It doesn’t take much to get the young adults of Freedom Schools talking about their place in America’s quest for liberty.
Almost 150 college students and recent graduates are in Charlotte this summer, working for a program that has roots in the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Local churches recruit others to help with the six-week summer camp that teaches reading, heritage and motivation.
“Freedom is about being able to use your voice the right way,” says 20-year-old Daniel Hoilett, a Furman University student.
“Freedom means the ability to express yourself and get the education you deserve,” says Ashley Beatty of Concord, a 22-year-old UNC Charlotte graduate.
“I think we’re really lucky living in America, in a country that allows us to be anything we want to be,” says Elizabeth Cooper, a 20-year-old Clemson student. It’s a message she tries to pass to the children she teaches: “We can dream big. They can go anywhere. They can do anything.”
All three are working at The Grove, a small Presbyterian church in east Charlotte that’s one of 19 local Freedom School sites.
At this time of year, it’s almost like a trip back in time. The Grove hosts a Fourth of July festival that includes a parade, a pie-eating contest and a greased-pole climb. Freedom School staff and students plan to join the 45th annual Hickory Grove parade Thursday morning.
Wednesday afternoon, the interns helped first-, second- and third-graders create flags, posters and crowns topped with pipe-cleaner “fireworks” for the parade. The children were clearly having fun, but there’s always a serious purpose.
Freedom Schools target the children who are most likely to slip behind academically without summer help – those at risk of failing to get the skills they’ll need for a successful future.
The interns, many of whom hope to become teachers, are keenly aware of the challenges their students face.
“Education, that’s the biggest struggle now,” says Allera Akpan, a 22-year-old senior at UNC Charlotte. “My hope for the generation coming up would be for every child to realize that they’re not limited by their circumstance.”
Rode Damian, a 22-year-old UNCC graduate, worries that some of her students have parents who are barely past childhood themselves. “I want to bring family and unity and love to my children,” she says.
Josh Englert, a student at Western Carolina University, says his summer job has taught him about the civil rights struggles that led to today’s freedom. And trying to lead a group of energetic children has made him appreciate his own teachers.
“It has been such an education for me,” says Englert, 22. “I’m thankful for the people who have done what they’ve done to get us this far.”
The young adults talk to the children about dreams and freedom, but also about responsibility.
“Whatever they want to be, they need to work hard at it,” says Nina Fuller, 20, a student at N.C. A&T State University.
“The easy way isn’t the best way,” agrees Hoilett.
The Grove has been hosting a Freedom School for the last four years. Members were already tutoring students at nearby Grier Elementary School, and it made sense to help them keep learning during the summer, said the Rev. Kate Murphy.
Murphy says she watches the neighborhood children, the college interns and adult and youth volunteers converge at her church. It gives her hope for “the very best ideal of what America can be: People coming from all over, gathering for a common dream.”
Helms: 704-358-5033; Twitter @anndosshelms
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