By: Katie Sobiech
A typical child’s worries might be the monster in the closet, whether or not they go to McDonald’s or got the toy that they wanted. In many Akron neighborhoods the worries of children take on a whole new level. It isn’t uncommon for many kids to go to bed at night with empty stomachs, wondering whether or not they will go hungry over the weekend, or if mom will make enough money so that they can afford school supplies, or if they will have a coat to keep them warm during the winter.
Not only is home life a struggle for many of these children, but the conditions at school aren’t any better. Leggett Elementary School, 120 years old, is one of the oldest schools in Akron. The only bathrooms are in the basement (which has been compared to a dungeon) and the building’s temperature fluctuates according to the weather. It is hot when the weather’s hot and cold when the weather’s cold.
“And the playground is horrible,” Lisa Marshall, Urban Ministries Director at the Chapel explained.
Marshall has been working with kids in the inner city schools for years.
Fortunately Leggett is in the process of being rebuilt. In an interesting parallel, as the outward structure is being made over so is what is going on inside, in the lives of the children there.
Growing Up Too Fast
Working with the youth for years, Marshall admits that the children at Leggett “Are a little too grown up. They understand grown up things about not having money and that kind of stuff.”
Living in neighborhoods and with parents that are mostly working class poor, they don’t have much of a choice.
Therefore Marshall began heading up a ministry at the Chapel with the vision of reaching out to the Akron Public School System and providing for the children’s needs, not only physically but spiritually as well.
A Passion Ignited
Growing up in Peninsula, a twin and the youngest of seven children, Marshall was influenced by her mother’s salvation, which sparked a desire in her to go to church and get involved in a Bible Camp.
“It was way out in the boonies,” Marshall described, “miles from anything.”
While working at a ranch for troubled youth she developed a passion for working with young people.
After graduating from Taylor University she worked at a Christian school for a couple of years and then started Akron Youth Quake, a ministry focusing on Edgewood Homes – one of the worst housing developments in Akron in 1990.
“I remember the three story apartments, and knocking on doors looking for kids,” she explained, “it wasn’t really smart, but at the time you’re young and you want to change the world and save everybody and you just don’t think of that kind of stuff.”
As a 25 year old she did these things believing God would protect her. And He did.
On Saturday mornings they would have breakfast and Bible Club in the community center where they would often take the kids out of their element – from the city to the country – so they could camp out, backpack and go biking. They would also get teens from the juvenile court and alternative schools and teach them hands – on skills and woodworking.
Marshall stayed with Youth Quake for about 10 years until an opportunity opened up at the Chapel. They didn’t have an urban ministry department and wanted to do something locally. The church conducted a door to door survey asking people what they thought were the greatest needs of the neighborhood. The number one answer was the schools.
That is when the inner city ministry was born at the Chapel. Marshall began building relationships with the administrators of schools and testing the waters to see what the needs were. She asked “What do you want us to do?” and “How can we help?”
Programs in the Schools
First they started a tutoring program called “Study Buddy”. They also focused on reading with their “Reading Rocks” program, having tutors come in to work with the kids on their reading twice a week. Many of the kids have very low reading skills. In January they started working towards test taking skills, mostly in math and reading.
Their SAVE (Students Against Violence Everywhere) program has been a huge success. When Marshall first started at Leggett Elementary School the suspension rate was about 40%. This motivated her to start SAVE, a national program based out of North Carolina that provides kids with incentives. When they reach their goals, getting two or less warnings by the last Friday of every month, they get rewarded for their good behavior. To celebrate they have had a carnival, a dance, a DJ come in, “American Idol”, and movie theater day. In this program’s first year the suspension rate was reduced to 8%.
“Now we have a safe, bully – free school environment and it is a learning environment,” Marshall said.
They also have a Bible club that meets on Mondays after school, a clothing drive, and Christmas in July – giving out back packs, school supplies, new socks, underwear, and shoes to the kids.
“The neighborhood is pretty much working class poor. There isn’t really welfare out there anymore,” Marshall explained, “Its people working and trying to make ends meet.”
So this not only brings joy to the children but relief to their parents who are struggling.
Lessons from the Suburbs
Two years ago Marshall and her husband adopted her nephew, which she said really opened her eyes. Marshall realized that his school was a year ahead of where the kids are in the inner city.
“It’s really put a fire in me,” she said, “I really want to make a difference.”
Leggett also has to provide their own computers when the new school is built in 2010 – which they will mostly likely have to apply for grants to try to get. This is something many other schools systems don’t have to do.
Marshall is trying to take what she’s learned from her son’s school and use it to implement things at the schools she works with.
“I like to call it the mom factor. I look at it as ‘what would I do for my child?’ if my child were in this school how could I help?’ And I approach it from that perspective.”
She is a regular presence at Leggett, making sure to be there at least 3 or 4 times a week.
Backpacks of Love
One hundred percent of the students at Leggett Elementary qualify for free breakfasts and lunches due to their parent’s financial situations. For many of them their only meals are lunch and breakfast at school.
“Some of the kids were coming in starved on Monday mornings,” Leggett’s Principal, Philomena Vincente, said. “They were hungry and had problems concentrating and focusing. They were lethargic, not able to work – just because they were hungry. Or they would have a belly ache by 9:30 am.”
“They can’t learn if they’re not getting the proper nutrition,” Marshall added “and that’s why we are seeing the learning disabilities in lower income homes, because they are still growing and developing and not getting what they need.”
Because of this, Marshall began asking members at the Chapel to donate food which they bag up to give to the kids every Friday through Backpacks of Love. The number of children requesting bagged food jumped from 25 last year, to 55 this year due to the economy.
Seeing the kids trickle through the doors one by one with excitement on their faces as they receive food for the weekend brings joy to the volunteers.
“This is why I never say I am starving,” one volunteer said, as he watched the children, some grinning from ear to ear, happily prance through the doors. Some even ran.
“It has been a blessing for our students,” Vincente said. “Grades and behavior have improved because of it.”
She said she considers herself a lucky woman to be Principal of Leggett Elementary.
The Kid’s Response
One girl wrote Marshall a letter on behalf of her third grade class saying “You make us feel so safe and special. Everyone in this school is thankful to have people like you. Thank you for making a difference in our lives.”
She thanked Marshall for everything from food to clothing, writing “We were so excited and grateful to be at school the first day looking so nice.”
The majority of volunteers that work with Marshall are over 50 years old.
One of the ladies, a widow, runs the food closet, coming in three days a week to organize everything from making sure the food is marked and dated, to getting it packed up and ready to go.
Another volunteer, an 80 year old man, is one of Marshall’s most faithful volunteers. Because he was raised by his grandparents, he knows how difficult it is for a grandparent to raise a child; therefore, he helps a grandmother of three girls at Leggett.
This grandmother raises her three granddaughters in an apartment that isn’t located in the best area. When this man found out about her he wanted to help, so he purchased school uniforms for all three of the girls, and he, his wife and daughter spend time with the grandchildren. One of their outings included Cedar Point.
“We always try to make those connections where people really get involved with people,” Marshall said.
The Key in Building Connections
“From the beginning I have told people to go in the schools and ask ‘what are your needs?’” Marshall said. “You are trying to bridge a gap and build a relationship with people and I think Christianity has a bad rep right now, so we have to go in with no strings attached.”
She made the point that it is important to have whatever is going to happen, happen naturally. As a result of their giving, some parents have begun seeking God and asking questions.
“It happens when you spend time, a lot of time with people,” she said.
Plans for the Future
The truth is, there is a lot of work that still needs to be done in our inner cities.
Lisa’s story needs to be shared because there is only one Lisa and many school districts that are falling apart and in need of help.
We need more Lisa’s in the world. We need more world changers. Changing the world can start in one classroom, on one street, in one city at a time.
If you feel called to help in any area of the ministry, whether it is to give food, donate a coat, or spend time with the children – pouring into their lives – please contact Lisa Marshall at 330-315-5520.
If you have any story ideas, questions, or comments you can contact me at Katie@akroneur.com.