It was strange. For weeks almost everywhere you walked there were men on ladders working on the ceilings, checking under shelving, moving file cabinets. Our quiet 800+ student school had never seemed so busy and so filled with strangers.
This was Emma E. Booker Elementary (EEB) school in Sarasota, Florida. EEB is a Title One school, meaning a specific number of children in grades K through 5 were eligible for free or reduced lunches. It is located in Newtown, a 95% African-American area with a smattering of Hispanic children and often no more than 10 white children throughout. EEB was the forgotten school, not mentioned in the beautiful brochures beckoning tourists to its sun-filled beaches and golf courses and fancy hotels.
This was my home. A white grandmother, a graduate in sociology from Long Island University Post, and the good wife, I had retired and was finally able to devote my days to a school that had captured my very heart and soul.
The children of Newtown, the children and grandchildren of Sarasota’s poorest black families, were desperately trying to learn to read, to conquer elementary math, to be ready, upon graduation, to move four blocks away to Booker Middle School and eventually Booker High School. Their whole world was bordered by these ten square blocks. This was the south and prejudice was still here.
This week, however, there were those men at the school. What was happening? The principal called me in to her office and proudly mentioned that I was one of the “chosen” ones. I was to be one of the lucky ones to stand almost directly behind the President of the United States when he came to our school in three days!
So, that’s what the men had been doing, They’d been wiring the building for television sound systems, checking for security and getting everything ready for this amazing day. The children were all given small flags and told to dress their very best.
Finally the day was upon us. I arrived at school at 6 am; the morning was beautiful – sunny and bright. Through the new security system we all marched, proud and excited. We gathered in the new library, and I was thrilled to be almost directly behind the dias – the excitement was overwhelming! Every reporter and news anchor from far and near filled the aisles and cameras kept flashing.
A teacher whispered, “He’s here, he’s here!” Then, “There’s been a plane crash.” Then,“There’s been another plane crash.”
Finally someone whispered, as President George Bush, still and sad, made his way into the front of the room, “We’re at war!”
What could this mean? We’d waited for hours, but suddenly, instead of our nation’s president speaking words of hope and encouragement for children desperately in need of educational assistance, this day of 9/11 turned the world upside down and children went, once more, without the help we had dreamed of.
Thus, with no assistance from Washington and understandably so, my friend Alice Faye Jones and I knew, right then, that help for these children must begin with us. That day, Brothers & Sisters Doing the Right Thing was born in our hearts. We could do it ourselves, for the children in our community could wait no longer.
We started off small, the brand new North County Library encouraged us to have a Saturday morning tutoring program. Kind folks from near and far – aunts and uncles, grandmothers and grandfathers, high school students and nearby college students and church members of all different faiths – filled the library, each taking one child and working hard on reading and language skills.
From that small beginning, the one-on-one help, the encouragement for the county’s neediest children – with assistance from so many – Brothers and Sisters Doing the Right Thing grew. When a new community complex was built nearby, we moved in and made ours an every afternoon homework and tutoring program, still bringing in volunteers from so many corners.
When summers came and the young teens of Newtown faced weeks and weeks of slipping behind and nothing to do, our organization began a full time summer program called Widen Our World. No longer would these be the forgotten children … too old for the parks department summer programs, but too young to work. Instead their days were now filled with swimming lessons, kayaking, sailing, art lessons at a nearby college, internships at local businesses, visits to nearby colleges, while at the same time ‘giving back’ by tutoring in the library and packing boxes at the local food bank. Education, recreation and service to the community – a three-part summer program that succeeds year after year.
These programs continue with no financial assistance from any particular source. Each year we write grants, beg churches and businesses for help – if only for gifts of gas cards to fill our donated van. It is a continuing struggle … sometimes overwhelming and often disappointing when one considers the wealthy community that is the rest of Sarasota, rich with tourists and how great is the need to move these children up and out of poverty and into success.
Newtown, however, is no different than any small ‘off the beaten track’ area, any small school district with high needs. Every community has a Newtown. Our goal in life must be to reach out to these areas, these schools, to offer our hearts and all we can, to help the children succeed.
Brothers and Sisters Doing the Right Thing is a model for every community, a rich source of pride among its neediest children and families, and we only wish ours could be a lesson for every town. Your children can succeed; September 11 marked the start of at least one good thing, despite the terrible tragedy for which most people will remember that date.
Dee Webber is assistant director for Brothers & Sisters Doing the Right Thing in Sarasota, Florida.