5 Ways to Make the Holidays Meaningful

shutterstock_121428730

For many, December is a much awaited time of the year. While the holidays can issue in a frenzy of shopping and preparations, extended time away from school and work provide the prefect opportunity to relax and catch up with loved ones. Beyond the presents that may be given or the lights that may decorate our homes, fellowship with family, friends, and neighbors is what renews us during the holidays.

For me, the holidays have always been a time of celebration shared between the generations of my family. As a child I looked forward to going to my great-grandmother’s house. Preparing for the yearly family gathering, I would watch her whip up marvelous holiday delights. I would listen to her stories about Christmas when she was a girl. Once aunts, uncles, and cousins arrived, I loved the hum of the house filled with conversation and holiday cheer. It is the traditions shared with me in my youth that I still look forward to as an adult.

Keeping in mind what makes the season bright for you and finding fun ways to share time with others will surely make this the most meaningful and memorable holiday yet.

5 Activities to Try This Holiday Season

  1. Family book club: This year, select a book for the whole family to read over the holiday. Meeting weekly to discuss the plot, character development, and personal feelings about the story will not only help bring everyone together, but also help the kids (and adults!) keep their reading and critical thinking skills sharp over the break. Time spent discussing readings with family is also a special way to learn new things about each other.
  2. Holiday letter-writing: Nothing brightens a person’s spirits like receiving a hand written letter. Share season’s greetings by sending warm holiday messages to your neighbors, friends, or family members. Additionally, have the kids handwrite a letter to Santa Claus, send thank you cards for gifts received, or keep a holiday journal. These are all great ways to practice writing skills over the break.
  3. Christmas Caroling: Unfortunately, I haven’t seen a caroler in years! However, nothing makes me happier than to join-in (albeit off key) songs like Silent Night and the Twelve Days of Christmas. Revive the holiday tradition this year by starting a caroling circle of your own.
  4. Community service: Because the holidays are not only about what we receive, but what we give back, experiences such as working at a local food bank or collecting donations for less fortunate families provide the opportunity to build a stronger sense of community. Embrace the spirit of the holidays through volunteer work.
  5. Start a new tradition: Traditions provide a sense of closeness with your family and inclusion in a wider community, both contributing to developing a positive self-identity. This year I am happily starting a new holiday tradition with my siblings. Since Christmas is now one of the rare occasions we are all home together, we decided to make each other ornaments for our Christmas trees. Find a new family activity that will allow you to learn from and about those close to you. 

This holiday season don’t just catch up on your Netflix list. Whether getting out to ice skate, reading in front of the fire, or helping a neighbor out, make this a meaningful time by celebrating what matter the most: love shared and good will exhibited.

Fellowship Friday: Team Retreat at City of Refuge

Meeting people “where they are” is foundational to Georgia Center for Opportunity’s (GCO) mission to serve the community and remove barriers to opportunity. As part of this mission, GCO team members recently participated in a unique weekend retreat at City of Refuge (COR), one of Atlanta’s largest homeless shelters for women and children. While this experience was an excellent platform for team bonding, the team also gained life-changing lessons from the residents of COR.

DAY 1

Linda Newton holds new friend at City of Refuge. Courtesy, @GAOpportunity

Linda Newton holds new friend at City of Refuge. Courtesy, @GAOpportunity

While many programs provide meals and clothing to the homeless, very few provide the opportunity to connect deeply with those being served. GCO’s retreat was graciously hosted by one such organization, Restoration ATL (RATL), a non-profit dedicated to creating urban ministry environments that foster healing. RATL’s director and weekend guide, Pastor Jim Ellison, emphasized with great passion that volunteers were there to simply “be with” the ladies and children to get to know them better.

Assimilating into life at the shelter was eased immediately by the children. Delivery Manager, Linda Newton, reflects on her initial moments at COR:

My first experience that weekend was with a 3-year old girl. She blind-sided me, running up to me from behind and immediately holding her arms up to me as if we were long-lost friends. I picked her up and she wrapped her arms and legs around me tight. She was absolutely a love, and we became fast friends.

As the children ushered in the team, dinner time provided opportunities to learn about the women of COR and the circumstances that led them to the shelter. While some women were more open than others, the stories and fellowship that flowed across the dinner table further broke the ice between volunteers and residents.

I had the pleasure of eating dinner with a woman named Liz. She shared with me that a house fire displaced her months earlier. This is a situation that could impact anyone! Throughout our encounter, Liz expressed great determination to rebuild her life and provide a future for her one month old son, who had actually been born during her time at City of Refuge. As I held Liz’s son and listened to her, I realized how much like a family member she was. This meaningful meal brought me a new perspective on what homelessness means in Atlanta.

Holding Liz's son at dinner. Courtesy, @GAOpportunity

Holding Liz’s son at dinner. Courtesy, @GAOpportunity

Stories of misfortune were common-place amongst the women, with job loss, mental illness, and domestic violence being just a few of the tragedies impacting their lives. Facing tough paths back to self-sufficiency, events such as the ice cream social–which followed dinner– served as small moments of enjoyment for the women and children alike.

Vice President of Operations, Chris Elder shares his thoughts on the ice cream social:

At the Friday night ice cream social, I had a difficult time discerning who was a resident and who was a volunteer. The women and the kids staying at City of Refuge looked just like the women and kids I see around Norcross. Some of the moms and older kids were even on their phones texting, checking Facebook, and playing games, a scene not unfamiliar in my house. The younger kids played hard and laughed like they were anywhere else but in a homeless shelter. I was left with a restored hope in the pure resiliency of children.  

DAY 2

Saturday brought deeper connections with acquaintances made just the day before, as well as enlightenment about the spiritual and emotional needs of those restoring their lives. The women’s morning group incorporated lively discussions about God’s love and building community.

Events Specialist, Katherine Greene writes:

I realized that all of us need community no matter where we live. These women did not choose to be homeless but even in their homelessness there is a strong need for community. Words like love, hope, forgiveness, and togetherness came up as we described a healthy community. It was great discovering things that we had in common. This helped us to learn more about each other and to find a connection to help us bond even more.

Readjusted

Katherine Greene enjoys women’s morning group. Courtesy, Restoration ATL

Planting vegetables in the community garden later in the afternoon further drove home the importance of community and the harvest that can come from working together. Through expressing feelings and getting hands dirty, personal barriers dissolved into understanding and warm smiles.

GCO team members also participated in a morning full of activities such as kick-ball and arts-and-crafts with the children of the shelter. While fun in nature, free time also revealed some of the hard effects of living in a shelter and family breakdown.

Breakthrough Fellow Michael Schulte writes:

Interacting with the kids reinforced several important lessons for me: Children are eager for attention and affection, they are incredibly adaptable to their surroundings, and they are significantly shaped by those who raise them. While playing with the children brought me a lot of joy, it also carried the sober reminder that a number of these kids come from abusive backgrounds. I saw this in a 12-year-old boy who verbally threatened and intimidated his peers every time they made him angry.  I am hopeful that City of Refuge will foster healing for a number of these kids and rebuild trust within relationships they have.

photo 1 (1)

Michael Schulte leads recreational activities at City of Refuge. Courtesy Restoration ATL

Experiencing both highs and lows at City of Refuge, it was clear by the end of the second day that no one was quite the same as when they arrived. There was an overwhelming sense of honor for having shared time in the lives of so many dynamic, insightful, inspiring, and tough individuals. Team members also found themselves humbled.

Elder writes:

It certainly put the trivialities of my life that I consider problems into perspective, and clearly illustrated how slippery the social mobility ladder can be for any of us. 

Greene writes:

I reflected back on some of my life’s most difficult circumstances and realized that these women were all teachers without even realizing it. They were teaching me (the student) how to listen to people and how to be grateful in everything.

RATL enhanced

Restoration ATL’s mission scripture. Courtesy, @GAOpportunity

The experience at City of Refuge and participation in Restoration ATL’s weekend retreat is one that will not soon be forgotten by the GCO team.

Newton writes:

My last experience at City of Refuge was with a former resident who had come back to volunteer with RATL. She and I spoke quite a bit through the course of the weekend and I learned that she was a recovering drug addict and alcoholic, only about 3 years older than me. She had a great spirit and sense of humor and I really enjoyed talking with her. We have since communicated by text, and I hope to stay in touch with her. I fear that she will relapse, as she has many times in the past. I want to continue to encourage her and hope to be a positive influence in her life. I really want her to make it.

The residents of the shelter represent only a small group of Georgia’s 27,000 homeless men, women, and children. Taking the time to view Georgia’s homeless as the friends, loved ones, neighbors, employees, co-workers, and students that they are is vital to enacting meaningful interventions that will change lives.

For more information on City of Refuge, Restoration ATL, and Georgia Center for Opportunity‘s work, please follow the links.

The Gifted Education Foundation

Image retrieved from iamgifted.org.

Image retrieved from iamgifted.org.

Georgia Center for Opportunity (GCO) desires to see students flourish. As a way of realizing this vision, GCO supports organizations that have a similar heartbeat to see students succeed. One such organization is the Gifted Education Foundation (Gifted).

This summer, GCO had the privilege of hosting Gifted’s founder, Anthony Flynn, for a Lunch & Learn where he discussed how Gifted got started and the impact it is making in the community. Local high school students, education leaders, and various non-profit workers came to the event to learn more about this promising organization.

Flynn opened the session by sharing an inspiring testimony about his life.

Born to a 17-year-old single mother in Memphis, Tennessee, his childhood was marked by upheaval and transition. Nonetheless, he overcame adversity and earned a scholarship to play football at Tennessee Tech University. College proved to be another period of trials, however, as he found himself surrounded by peers who made negative choices. After attending this school for just a semester, he decided to transfer to the University of Memphis where he would go on to graduate in four years.

After graduating from college, Flynn continued his education and earned a Master of Arts (Religion) from Memphis Theological Seminary. During this time, he worked as a student pastor where he served and mentored many at-risk students. This work led him to become involved in sustainable urban development that focused on restoring the economic, educational, and social foundation of his community, and later to serve as president of a national organization that trains urban leaders to impact America’s 250 most at-risk zip codes. From these experiences, Flynn went on to found Gifted in 2012.

Gifted exists to produce first generation college graduates and marketplace leaders from low-income communities across America. It is built upon the premise that every child has the potential to succeed if given the opportunity and guidance he or she needs.

I Am Gifted 2

Image retrieved from iamgifted.org.

Flynn believes that although “16 million American children are growing up in poverty,” they do not have to stay there. They can move forward “with the right educational opportunities and a structured system of leaders guiding them through a proven process.”

Providing this opportunity and guidance is precisely what Gifted seeks to do.

As a way of accomplishing this mission, Gifted has developed a four-phased strategy. Each phase prepares students for their next step in life, equipping them with the skills and resources needed to maximize their potential:

Phase 1: The Gifted Preparatory School

The first phase of the strategy involves preparing high school students for college, careers, and the rest of their life by teaching them general life skills, improving their ability to take standardized tests, building college and career awareness, and directing students toward scholarship and financial aid options.

Phase 2: The Gifted College Access Program

The second phase is designed to serve a select group of students who receive comprehensive life skills development and college readiness training. This training occurs on a college campus throughout students’ junior and senior years of high school. The focus is on improving their writing and standardized test-taking abilities, guiding them through the college application process, scholarships and financial aid, and strengthening their life skills in the realm of decision-making, conflict resolution, and time management, among others.

Phase 3: The Gifted Mentoring Program

The third phase provides students who successfully complete the Gifted College Access Program with hands-on, experiential coaching through the Gifted Enrichment and Retention Curriculum. Each student is assigned to a Life Development Coordinator and placed in cohorts where life-on-life accountability and support is deliberated throughout their entire undergraduate education. Students will also participate in leadership development programs, internships, fellowships, and research graduate school options.

Phase 4: The Gifted Leadership Program

Finally, the fourth phase consists of two tiers:

The first tier will provide college graduates with a key marketplace partner who will serve as a life and career mentor. Graduates will work to develop short, medium, and long-term goals in a variety of life categories. In addition, they will cultivate leadership skills, work to enhance existing relationships, and develop a civic and community engagement plan.

The second tier is for graduates who have the criteria in place to become marketplace leaders. They will receive preparation for mid-level to senior-level executive leadership roles in the marketplace, mentor at least one student in the Gifted program, receive training and opportunity for philanthropy and high-impact community involvement, and be trained to serve as entry-level board members for community and non-profit organizations.

Image retrieved from http://iamgifted.org.

Image retrieved from http://iamgifted.org.

Through the implementation of this strategy, Gifted hopes to achieve three outcomes over the course of a student’s involvement with the program. The first is that Gifted students graduate high school equipped with academic and life skills necessary to enroll in and be successful at a four-year college/university. The second is that Gifted students graduate college and are successfully hired in the marketplace or enrolled in graduate school within six months of college graduation. The third is that Gifted alumni take on the responsibility of mentoring at least one other student within six months of their graduation.

Cultivating the mentality of giving back is important for the continued success of the program and for growing lifelong, benevolent people that will continue to serve their communities.

Gifted’s comprehensive approach prepares students to be successful in college, in their career, and in life. For this reason, GCO is proud to encourage community partners to support Gifted in seeing students reach their full potential.

To learn more about Gifted, get involved with their work, or read stories about their success, visit http://iamgifted.org/.

Fellowship Friday: The Village

Recently, the Breakthrough Fellows at GCO watched and discussed M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village. This movie, for those who haven’t seen it, chronicles a religious, cult-like community that lives deep in the woods. This community is watched by “those we don’t speak of,” who have a standing agreement to not enter into the community so long as the border outside of the community’s village is not breached.

As the movie progresses, the social fabric of the village begins to erode. This erosion reaches its pinnacle when Noah Percy, played by Adrian Brody, stabs Lucius Hunt, played by Joaquin Phoenix, over jealousy of Mr. Hunt’s impending marriage to Ivy Walker, played by Bryce Dallas Howard. This stabbing and the different reactions to it offer three valuable lessons that can be applied to any community.

First, human nature has a base and evil element. This lesson is seen in Noah’s jealousy, which leads him to stab Lucius. Despite the effects of religion or different social constraints, humanity has base desires that will lead to civil unrest and societal disorder. The primitive innocence was not able to create the social conditions necessary to eradicate the evil desires in Noah’s heart.

Second, the village was founded on a “noble lie.” In Plato’s Republic, Socrates explains that the City in Speech – a utopia – must be founded upon a “noble lie,” which gives a false account of the city in order to trick the citizens into supporting the endeavor. Similarly, in this movie, we see that the village was founded on a noble lie. This noble lie was agreed upon by the elders in hopes of creating an innocent society without the presence of evil. As they discuss how to respond to Noah’s stabbing of Lucius, the village elders have to reveal the noble lies that the village was founded upon.

Finally, utopias are not founded upon reality. Given the previous two points, it stands to reason that a utopian society would be founded upon untruthful presumptions about human nature. It can thus be concluded that utopias would lack a proper conception of reality. As we see at the end of The Village, Ivy steps out of the woods and into a completely different, very modern world. By receiving the medicine needed to save Lucius from the real world, Ivy shows the inadequacy of the utopia and the importance of engaging with reality.

Here at GCO, we work to remove barriers to social and economic barriers to opportunity. As we learned through this discussion, it is futile to try to overcome these barriers without realizing the importance of grounding our solutions in reality. In our work, we hope to take into account the many barriers that are an every day reality for Georgians and tailor our solutions to provide opportunity that is grounded in that reality.

Family Promise – Providing a Hand-Up

Photo found at http://www.stmaustin.org/catholic-single-parents.

Photo courtesy of St. Thomas More Catholic Church,  http://www.stmaustin.org/catholic-single-parents.

When someone mentions the word homeless, what picture first comes into your mind? A person huddled under a bridge in a sleeping bag or lying on a park bench next to a grocery cart with a few belongings; or perhaps a person standing on the street corner holding cardboard sign that reads, “Hungry. Anything Helps.”  While these are tragic pictures of the reality of homelessness in our country, many people are homeless in less overt ways all around us.

In its simplest form, a person is homeless if they lack stable housing.[i] This situation may include a wide range of circumstances, from living on the street, to staying in a shelter or transitional house, to doubling-up with family members or friends for a short period of time. The stark reality is that those who are homeless face instability, and this takes a toll on people, especially children.

Georgia has a number of organizations that work to address the issue of homelessness. One notable organization, Family Promise of Gwinnett County, Inc. (Family Promise), focuses specifically on addressing the needs of families that have become homeless due to a temporary change in circumstances like losing a job. This interfaith non-profit is part of a national organization founded in 1986 which has 182 local organizations nation-wide. Family Promise’s mission is “to mobilize communities of congregations that partner with social service agencies to end homelessness – one family at a time.”[ii]

Family Promise stands as one of the few shelter programs in Gwinnett that specifically target homeless families. Their emphasis on families as opposed to individuals is rooted in the reality that families with children are among the fastest growing segments of the homeless population.[iii] Estimates in Gwinnett County show that 60 percent of the homeless family population consists of children, and 50 percent of these children are under the age of six. This reality is reflected in the Gwinnett County School System which accommodated over 3,000 homeless students during the 2011-2012.[iv]

Georgia as a whole ranked 41st in the nation in matters related to child homelessness in 2010, having an estimated 45,566 homeless children.[v]

Most of the families served by Family Promise are single-parent households, and 60 percent of their guests have experienced situational homelessness before.[vi] Families must go through a thorough interview process to qualify for the 30 to 90 days shelter program, which involves a review of their work history, evictions, criminal background, and drug history. In addition, families must have a child under 18 years of age to qualify for the program, and at least one person in the household is required to have at least a part-time job during their stay.

Families stay in the program 51-55 days on average. They must move to a new host church every week as a way preventing them from becoming too comfortable and as a way of balancing the demand placed upon the host churches. Participants are required to actively search for a job and to work regularly once they obtain one. Typical jobs that participants obtain include fast food service, retail, housekeeping, landscaping, and customer service.

In 2013, Family Promise served a total of 38 families of whom 74 percent graduated from the program. Of these graduates, 55 percent had a job and 64 percent had a place to live upon leaving the program.[vii]

Chuck Ferraro, executive director of Family Promise, estimates that there are more than 400 churches of various sizes in Gwinnett. His job is to recruit these churches to be partners by agreeing to house up to four homeless families in their church building for one week out of the year. Currently, families rotate weekly among 30 Host Congregations in the network. Each host congregation is responsible for providing lodging, three meals a day, and general hospitality three to four times a year. Lodging consists of church classrooms and other open rooms in the building that can be converted into living spaces for these families during the week. Churches are able to do this in areas of their buildings that require limited use during the week.

Ferraro said that if he can get thirteen churches committed to housing a homeless family once a quarter, the needs of families that they serve could be covered for an entire year. However, getting churches to make this sort of commitment is a major challenge, he expressed. They are often pulled in a variety of directions when it comes to ministry focuses, and housing homeless families is not always a popular draw (despite the fact that caring for the poor is a central mission of the Church, he argues).

Nonetheless, Ferraro explained that there are ample opportunities for congregations to be involved in the work besides hosting families, and these include providing regular volunteers and funding. Volunteers are essential to the success of Family Promise as they provide a wide range of services that keep the program in operation, from cooking and serving meals, to playing with children and helping them with homework, to interacting with guests and providing overnight security.

As a way of addressing the needs of families beyond the immediate shelter program, Family Promise has created an aftercare program that supports families for up to a year after their time in the shelter program. Families who enter the aftercare program will receive case management, parenting and nutrition classes, and financial support that will help them on their pathway toward self-sustainability. The organization is looking to target twelve families per year for this program.

Addressing the needs of homeless families can be an overwhelming task. However, when members of a community join together to serve in the unique capacity that each is able, a tangible and significant difference can be made in the life and trajectory of a family.

 


[i] National Health Care for the Homeless Council, “What is the official definition of homelessness?” accessed June 23, 2014, http://www.nhchc.org/faq/official-definition-homelessness/.

[ii] Family Promise of Gwinnett County, Inc., “A Recovery & Sustainability Program for Homeless Families,” Brochure, received June 6, 2014.

[iii] National Coalition for the Homeless, “Who is Homeless?” Fact Sheet, July 2009, accessed June 23, 2014, http://www.nationalhomeless.org/factsheets/who.html.

[iv] Family Promise of Gwinnett County, Inc., “A Recovery & Sustainability Program.”

[v] Ellen L. Bassuk et al., America’s Youngest Outcasts 2010: State Report Card on Child Homelessness, The National Center on Family Homelessness, December 2011, 35, http://www.homelesschildrenamerica.org/media/NCFH_AmericaOutcast2010_web.pdf.

[vi] Interview with Chuck Ferraro, Executive Director at Family Promise of Gwinnett County, June 6, 2014.

[vii] Family Promise of Gwinnett County, Inc., “A Recovery & Sustainability Program.”

An Excellent Student Scholarship Organization

School_Choice_Rally_2013_move_forward

While no English word truly captures the full meaning of the Greek word Arete, its simplest translation is excellence. It is the divine essence of the word, however, that Derek Monjure had in mind when he founded Arete Scholars Fund Inc. As a Student Scholarship Organization (SSO), Arete is dedicated to helping low-income families access quality education at private schools in Georgia. The Breakthrough Fellows and GCO team members recently had the opportunity to visit with Mr. Monjure and Arete’s Director of Communications Buck Alford to learn more about Georgia’s tax credit scholarship program and their role as SSO operators.

For those unfamiliar with Georgia’s tax credit scholarship, the program allows corporations to donate up to 75% of their state income liability to a state approved SSO. Additionally, families are able to contribute up to $2,500. In return, both corporate and individual contributors receive a tax credit for the same amount of their donation. SSOs then use the raised funds to grant scholarships of as much as $8,983 a school year. This money goes directly to families and is used towards placing their child in the partnering private school of their choice. On average, Arete awards scholarships of $4,ooo-$5,000 to the families they serve.

The tax credit scholarship program has been a great opportunity for the more than 15,000 students who have been fortunate enough to receive scholarships. However, many more opportunities exist to eliminate the barriers that bar even more of Georgia’s children from this same benefit. One such opportunity is to raise the overall tax credit program cap, or perhaps remove it all together. The 2014 contribution cap of $58 million was reached in just three weeks. In one regard, this signifies the popularity of the program and desire of Georgians to contribute to quality education. In a less positive regard, reaching the cap so quickly has already affected the SSOs, families, and students whose donors missed the cut off. For Arete, and many other SSOs,

Despite the challenges, the spirit and energy of Arete Scholars remains focused on providing the financial means necessary for students to pursue a level of academic excellence that they would  otherwise be unable to access. The organization has even begun expanding its operations into other states, starting with Louisiana. Though Mr. Monjure is quick to say his work is simply transactional, it is clear from his passion that his mission is actually rooted in a higher calling.