UNION — With the assistance of the Union County YMCA, an after-school program at the Union Housing Authority is thriving.
Carolyn Rutherford began working with the Union Housing Authority 10 years ago, and she introduced an after-school program and summer camp for the children who live at the Porter Street location. During a conversation with Union County YMCA Director Scott Sandor last year, Rutherford alluded to possibly shutting the program down. Sandor asked her if the program could survive if the YMCA could provide healthy snacks and a staff member for the program, and last August, the YMCA began doing just that.
“We’re not just gym and swim; we want to support the community,” Sandor said, explaining that the after-school program on Porter Street operates the same as the program at the YMCA, except it is free for the children who live there.
“This is a place in the community where we saw that we could offer assistance, and the board has been very supportive. In the next school year, we would love to expand into other housing authority areas.”
The YMCA staff member who assists Rutherford each day is her daughter, Yashica Uzokwe. The mother-and-daughter team lead children by way of tutoring, behavior reinforcement, games and work in the facility’s computer lab. Rutherford said the children enjoy learning with the Reading Plus computer program which tests the students and tracks their progress as they learn.
On Tuesdays, Janie Gist of Union County 4-H and Josephine McBeth of the Alcohol and Drug Commission come to teach students ages 12 and older. Yesterday, Gist’s lesson focused on etiquette and the importance of manners.
Rutherford said she sometimes leads discussions about life in general — what the children see and are exposed to. On Tuesday, they discussed the importance of drinking water, eating healthy and maintaining a healthy body. Rutherford said she strives to teach the students to be the best they can be, helping them to be better citizens and more successful in school.
“I teach every group I work with to finish school and go to college,” Rutherford said. “I was 40 when I went to college, and I didn’t have anyone to push me or teach me. There are kids I’m working with who will be the first ones in their families to go to college.”
Rutherford said she believes God put her in that position because she understands and can relate to the children.
“I grew up in the projects and I know how hard it is,” she said. “I’ve walked in the shoes they’re walking in now. It makes my job easier. I know what hunger is, and I know how important a hug can be. They know if I can help them, I will, and I listen to them one-on-one. I love them, and they know I love them. They love me, and I know they love me.”
Rutherford said a little girl in first grade came to her one day crying, saying she wanted to quit school because the other children wouldn’t play with her. When she asked the girl why, she said, “because of my shoes.” Rutherford said she looked at the shoes which were worse for wear.
“I was that child,” Rutherford said, illustrating that she was in the same situation as a small child. “Growing up, it took me a long time to realize I was as good as the next person.”
Rutherford gathered donations and took the little girl shopping for shoes and other clothes. She said the little girl’s face lit up and her self esteem had seemed to return. Rutherford said she tries to teach the children that the value material possessions does not compare with the value of an education.
“Clothes will wear out, but your education will last a lifetime,” she said.
The children of the program laughed and enjoyed themselves while learning on Tuesday afternoon. Tyrone Cohen, 8, said he enjoys doing his homework because it helps him learn. He also said his favorite part of the school day is when he gets to go to the library. J’Maya Jeter, 12, said she enjoys coming to the after-school program and helping the younger children with their homework. She said she can offer the most help with math because it is her best subject.
Staff Writer Derik Vanderford can be reached at 864-427-1234, ext. 29, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.