Kids help community, learn value of school

By Lynn R. Parks.

When the kids got there, the playground was covered with last year's leaves. Vines were creeping up the chain-link fence and the fence itself was pulling apart in places. By the time they left, the leaves were gone. The fence was vine-free and parts of the fence that had pulled loose had been tied back to the posts. "This makes me feel good, to see the impact that we can have," said Karen Taylor, 15, Seaford. "There is only one bad thing about being out here, and that is the heat." Indeed, it was warm. The 10 teens were happy to stand in the shade when their work was finished and they were looking forward to the afternoon, when it had been promised that they could jump in the pool. But when it was time to work, they willingly picked up leaf rakes, donned white gloves and set about getting the job done. The teenagers are part of an after-school program, Stay in School, Return to School, sponsored by the Division of Health and Social Services, Delaware Technical and Community College and the Salvation Army. As part of the program, they are required to participate in at least 75 hours of structured activity - community service or school - during the summer. The two hours they spent cleaning up the Coverdale Child Development Center in Coverdale Crossroads last week counted toward those 75. According to program manager Lynn Wadja, the program, which its participants have nicknamed To The Max, is designed to help teens stay in school. Kids start in the program in the spring semester of their eighth-grade years and continue through high school. Statewide, Stay in School has 600 participants, 75 of whom attend through the Georgetown campus of Del Tech. Students from Delmar, Laurel, Seaford and Woodbridge school districts travel to Del Tech weekly during the school year, where they are given help with homework and the chance to work in a computer lab. They also receive instruction in AIDS and pregnancy prevention, in money management and in study skills. Participants can be referred to the program by Social Services and by a school counselor as well as by parents and friends. "All teens go through problems," Wadja said. "Some don't have anybody to turn to. A lot of these kids were having trouble in school. We work with the schools and we also focus on life skills so they can succeed." The playground cleanup was coordinated through Americorps, a national program designed to help teenagers survive their adolescence. Pat Othero, community services coordinator based in Dover, specializes in adolescent survival skills and heads up the two-week teen survival course in which Stay in School teens participate. Participation in the program counts toward the 100 hours of community service work that will earn the teenagers one high school credit. "We are cleaning up the playground," Othero said, briefly letting her leaf rake rest. "It will make it a safer place to play in and will uplift it a little bit."

The Stay in School program was started in 1997. Six of the Georgetown campus's first participants graduated this year; one is going into the military, two are working and three are going on to college, Wadja said. "The key to the success of the program is building relationships," she added. "That's what it's all about: making sure that the kids have someplace safe to go and someone to talk to." Jamie Suggs Johnson just graduated from Seaford High School and will be attending Del Tech, maybe to study to be an office assistant. Even though she has finished high school, she will maintain a connection to the Stay in School program. "Jamie and I will keep our friendship open," said Wadja. "This program taught me how to survive in the real world," Johnson said. "It encouraged me to stay in school and taught me the things I needed to know." Edward Charles Newton, 15, Greenwood, just completed the ninth grade at Woodbridge High School. He said that since joining the program last year, he has learned about responsibility. "I used to get all Cs and Ds," he said. "Now I get all Cs and Bs. That is because of this program." Likewise, Devvery Hill, 15, Laurel, has seen a boost in his grades. "I made the honor roll this year," he smiled. "This has made a difference in my life." Shalamar Turnage, 15, Laurel, said that Stay in School helped her stay out of trouble this year at Laurel High School. "It helps me stay away from peer pressure," she said. And it helped with her grades: "I passed!" she grinned. Taylor, who will enter the 11th grade at Seaford High this fall, said that the program has taught her the value of volunteer activities. Wiping sweat from her brow, she said that she wants to continue volunteering. "There are a lot of things that should be done in this community," she said. And she wishes that more teenagers could join her in the Stay in School program. "I'm sure if they came to this program, a lot of kids would stay in school," she said.

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