For the past six years, students from Hood College in Frederick, Md., have spent their spring breaks at Franklinton Center at Bricks in Whitakers, N.C., serving and learning in various ways. This year is no different, as seven students return to the United Church of Christ-affiliated conference and retreat center March 9-14 for a service trip where they will instill the importance of reading in children ages 5 to 11 during Franklinton Center's Literacy Immersion Experience.
"There is a relationship between a person's ability to read and their future success, and we know that if a child does not have strong reading skills by third grade, they are more likely to be part of the criminal justice system in the future," said Vivian Lucas, executive director of Franklinton Center. "We believe we can better ensure a successful future for young people by working with schools, families, organizations and churches to address our students' reading abilities."
For three days, the Hood College students will spend six hours a day at Inborden Elementary School in Enfield, N.C., with students in grades K though 5. Among other activities, the college students will visit different classrooms to engage in reading and tutoring sessions, and also spend time in Inborden's library reading to children.
"Young people are looking for something that is a good use of their time and energy and I think that pulling people together in faith-based groups to work on concrete needs allows them to have the best kind of religious experience," said the Rev. Beth O'Malley, Hood College's dean of the chapel and an ordained UCC pastor. "The kind in which we are motivated to do good work in the world and get back together to talk about what we did, why we did it, and what we need to do next."
The Literacy Immersion Experience is an extension of Franklinton Center's ongoing Literacy Project, which supports students, families, and schools through activities proven to help improve literacy skills and support speaking, listening, thinking, and learning in creative ways. The Literacy Project is designed to address the disparity of opportunity that affects children, youth and adults impacted by race and economic marginalization by offering summer enrichment programs, after-school tutoring, technology enrichment programs, adult literacy classes, and GED preparation.
"This area has low achievement rates, and the reality is that we have increasing amounts of crime in the areas around us, including gun violence, drug use and gang violence," Lucas said of Whitakers and the surrounding areas. "So we are trying our best to strengthen the resiliency of our children to not be involved in these activities and to have stronger reading skills, better vocabulary usage, and the abilities to communicate adequately and to be more confident as the people they are."
In addition to the Literacy Immersion Experience, Hood College students will also be immersed in the history and culture of Franklinton Center. They will visit a museum that details the life and times of African Americans in Eastern North Carolina, and learn about the history of slavery and the on-going problems associated with poverty throughout the region.
"Through this experience, the students get a sustained chance to be in a place that has a very powerful history related to injustice based on race, as well as the economy," O'Malley said. "They get a chance to hear from people who they might not otherwise hear from – mostly African Americans from the rural south.
"They get to examine their own prejudices in a safe environment and the opportunity to do a lot of self-reflection," O'Malley continued. "They can ask themselves, 'How do I feel about this? What makes me uncomfortable? What is a surprise to me? What does this challenge me to do differently?'"