Causes: Ms. Earle directs Youthful HAND at Lee Walker Heights
ASHEVILLE – They bounded off the school bus with a giddiness that would lift the spirits of most any passer-by, some of them joking and romping as they made their way up a long hill leading to Lee Walker Heights.
At the top, in a brick community center tucked in the several decades-old public housing development, the children trickled into their destination on a snowy afternoon last week: an after-school program in which they spend time doing homework Monday through Thursday.
Greeting them was the familiar face of the program, Elinor Earle, a bespectacled woman in her early 70s who has a compassionate yet matter-of-fact tone. She introduced herself to me as Ms. Earle, soon thereafter making an announcement to the buzzing classroom.
“At 4 o’clock we’re doing homework, whether you like it or not,” she declared as some students ate snacks, while others were already working on assignments.
The program, Youthful HAND, has remained a fixture for many parents and students in this community, which opened in 1950 as the city’s first such housing development. In addition to Earle, it is run by two staff members as well as a small number of volunteers.
Meant to help close the achievement gap in schools between more affluent and less privileged children, it serves as a structured environment where students can focus on their homework, from reading and spelling assignments to solving fractions and multiplication problems to researching topics online.
“Can you help me?” one second-grade boy asked, approaching me with a sheet of paper asking him to identify closed-syllable words.
For some, their home lives are not conducive to studying, so coming here has proved helpful.
“If I’m at home, I won’t do my homework,” said Braia Alexander, a fifth-grader who also attends Jones Elementary School, in North Asheville. She was sitting at a table crowded with other girls, many of them also in fifth grade, with another staff member occasionally fielding questions.
For others, it is also considered a kind of diversion.
“It gives me something to do,” said Zhtaviya Byrd, another fifth-grader who also attends Jones Elementary.
Youthful HAND, short for Housing Against Narcotics and Drugs, is open to students in grades K-5 who live in Lee Walker Heights. It also welcomes students in those grades who live in other public housing developments throughout the city, such as Livingston Heights and Klondyke Homes, depending on enrollment.
Besides seeking to close the achievement gap, the program is meant to mentor. “In here, I focus on the whole child,” Earle said.
At 73, Earle has held this role for the past 20 years, after spending time working as a lab technician with the U.S. Forest Service and later running her own maid service. She lives south of Asheville and has two grown children.
She looks after 30 students, a little less than half the number she started with, shuttling some of them back to their homes around 5 p.m.
Having long advocated after-school programs for students from prekindergarten through eighth grade, Earle is not opposed to offering a helping hand to those who are no longer eligible for the program.
“You can’t let them go because they’re getting older,” she said. She noted that she has come to recognize the importance of providing support to students in and after high school, especially for males, who she said are more likely to get caught up in life on the streets. “They need a little support.”
Of those who she does look after, she said: “If they come in here, I know that their homework’s been done.”
Most of the time, anyway. While she said her students seldom miss school, they sometimes forget their homework.
“But then we double up,” said Earle, who shows up every day at Jones Elementary.
This is the opinion of Jake Flannick, filling in for Mountain Causes Reporter Beth Walton while she is out on maternity leave. Like Walton, each week I plan to volunteer around Asheville and share my adventure with our readers. If you’d like me to visit your group, contact me at email@example.com or 828-232-5829. More at www.citizen-times.com/causes.
Youthful HAND at Lee Walker Heights is open to extra assistance. For more information, call Elinor Earle at 828-257-2711.