Editor’s note: The SHARE Foundation recently announced grants to 11 area nonprofits focused on intervention and prevention of crime and violence through the foundation’s Union County Violence Intervention Plan (VIP). This story is part of a series of articles highlighting the programs funded, at least in part, with those grants.
For decades, Dr. Tony Evans of Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship has led the Adopt-a-School Initiative, matching church members with local school children to provide mentorship opportunities. The goal is to produce stronger test scores and encourage students to make better life decisions.
Wyatt Baptist Church has spread the initiative to Union County, beginning with El Dorado Public Schools in 2014. Program director Vicki Harmon said the vision to to have churches come alongside the public schools and provide consistent mentorship and relationship-building.
"We had this vision of a coalition of churches that wanted to make an impact on the community and on these children, giving them encouragement and success," she said. "We didn't have much success until we received the SHARE Foundation grant, which allowed us to have someone designated to running the program full time. Since then, we've more than doubled our numbers."
The program has about 45 mentors in place, with another 15 or so ready to go this year. Harmon said the goal is to get churches in every school district in Union County to get involved. The program will receive a $60,671 from the SHARE Foundation for this year to expand to other schools. Currently, seven churches mentor 84 children in three area school districts: El Dorado, Parkers Chapel and Strong.
"There are about 15 churches for every school in the county," she said. "We feel like if just a few churches stepped up, we could have a huge number of mentors reaching these students. These are at-risk students and they are selected by teachers and counselors. Mentors have between one and three students."
As students age and go to different schools, they retain their original mentor, which Harmon said provides more stability than if the mentors were assigned to schools, rather than children.
"You're not just doing it one year and then passing the mentorship along," she said. "It gives the kids stability. I started with my girls in the fourth grade; now we're in the ninth grade, and we're a pretty tight group. I've seen a lot of changes, they've seen it; we just love each other."
Mentors meet with their students at the schools once a week during their elective period, which cuts out any transportation or timing issues.
"The VIP grant is a huge blessing," Harmon said. "It's a way that we can reach out to children before they make bad decisions, try to steer them with their education and goal setting. We track grades and attendance each semester to track the impact we've had."
Harmon said the El Dorado School District has been very supportive, providing her an office at Yocum.
"We encourage not only the kids, but the teachers and the staff of the schools to know they're not in this fight alone," she said. "We feel like, as Christians, we're called to serve others. We just have people who have love for kids; not everybody is called to be a mentor, other people can pray for us or donate."
• About the grants: The SHARE Foundation recently announced grants to 11 area nonprofits focused on intervention and prevention of crime and violence through the foundation’s Union County Violence Intervention Plan (VIP). The grants, totaling $324,371 dollars, are the organization’s third round of VIP grants and thirty-second round of grant awards overall. With the grant announcement, the SHARE Foundation has now give more than $8 million in grants and strategic initiatives to 91 different nonprofits operating in Union County, according to a press release from the organization. The grants fund items including operations, specific programs, software purchases and more.
SHARE’s VIP program began in 2018 and focuses on six areas: mentoring, re-entry, neighborhood watches/clean neighborhoods, parenting/life skills, jobs/targeted education, and mental health/substance and drug abuse.
For more details on the SHARE Foundation, visit their website at sharefoundation.com. The foundation’s Violence Intervention Plan, it’s strategies and intended outcomes are available to review. Contact Debbie Watts, vice president of community impact at SHARE Foundation at 870-881-9015 for more information or to get involved.