From café to classroom

This year, COVID–19 put a stop to the Salvation Army’s Corning, N.Y., Corps’ popular Kids Café afterschool program. Around that time, the corps’ summer camp also closed.

Families in the community eventually learned that virtual classes from home would be implemented in the new school year. Those classes would be better organized than the ones that suddenly started when schools closed earlier in the year.

To better understand their plans for virtual learning and see how they could help, Salvation Army leaders reached out to members of the school district.

“This was a new need in the community and The Salvation Army always steps up when there is a need,” says Mary Ellen Monahan, a Corning Corps board member.

When school started again in the fall, Monahan became the director of the Corning Corps’ virtual learning program. From 7:45 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., the corps became a homeroom. A youth leader is present to help students log online, bond with their teachers, and complete their lessons at the corps. At the end of the day, students are free to stay, receive homework help, and even enjoy meals with other students in a safe, socially–distanced environment.


Leaders become teachers

Turning the corps into a classroom for virtual lessons was more difficult than the organizers imagined, says Captain José Borrero, corps officer at the Corning Corps. Borrero’s staff bought dividers, followed new safety regulations, and provided the required space between every desk and student.

“We had to update our technology,” says Captain Borrero. “The building was rewired to have better Wi-Fi so every child could be online.”

About 25 children come to the corps three days a week on a staggered schedule; they are in school the other two days. They are in various classes, in different grades, and come from a variety of schools. They range from kindergarten to middle school, each with a distinctive lesson plan. One child might do math, while six feet to his left, another student takes a snack break. Six feet to her right, still another student reads aloud with other classmates.

“The youth leader in charge of the room needs to know what is being taught on every child’s screen. This requires constant communication with teachers,” says Monahan. “These youth leaders are substitute educators for half the week; the teachers communicate with them when they see that their student is struggling or not paying attention.”

Helping children with their homework is different than helping the same children with their classwork. Monahan, who has a background in education, helps train the youth leaders who were used to handling afterschool sports and activities rather than the daytime learning schedules they do now.


Intellectually and physically nourished

“There are moms who tell me that they don’t understand computers or the lessons, so they need us to help their kids,” Monahan says. “These are hardworking parents who survived the spring but can’t keep up in the fall.”

Grandparents have also sent their grandchildren to the corps. When parents have to work, they sometimes drop off their children and their laptops with grandma and grandpa, thinking it will be a safe and effective home learning option.

“But many grandparents have no idea how to work computer programs like Zoom or Google Meet, which is what teachers use to communicate with their students,” says Monahan. “Grandparents want to play games and bake cookies with their grandkids. Most of them can’t be educators and tutors; they want to have fun, and then send the kids back to their parents.”

Having healthy meals ready for the children at the corps is another aspect of the virtual learning program that Captain Borrero wanted. “Kids lose the structure of eating healthy if they’re at home, especially if the parents are working,” says Borrero. “I know what it is to be a hungry child. They’ll go to the pantry and eat any junk food they can find.”

“That’s why we have a cook in the corps. Breakfast and lunch are more traditional meals, close to what a school would serve. But for the children that stay later and need dinner, they get a hot home–cooked meal.”


Similar challenges

Borrero says that God has been listening to the prayers of corps members regarding the financial cost of maintaining the virtual classroom. God has answered with an increase in donations from the community to keep the program going.

“The challenges that we have are the same the schools have, such as needing to hire extra staff and maintaining regulations to keep everyone safe,” says Borrero. “But even with our limited space, parents who come to us don’t have to worry about how they’ll get through this.”

“One month in, and we’re doing great! We see how the hand of God has worked in this program. I’m blessed to be at this corps and blessed to have Mary Ellen here to help.”

“Right now, COVID–19 cases are low, but going up,” says Monahan. “The schools will make a decision on how to continue the year, and we’ll be ready if they decide to increase virtual learning. Kids are stepping up to the challenges during this time, so we need to step up as well.”

Whether children continue to learn virtually at Corning or schools slowly start opening more days, the corps has met an important need in the community. After the pandemic has passed, this ministry will be remembered as one that helped children safely continue their education.

by Hugo Bravo