Building success at Neighbor's House

Greg Wheaton helps Savannah Blanco with her homework on a computer at a recent 
homework help night at Neighbor's House.
Greg Wheaton helps Savannah Blanco with her homework on a computer at a recent homework help night at Neighbor's House.

DeKALB – Jaylee Baird was having some trouble with her grades.

"At first, I was getting Ds and Fs, but now I'm getting As and Bs," the DeKalb teenager said. "Usually I do my homework here, and they help me if I don't understand something."

"Here" is Neighbor's House, 403B Fifth St. in DeKalb. Baird and her 12-year-old brother Randy are among approximately 200 area students who attend the organization's twice-weekly homework help sessions.

According to its website, NH is a nonprofit, faith-based community development organization for children "to help them fulfill their God-given potential for academic and relational success."

"We provide literacy and academic enrichment through free homework nights," director Kyle White said. The program is assisted by about 50 adult volunteers, including teachers, business people and farmers. Many of the students who utilize the program, he said, are low-income and don't get the help they need with schoolwork.

White, who was a youth pastor working in the school district at the time, said NH was formed 10 years ago by a group of concerned residents. Though the group is faith-based, students do not have to be Christians to get help.

"Some kids were falling through the cracks," he said. "NH wants to be a consistent neighbor in the community. ...We want to take Christ’s command to 'love thy neighbor' seriously. When we say neighbor, we mean we want the concerns of those around us to be our concerns. ...We may pray before a program, but we don't deny services to anyone with different beliefs."

A summer math and arts program went over so well, "it snowballed from there," White said. The doors at Fifth Street officially opened in December 2003.

While the free program is offered to students in K-12, volunteer Greg Wheaton, a math teacher at Kishwaukee College, said most of those who come are middle school students. Although NH is open to anyone in DeKalb County, volunteer Andy Olsen said most come from DeKalb.

"I think it's a lot of help for the kids," said Angelica Ibarra, the mother of a DeKalb High School 10th grader who comes on and off, mainly when she needs help with trigonometry. "I wish we had this when I was young."

Ibarra said she encourages parents to check out NH. She said she discovered it by reading about it in the newspaper two years ago.

"Not everyone reads," she said.

Savannah Blanco said her mother was looking for a tutor to help her with math when she discovered NH.

"I like it," she said. "It's fun and entertaining."

NH also has weekly reading and homework clubs that meet in other locations, including Gideon Court and University Village in DeKalb (in conjunction with Westminster Presbyterian Church) and Mason Manor and Evergreen Village in Sycamore (in conjunction with the Evangelical Free Church).

One of the advantages of meeting on-site, reading specialist Tracy Minnihan said, is that students can come as they are. One young man arrived at the resource room from his Gideon Court apartment last Tuesday without shoes on.

Another benefit, White said, is that volunteers can talk to family members and find out what needs students may have beyond academics.

"We can connect people to social services, school and church resources in the community," he said.

The reading clubs start with a group reading of a Bible story, then reading stations and homework help. Sometimes they work on a craft.

Although no one is assigned a student, volunteer Diane Buell said she tends to "gravitate" towards the younger ones. It's easy to develop friendships, she said, especially with students who come regularly.

"It is cool to see how the kids grow," said Kevie Muchow, a reading teacher at North Elementary in Sycamore, who began helping three years ago. "I like working with kids and I like the idea of Christianity and education."

NH also hosts summer refresher programs in various locations close to the start of a new school year, White said, so students don't forget what they've learned.

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