by Jill Ragar Esfeld
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — The “shelter in place” order may have closed the door on The Learning Club’s after-school tutoring program here this spring.
But God opened a window.
And executive director Brad Grabs was quick to climb through.
“God gives us creative means to serve other people,” he said. “We have to be open to what the Spirit is inviting us to do, to see opportunities in a new and different way.
“We have to get a little creative.”
The Learning Club serves disadvantaged children in high-poverty areas by offering one-on-one tutoring and life skills development.
Volunteer tutors form very close bonds with the children they help.
Because schools were on spring break when the “shelter in place” order was announced, The Learning Club program was suspended at a time when tutors and their students were already apart.
“That was really sad,” said Grabs. “We didn’t have an opportunity to have a goodbye at all.”
The heartache of not saying goodbye was compounded by the knowledge that these children and their families were among the most vulnerable in this pandemic.
The average household income of families served by The Learning Club is $12,000 or less, well below the poverty level.
“Some of them are unemployed because of the situation,” said Grabs. “If they are still working, they’re working in a high-risk job because they’re in some kind of service industry setting.”
These families have the added stress of sheltering in close quarters.
“A lot of our kids are stuck inside very small homes with large families,” said Laura Swan, director of operations for The Learning Club. “Our families with seven or eight kids are having a hard time.”
And implementing the technology required to stay connected to school is a challenge.
“Some are not able to get to the school to pick up laptops,” said Swan. “And once they do get them, they don’t have Wi-Fi, or the ability to set it up.”
But The Learning Club has found creative means to support these families and provide a connection between the children and their tutors.
From six of the sites where the program’s tutoring sessions are held, staff members are now making home visits to deliver “care packages.”
Each week, in addition to food and toiletry items, The Learning Club is delivering activities for children, including books acquired through a partnership with the Hands-to-Heart bookmobile.
“Each family gets about five books a week,” said Swan. “It’s a good selection. We also have packets we’ve created on grade level.
“So, each student gets a packet with reading, math and a fun, more physical, activity.”
Staff members drive to family homes and drop off the care packages on the porch. Then, families are called to come out and pick up the items.
“They come out on the porch and we chat for a few minutes across the yard,” said Grabs. “I always check to make sure they have their schoolwork from their teachers — they’re able to access it and everything.
“I ask how their family is doing.”
For the children, a most important part of the package is a personal connection with their tutors.
“We do allow tutors to write letters to their students,” said Swan. “We process them, make sure they abide by our child protection policy and pass them along to the students.
And that’s not all.
“A lot of the students are writing back to their tutors,” she said.
The Learning Club will soon make that connection stronger by piloting Zoom tutoring sessions monitored by staff.
“We’ve got an outline of how that’s going to look,” said Grabs. “The tutor is going to have a book to read and also flash cards.
“Part of it is to maintain that relationship and to help kids feel supported in their schoolwork.”
That support is important to these children. Swan has found that families are very grateful for the food they’re receiving, but children are even more grateful for the educational materials.
“They’re hungry to learn,” she said. “I had a high-schooler ask me to bring her a special math workbook. I never thought I would have a high school student ask me for more work to do.
“So, that’s been really good to see.”
Grab prays every day that The Learning Club will be open to the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
“I think that’s happened,” he said. “We’ve been able to respond in a unique way.
“I feel like the Spirit has enabled us to work despite the circumstances.”