Magazine Features

Shattering Poverty
in Corning, N.Y.

“We are pilgrims on the journey
We are brothers on the road
We are here to help each other
Walk the mile and bear the load.”

The Servant Song by Richard Gillard

Mary Ellen Monahan could be relaxing and enjoying her golden years, but that doesn’t seem to be her style. A special education teacher and administrator for 30 years in the Campbell-Savona school system near Corning, N.Y., Monahan formally retired eight years ago but couldn’t resist taking on a new challenge as the director of the Salvation Army’s Kids Café program at the Corning Corps.

Mary Ellen Monahan, the director of the Salvation Army’s Kids Café program in Corning, N.Y., helps kids participate in a multitude of activities ranging from LEGO building to baking.

“I volunteer to do it,” says Monahan, who also serves on the local Salvation Army advisory board. “I really believe in what they’re trying to do here. It’s a free program to the community. We don’t charge.

“I think it really shows what The Salvation Army does and that its mission is to help and to serve people. It’s a well–respected program in the community.”

The Kids Café has two parts: an after–school program during the academic year and a six–week day camp in the summer. The day camp, which is run in conjunction with the city of Corning, is a 40–hour–a–week program and includes such summer fun as swimming and field trips to the Corning Museum of Glass and The Rockwell Museum.

‘Oasis’ in the desert

Monahan runs the Kid’s Cafe with the help of an assistant and nine adult leaders, all within the confines of a small corps building. Grants, donations, and the local United Way fund the program.

“The community is supportive,” she said. “They know we don’t have a lot of space. The Salvation Army here in Corning is known for this program.”

Monahan, who has been on the local advisory board for six years, said that getting a larger building is under discussion.

For now, 100 kids, ages 5–12, are enrolled in the after–school program, which meets from 2:30–6 p.m., at the corps. The kids come from six elementary schools for homework help, activities, dinner, and free time.

“We have a really strong connection with the school district,” Monahan said.

When Monahan and her staff see a child struggling in school, she contacts the student’s guidance counselor, social worker, and others to help develop an action plan.

“We deal with all the issues,” Monahan said. “We have children going through their parents’ divorce right now. They go through it as much as their parents do.

“We have children who are being raised by grandparents. We have children who are with split families. We have foster children. We have children from two–parent families. We see the gamut. I think The Salvation Army is an oasis for many of these kids.”

Economic challenges

Corning, best known for its historic glass industry, is in rural Steuben County in upstate New York. The individual poverty rate is 16.1 percent, but that jumps to 24.1 percent for children. More than half of the county’s children, 51 percent, qualify for school lunches that are free or reduced in price.

“The kids come from all over and there are quite a few families who are struggling,” Monahan said. “I’ve had parents tell me how grateful they are for this program and that it’s really helped them because they’re able to work. Everything they earned before they brought their kids to our program went to childcare.

“We try to bridge that gap for a lot of parents and help them out as much as we can. Some of these parents have stressful lives and they’re trying to keep it all together. It’s great when The Salvation Army can step in and offer this kind of a program.”

The Salvation Army also doesn’t forget about the spiritual needs. Captain Wanda Rivera, the corps officer in Corning, conducts a weekly Bible lesson and runs a summer Vacation Bible School (VBS).

“I talk about Jesus and the importance that every one of the children have Him in their heart,” Rivera said.

Standing in the gap

While some of the kids attend other churches, Rivera said she has seen some crossover to the corps.

“The ones who don’t have any kind of church or aren’t saved, I try to teach them everything about Jesus and bring them to the feet of Jesus,” she said.

Monahan said parents are aware of the spiritual nourishing and no one has ever complained. Many of the parents used to just drop off and pick up their children, but Monahan said she and her staff have developed a relationship with some.

“We’ve reached out to them and I’ll have conversations with them,” she said. “It’s hard for some of these parents.

I talk about Jesus and the importance that every one of the children have Him in their heart.” — Captain Wanda Rivera
“I have the utmost respect for these parents. I think they’re trying. I’ve never met parents yet who don’t want the best for their child. They don’t always know how to do it, but I think they really try and they’re really grateful for our program.”

One of the thankful parents is Maurica Gloria, who said she has seen a behavioral improvement in her two children, Giovanni, 9, and Renzo, 6, since they’ve been attending Kid’s Café.

“Their manners are great,” she said. “They say ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’ Their grades have improved.

“It’s a great program that keeps them safe and gives them help with their homework.”

Improved behavior

Tammy Colette brings her two grandchildren, Morgan, 9, and Elliott, 6, and is also pleased with the results.

“They get a good experience here and meet new friends and do different activities,” she said. “They get to play together. That’s something kids need, to play together, and learn to work together.”

Colette said her grandson was once rambunctious, but he has settled down since coming to the Kids Café.

“He’s learned more, he plays well with others, and I think it’s helped him out a lot,” she said. “I’m happy with the program. I’m glad they have it.

“I’m glad my grandkids come here. I wish they had something like this when we were younger.”

To get up to 100 kids to return day after day shows they want to be there.

Monahan said, “I think the kids love the connection and the attention. For some of these kids, this is where they get their attention. Some of them also really like the food.

“I’ve seen children who need that connection and support. There are a lot of families looking for support.”

Happy place for kids

It’s clear that the Kid’s Café participants, who laugh and squeal throughout the evening, enjoy being part of the program and finding support.

“I like the leaders,” said Connor, 8, “and playing cards with my friends.”

Eva, 8, uses the Kid’s Café time to get her homework done, but she also likes the character–building lessons.

“I like how the leaders are so nice and they want to teach us how to get along with others, to not do bad things, and just be nice,” she said.

Some children like to see friends from other schools, but it’s clear the Christian message is getting through.

“We learn to treat other people nice,” said Franklin, 8.

“Every day we get to do something different and that’s fun,” said Lillian, 7. “I also like this program because everybody is nice.”

Leader Michele Reynolds, who shepherds 20 of the youngest kids in the program, said some kids crave attention at home because their parents work.

“There are many children in need of help,” she said. “I think they get a lot from the program.”

‘A special place’

Leader Brynna Hoban, who is Monahan’s assistant, said the kids get “positive attention” at Kid’s Café.

“A lot of times they’re hungry after school. They get snacks and dinner here from people who care about them,” she said. “It gives them a place to come and not roam around, especially if mom and dad are working. It’s a positive thing and better than being alone at home.”

Leader Amy Vichinsky said she and her colleagues try to impart “calm discipline” amid their nurturing.

“We develop individual relationships with each kid,” she said.

Monahan, whose warm relationship with the kids is evident, said what keeps her coming back are the words to the Catholic hymn “The Servant Song” by Richard Gillard.

“That song really speaks to me,” Monahan says. “I love kids. For me, this is my way of walking a mile with them and sharing this load. We really are here to help each other.

“This is also my way of giving back to the community and to The Salvation Army. I think it’s important to give back. This Kid’s Café is a special place and I’m glad to be a part of it.”

by Robert Mitchell

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