Offering students and parents a path to success

By Jim Barnes The Washington PostNovember 30 at 11:20 AM

 As part of its growing presence in the Sterling area, INMED Partnerships for Children has begun offering a free after-school program for children from low-income families.INMED launched the program, which provides tutors and mentors to help children with homework, at its Family and Youth Opportunity Center on Ridgetop Circle this month. The center serves children ages 6 to 12 who live in Sterling-area neighborhoods with a high percentage of low-income families, said Maria Vasquez, executive director of the Opportunity Center. Many of the children’s parents do not speak English, she said.The children “don’t really have a parent or adult or another person in their lives who can help with homework and who really can help them succeed in school,” Vasquez said.INMED’s program focuses on homework completion, but it also provides other structured activities, such as arts and crafts, reading, and games.The program differs from similar ones in Loudoun County because its services are free. Vasquez said that is “huge” for struggling families.

“Those families might not be able to pay even $30 a month” for after-school care, because [they can’t] take that away from the rent, or food or gas,” she said.

To be eligible for the after-school program, a family must demonstrate economic need, and the child must be referred by his school counselor, Vasquez said. The program offers help to children who are struggling academically, but it is not designed to fix behavioral problems, she said.

Vasquez anticipates that when children reach certain goals — including the ability to complete homework, get better grades and display improved self-esteem — they will leave the program, freeing space for other students. The center has classroom space for 45 children and draws from a pool of more than 40 volunteers who serve as tutors and mentors, Vasquez said.

Transportation is the center’s biggest challenge, because INMED does not have the means to pick up students from their schools or take them home.

“At one school, the counselor said, ‘I can give you 45 students today,’” Vasquez said. But most of the students did not have a way to get to the center because of their parents’ work schedules.

“We are looking for a donated bus [and] we are looking for grants to bring those kids here, because that is what is getting in the way” of their success, Vasquez said. “It is really sad.”

Although the after-school program opened with just nine students, enrollment had grown to 23 after two weeks, Vasquez said. She anticipates that it will serve 75 to 80 students over its first year.

INMED, which also has offices in Brazil, Jamaica, Peru and South Africa, was founded 29 years ago to help rescue children from hunger, disease, abuse and neglect. For the past 21 years, the nonprofit organization has had its headquarters in Sterling.

Hope Stonerook, deputy director of family services for Loudoun, said that INMED “has been a great partner with the county in varying ways” for many years, including providing caseworkers to visit at-risk families in their homes through the Healthy Families program.

INMED recently expanded its range of services in the Sterling area to meet the needs of the low-income population in its back yard, Vasquez said. It offers programs such as job skills training, job fairs and English language classes.

“We want to see the center as an opportunity to help these families succeed, and to really see that not only the children are successful, but the parents are successful, and they are all contributing to a better Loudoun community,” Vasquez said.

Barnes is a freelance writer.