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On the front lines of education

Major Cynthia Foster oversees students at the learning hub.

On any given school day at the Salvation Army’s Westside Worship and Service Center in Pittsburgh, Pa., students are quiet, focused, and hard at work in multiple classrooms where social distancing and safety measures are the new normal.

It’s an official learning hub designated by Allegheny County’s Department of Human Services and the brainchild of  Major Cynthia Foster, corps officer.  As soon as the COVID-19 pandemic hit, she took action.

“As schools closed, I just thought to myself, ‘We have to do something to support their education,’” Foster said. “Many of the children in our communities already face a huge education gap, so now here we are in March 2020, and that gap widens because of the pandemic.”

The Worship and Service Center is already a site for grab-and-go lunches for local students through a partnership with Pittsburgh Citiparks. So, Foster decided that, if the after-school program no longer existed because of the advent of virtual learning, they would simply and safely offer onsite educational support for kids and families in need.

After receiving a local grant that strengthened the new program, about 20 students from first grade to high school began attending Westside five days a week between 7:30 a.m. and 4 p.m. This arrangement gave working parents and those of even younger children much needed support and relief.

“The school district provided computers for every child, but some people had trouble using them at home. Here, they get the support they need. This is new for them,” Foster said.

“In some cases, we are simply helping children to pay attention. One mom has kids at home to care for who are school age, and even younger children. She’s trying to do so much. They all needed different types of support, so this is helpful to them.”

The school support also gives local parents who are required to go to work or to work from home the ability to make a living during the pandemic, while knowing their children are safe and receiving the educational resources they need.

Major Jodi Lloyd, program secretary for the Salvation Army’s Western Pennsylvania Division, said, “This gives us the opportunity to be on the frontlines again, and meet a need that is so crucial right now, with so many kids engaged in virtual learning.

“Many of our kids have difficult home situations that vary—parents with younger kids, parents who have to work—[this support] meets such a crucial need for them to have the attention they need to be successful.”

During the first few weeks of the pandemic, everyone struggled to adjust, but one parent immediately recognized the impact of the educational hub at Westside.

Foster said, “One of our parents actually recommended a staff member as a ‘parent of the week,’ for the school, and she won. This parent noticed a kid was coming out of his shell, being independent, and growing. This helped him to mature socially, and his mom watched this progression. Now, she can get out and work while he is here.”

Kayla, a foster mom with seven kids at home, said the program gives young learners a chance to remain productive and connected.

“It gives them back the interaction that they needed with other kids,” Kayla said. “They are all different ages with different schoolwork, and at The Salvation Army Westside, they have the chance to focus and get their work done. They love going there and the interaction they get at the program.”

Foster is motivated to continue to support local families with educational resources, lunches, and a safe place for local kids to connect during uncertain times.

by Stephanie Rex