As legend has it, Project Transformation began on a paper napkin. Sarah Wilke and Dr. Leighton K. Farrell reportedly sketched out the idea for an organization that would both address the needs of urban churches, but also the needs of urban schools. That first year, Project Transformation began with 22 college interns (which are now called Corps Members, since organization now receives help from AmeriCorps) serving at five urban sites, providing a summer day camp for 250 children from low-income households.
Nowadays, Project Transformation serves at 10 church sites, with 113 corps members serving about 1,100 children annually in both after-school and summer programs.
Last week, I attended the organization’s annual luncheon, where I met both prospective corps members, past corps members, staffers and children benefitting from the programs. Corps members explained how they helped students with their homework after school, and provided them with a safe place to go. Students that are behind in reading also can get assistance after school. Their students often refer to them as teachers.
Executive Director Alyson Gregory Richter told the group assembled that she sometimes has a hard time explaining what exactly Project Transformation is, adding that her “elevator pitch is pretty bad.”
“Often I get, ‘Oh, you’re a reading program,'” she said, and admitted that the statistics “we all already know” bear out that students who can read at grade level by grade 3 are more likely to stay in school. But, she said, Project Transformation was much more than a reading program.
“Project Transformation is a reading program and so much more,” Richter said. The program provides healthy meals and snacks for children, “incredible college role models,” and the children, she said, “experience the community rallying around them.” Through that, they learn kindness, she added, while learning and having fun in an inclusive environment that fosters confidence and acceptance.
Project Transformation Corps Members get stipends and a voucher toward their college education. But often they get even more out of the program than that, Richter said. Often the experiences corps members have during their tenure with the program changes the trajectory of their career plan or sometimes solidifies their desire to enter careers such as ministry or teaching.
Blair Thompson, who is currently the Executive Associate Minister at First United Methodist Church in Dallas, agreed with Richter, saying that her time as a corps member in Oklahoma became not just another way to pay for college, but also a way to change her way of thinking of the low-income neighborhood she served.
“I began to see them as us,” she said. “That failing school was our school. That neighborhood was us.”
Blake Danner, who was also a Project Transformation alum agreed, “It was so much more than a summer job.”
But it was little Angel, from the Christ’s Foundry site, that moved everyone to tears as he explained simply that the Project Transformation teachers “take care of us, and they are everything to us.”
Applications are currently being accepted for summer camp corps members. If you are interested in helping Project Transformation, donation levels (and what those levels help fund) begin at $25 and go up to $1,500.
(This is piece one in a continuing series of posts about nonprofits who work with Dallas ISD students to address all kinds of needs, including tutoring, mentoring, reading assistance and more. If you are part of a nonprofit that works with Dallas ISD students, email Bethany Erickson at firstname.lastname@example.org.)