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Alexandria churches help children stay on top academically

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Good Shepherd Church and St. Louis Church in Alexandria had a dream of collaborating on a project that would alleviate poverty in their area. With the help of Tim Slayter, principal of nearby Bucknell Elementary School, they decided on an enrichment program for students who might otherwise fall behind academically during summer break. For the kids, it's just plain old summertime fun.

"It's not like other summer schools," said Camila Valle, a rising sixth-grader. "This one is fun and active."

Franklin Mejia Amador, a rising fifth-grader, also gave it a ringing endorsement. "It's better than staying home and playing video games."

Attacking poverty at its roots

After speaking with Slayter, the two parishes knew they wanted to focus on education. They turned to the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, a program of the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops, which issues grants to groups that directly aid the poor on a local level.

Currently in its pilot year, the project offers a three-week summer enrichment camp to 23 Bucknell students - rising first- through sixth-graders. Public schools along the Route 1 corridor, such as Bucknell, are some of the poorest in the area, said Susan Grunder, director of social ministry at Good Shepherd. Eighty percent receive free or reduced-price lunch.

"Every year, we would look for opportunities to keep the kids engaged academically, using their brains in lots of different ways," said Slayter, who recently left Bucknell to head another local school, Cameron Elementary. Many parents cannot afford camp or find transportation for their children.

"When they don't have access to go to summer camp, they lose out," said Grunder.

St. Louis provided the space for the camp while Good Shepherd made lunches and donated several books for the children to take home. The curriculum is filled with project- based learning and prioritizes problem-solving, fostering a growth-mindset in the children and encouraging empathy.

Slayter, a parishioner of Sacred Heart Church in Manassas and a candidate in the diocesan permanent diaconate program, believes the children will come away with a sense that they are loved and cared for by this community. "When somebody creates a place for them … when people that think they matter, that learning matters, that becoming a productive citizen matters, they build a (sense of) significance," he said.

Play dough and earthquakes

"It looks like tortilla," one boy shrieked. "No, it looks like yogurt."

After breakfast, the younger cohort of summer campers spent the morning trying to create the perfect play dough consistency using flour, water and salt. Instead of something moldable, the current recipe had yielded a goopy mess. In the next room, older students cut straws and pipe cleaners to make model buildings that could withstand a mock earthquake.

"They think they're having fun, but they don't realize how much they're learning," said Marcia St. John-Cunning, a parishioner of St. Louis and the parent liaison at Bucknell.

For St. John-Cunning, the best part of camp is the sense of resiliency the kids are gaining. One day, a student started crying because she couldn't figure out how to play a strategy game. The next day, she won the game. St. John-Cunning and the teacher explained that they were proud of her, not because she won, but because she tried again.

"For this student, the power of having that life skill (of) not giving up is transformative," said St. John-Cunning. "It's not going to show up in a test, but (it's) having confidence."

'Taking care of our brothers and sisters'

St. John-Cunning has big hopes for the future of the summer program. If they can find a way to provide transportation, she hopes to open the camp to more students from different elementary schools in the area. Through this school year, she wants to visit each child's home and to occasionally host after-school programs that will reinforce the lessons learned at camp.

In her work as a parent liaison, St. John-Cunning has witnessed firsthand the many ways poverty can hinder a child's academic potential. "I see so many things and I want to do so much and I just can't. It can be very overwhelming, so I just pick that one small thing and try to do that well," she said.

She finds inspiration from the Mother Teresa quote, "We can do small things with great love."

"For Catholics, that's our calling," said St. John-Cunning.

Though he has left Bucknell, Slayter plans to stay close to the project. "This is where the rubber meets the road," he said. "And this is where the church asks us to be." He hopes that the Holy Spirit will lead the families involved in the camp closer to Christ. "But at a minimum, we're taking care of our brothers and sisters."

Di Mauro can be reached at zdimauro@catholicherald.com or on Twitter @zoeydimauro.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2016