seeing the kids. Their smiles are contagious,” said Alex Pham ’17, who volunteered four days a week this spring and is Beyond the Numbers’ promotions officer. “I got involved because of Amelia’s passion, and now I’m also passionate. Many Longwood students don’t realize there’s such a need in the Farmville community.”
The partnership at New Life Christian Academy, though it also involves mentoring, is primarily tutoring. New Life, where McConnell attends church, provides Beyond the Numbers with training materials and runs background checks on the volunteers.
McConnell’s schedule this spring was usually three days a week at Parkview Gardens and once a week at New Life. Regardless of the venue or the frequency, she loves being a mentor.
“I go whenever I can. Whenever I can’t go, it’s a bad day,” she said. “As I like to say, we do a lot of things because we have to, but this is something I want to do because it makes me feel complete.”
McConnell started Beyond the Numbers after what she calls the “trigger moment” during her freshman year, when she and two friends, taking a study break at 11 p.m. on a Friday, saw three middle-school-age boys in line at McDonald’s.
“One of them said to me, ‘Where the party at?’ Then and there, I dedicated myself to providing a safe after-school environment for youths in the community. I was shocked by their comment and said, ‘Where are your parents?’ Now I realize they may have had only one parent, and that parent may have been at work.”
One of the friends with her that evening was her roommate, Kabis, now Beyond the Numbers’ vice president. “These kids need one-on-one interaction,” Kabis said. “Sometimes they have bad days, but most days you can see the difference you’re making by showing them they’re important.”
Gaby Tirado ’18, who volunteered Tuesdays and Thursdays this past spring at Parkview Gardens, described the partnership as being “like a family.”
Jarvis isn’t the only Parkview Gardens youth for whom the Beyond the Numbers partnership has paid academic dividends.
“This has helped me in all my classes. It’s made English a lot easier and math a little too easy,” said Da’Mya Harris, who just completed eighth grade at Prince Edward County Middle School (PECMS). “These guys motivate me to do something in life.”
Sabrina Pennington said her twin daughters, Heather and Ashley Alexander, who were fifth-graders last year at PECMS, had a better attitude about school after Beyond the Numbers volunteers became involved in their lives.
“They got their homework done a lot better,” Pennington said.
Another admirer is Pattie Cooper-Jones, property manager at Parkview Gardens, where she has lived for 32 years.
“I have been impressed by the love and affection and commitment of this remarkable group of students,” said Cooper-Jones, vice chairman of the Prince Edward County Board of Supervisors. “They have made all the difference in these kids’ lives. It’s been the magic piece of the puzzle. These kids light up when they get off the bus and see the Longwood students.”
In a campus drive this spring, “Beyond the Backpack,” Beyond the Numbers collected 72 backpacks for the Parkview Gardens kids—more than double their goal—which were given out at a picnic the organization held there in late April. The backpacks, said McConnell, were “filled with love for the summer”—books, art supplies and sports equipment.
On the Longwood campus, Beyond the Numbers is attracting attention.
“Amelia is an extremely dedicated, gifted young woman whose leadership skills exceed her chronological age,” said Ann Bradshaw, faculty-scholar in the Cormier Honors College who is the organization’s faculty adviser. “I’m impressed with her maturity, her relentless drive and her magnetism, which engages these children and their families. This program emulates the multidisciplinary education tied to service that is at the heart of citizen leadership.”
Others providing guidance to McConnell include Hazel Duncan, executive director of the Longwood Foundation, and Sally Thompson, a member of Farmville Town Council. Duncan is sharing her expertise in how to run a nonprofit, while Thompson is offering contacts for resources and introducing McConnell to community members.
“Amelia is contagious,” said Duncan. “I’m impressed that she knows at such a young age what she wants to do and that she has such a drive to help others. In the last year, Beyond the Numbers has raised about $3,000, which is unusual for a student organization. They do a lot with a little.”
Thompson, a retired teacher with an interest in young people, called Beyond the Numbers an asset to our community. They have worked so hard, and their relationship with the youths at Parkview Gardens is fantastic.”
McConnell considers Beyond the Numbers an “initial step” toward her dream of establishing a Boys & Girls Clubs of America chapter in Farmville. She knows firsthand what a difference the club can make in the life of a child. McConnell grew up in a military family that was constantly moving from one base to another, and Boys & Girls Clubs provided “consistency.”
“I’m a ‘Club’ kid born and raised,” said McConnell. “I went to their after-school activities beginning at age 6, started volunteer coaching when I was 15 or 16 and have worked as a program aide for three years, first in Havre de Grace, Md., where my parents used to live, and last summer and this summer in Newport News, where they live now.” A graphic design major, McConnell hopes to go to work for the organization after she graduates.
Due to her father’s 30-year Army career (he retired as a colonel at the end of her freshman year), McConnell lived around the country and the world—Germany four times, Italy once—before graduating from high school in Carlisle, Pa. Two sisters, Alecia ’12 and Ashlee ’09, preceded her at Longwood. She credits her family with instilling in her a devotion to service.
“All of us are in missions work, work for a nonprofit or serve in the Army,” said McConnell, the youngest of six children. We were all raised to give back, to pay forward. My parents have been selfless their entire lives, but they never looked at us and said, ‘You need to do work for others.’ They led by example.”
The youth services building at Carlisle Barracks, the Army base where McConnell’s father formerly was stationed, is named for her brother, Andrew, an Army sergeant who was killed in Afghanistan in 2009. The building was dedicated in September 2014.
McConnell vowed that her commitment to Beyond the Numbers (featured in a Longwood-produced video) will remain strong even after she graduates.
“I am happy with where we have come, but the program’s sustainability is always an issue, so we continue to reach out to underclassmen,” said McConnell. “Our mission is to leave a legacy—a legacy that others want to be a part of and to continue.”