It was about 50 years ago when the late writer Loren Eiseley penned an essay called “The Starfish Thrower” so it’s been one of my favorite stories for almost as long. It tells about a man who walks up to a young boy on a beach, this just after a strong storm had washed hundreds of helpless starfish onto the shore. The boy was picking up the stranded starfish and, one at a time, hurling them back into the sea.
“Son, there are hundreds of starfish on this beach. I don’t believe you are going to make much of a difference,” the older man said. The boy, politely listening, nodded his head, “Yessir, I know that,” he paused, leaning to pick up another to toss back, “but I sure made a difference to that one.”
Yesterday afternoon I watched as 42 little “stars” felt the exact kind of helping hands from people who are trying to make a difference. In an overcrowded classroom, there were 14 desks with two chairs at each. In one chair sat a volunteer mentor. In the other was an inner-city child from Calvin Donaldson Elementary School and in one-on-one fashion, everybody read books together.
If it is true that two-thirds of the 42,000 children in the Hamilton County public schools are unable to read at grade-school level, it is hard to understand how two 30-minute reading sessions after school each week will make any difference. But if you stand in the room and watch as Sally Taylor brings the Olive Branch program of the First-Centenary United Methodist Church to life, it is easy to believe every child in the program will succeed.
Here’s why: “Okay, I am going to get our first group … we have one first-grader who has been acting a little sassy … this is the first anniversary since his dad was killed (gang shooting) … but 18 of our children got awards last week at school … everybody ready to go?” Sally cheers and within two minutes both mentors and children are fully engaged.
The Olive Branch program meets every Monday and Wednesday at the South Chattanooga Recreation Center. There are three 30-minute sessions and Sally splits the kids into three groups by grades K-12, 2-3, and 4-5. The mentors, many of them school teachers that have retired but still embrace the love to be found teaching children, often teach all three sessions.
Taylor, a celebrated teacher in South Carolina for 25 years, moved to Chattanooga three years ago after her husband was hired by Mohawk. “She is in her ideal element,” one mentor said. “Last year there were 20 of our children who were below grade level in the fall and by spring we had 15 of them back to speed.”
Testing showed students in the Olive Branch program – which is absolutely offered at no charge – went from 7 percent of those reading above grade to 40 percent. And at a time when Tennesseans are clamoring for pre-school learning, those in kindergarten and 1st grade programs increased their reading level by 4.5 points.
The mentors are very careful to avoid ministering to the students but that’s a fine line – the children adore their mentors and are very receptive learners. “The Calvin Donaldson faculty is great and does a fabulous job but the one-on-one experience is so rewarding to everyone involved,” Taylor said. “I love to interact with the teachers and they brag on our program.”
Joe Smith, a member of the school board, has raised 19 foster children with his wife and says the one-on-one experience with a child is the best experience you can give a kid. “If Hamilton County really wanted to make an impact in education … no, in a person’s life – let’s put every at-risk child into some program where they would be paired with a Big Brother-Big Sister type of a person. If a child can trust you, they’ll do anything within reason you ask. Want to teach a child to read? Let ‘em know you care.”
Smith’s dream is exactly what First-Centenary’s angels are doing every week. Those interested in learning more about the Olive Branch program, serving as a mentor, or – best yet – making a difference, should call the church. (423 756-2021)
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“Think left and think right and think low and think high. Oh, the thinks you can think up if only you try!” – Dr. Seuss.