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LAFAYETTE, La. (AP) — About 12 years ago, well-intentioned volunteers with a local church had a rough start in their efforts to live by their faith by reaching out to residents in the Four Corners neighborhood.
They chose the high-crime neighborhood because of their desire to serve in an area that had great need, recalled Jennifer Reynaud, who is now executive director of Bridge Ministry of Acadiana, the faith-based, nonprofit organization that grew from that initial outreach effort.
At first, it was difficult to build trust among residents and assure them the volunteers were there to stay, Reynaud said.
"A lot of people thought, 'You're not going to be here more than a year,' but a few years ago, the local neighborhood association raised money to build these buildings we're in now," she said. "What we do here is of value to them."
What began as a single church's outreach to help a community in need has grown to include 25 organizations that donate resources of time, people and money to help with what has evolved into an extensive after-school program.
The Bridge Ministry campus includes two buildings — one for students in the first through fourth grades and another for the middle and high school students. About 40 students participate, and there's a waiting list. The campus also includes a covered basketball court, a garden and playground. Soon, the Bridge Ministry offices will move from nearby Huval Street to the campus.
On any given day, nine to 10 volunteers work with about 30 students, helping them with their homework and then on building language and math skills through games and other lessons. There's also weekly Bible study, and students donate their own time to a local community organization at least once a week. The ministry promotes parent involvement with parent nights and a Bible study for parents, as well.
Angela Lee Edwards has volunteered with the program for the past two months and said she felt a pull to give of her time after work to help the neighborhood's children.
"I'm a Christian and a special-education teacher and felt called to help with these children. Some of the needs of these students are phenomenal," Edwards said. "It's something that God's put on my heart to do. I feel like I'm doing a job he wants me to do. I have a special spot in my heart for needy families."
The program's coordinators meet with students' teachers and counselors to talk over areas where students may be struggling. It's also not unusual for one of the tutors to attend a teacher-parent conference with a child's parent, said Erin Greneaux, the program's elementary coordinator.
Many students aren't on grade level and need one-on-one intervention, Greneaux said.
"We have one first-grader that doesn't know his numbers," Greneaux said. "He can add and subtract but doesn't recognize the written number and can't write it. He likes art, so I've been using art to teach number perspective, and he's now good through the number 4. It's good that we have the time and resources to pull him aside and realize he's artistic, so we work with that."
The program promotes family time with a community meal where there are also games or speakers on topics such as how to make parent-teacher conferences more productive, Reynaud said.
"We have family dinner together once a month and show them how easy it is to have fun, quality time together with your kids," she said. "It helps with our relationship with parents, too, to see them outside the pickup line."
Roy Landry, 14, is a Lafayette High freshman and has been part of the tutoring program since he was in the third grade. His classmate, Mickayla Shelvin, also 14 has been attending since the sixth grade.
"It's fun to do homework with friends," Shelvin said. "I meet a lot of different people and they help me."
"It's had a good impact on me," he said. "It helped me get more involved in the community. We go to the diner, help out at the food bank and do other community service."
If not for the tutoring center, Landry and fellow Lafayette High classmate Alexas Bender said they'd likely be at home being unproductive.
"I'd be on social media," Bender admitted. "This is a good place for kids who are determined to succeed in their goals in life. It helps us focus more and get to that career and dream job."
She wants to pursue a career in sports medicine and also continue to develop her passion for dance.
Bender started attending the tutoring sessions last year.
"I used to be anti-social," she said, quickly offering up a smile as she joked around with the other students in the room. "I didn't feel like I connected with my peers. This made me want to push myself and make a difference. I'm going to try to be the change."
Outside, Janet White, Landry's mom, and Theresa Guillory, Shelvin's mom, sat on a bench visiting until the tutoring session was over.
The parents said they were initially attracted to the program because of the tutoring services offered — at no charge. But, they said, they grew even more interested when they learned that Bible study and work in the community also would become part of their children's experience.
The program also provides other experiences for the students — summer camping trips and other field trips.
"These are mentors who take time with them," White said.
The tutors also meet with students' teachers and counselors to help plan lessons and identify areas where students need extra instructional support.
"It's like an extended family here," Guillory said. "It's some good people from all walks of life who come here."
Information from: The Advocate, http://theadvocate.com
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