Enrollment in Omaha North afterschool program triples

“It’s easy to see transformation taking place, even day to day.”

by Michelle DeRusha

Slip into Cherrilyn Loftin’s office at the Omaha North, Neb., Corps any weekday afternoon and you’ll likely find a half dozen or more middle school and high school students quietly bent over open books or busily writing book reports.

“I like getting to learn new things,” said 12-year-old De’Janae’ McKnight, who was working on a book report about Harriet Tubman. De’Janae’, a seventh-grader at King Science & Technology Magnet School, has attended the afterschool program at The Sal for three years, where she enjoys socializing with her friends, catching up with “Ms. Cherri” and reading, writing and drawing.

Led by Lt. Ken and Captain Sam Nolan Jones, the North Corps’ afterschool program has more than tripled, skyrocketing from 44 to 144 registrations in the last year alone.

“We knew when we first started that we wanted to offer a safe place for kids, but we also felt like we had the capability to do more than that,” said Captain Sam. “Literacy is obviously an issue, so we wanted to stand in the gap there. We also try to work on specific areas where kids are lacking whether that’s academically, emotionally or behaviorally—to make connections for them and encourage them.”

Many youth enrolled in the program enjoy playing basketball, volleyball and dodgeball in the gym, but under Cherri’s direction, others focus on academics and life skills.

Eleven-year-old Isha Abdullahi appreciates the quiet time she gets after school at The Sal. The sixth-grader at King Science & Technology Magnet School has seven brothers and three sisters, and her mother works fulltime at a local daycare. “There’s nothing to do except watch TV at home,” she said. “Coming here is much more interesting.”

“You have those who like to be active and are into sports,” said Cherrilyn. “Then you have those who are quiet and like to sit down and concentrate on something. They want to be here, but we also had to find something to help them want to remain here.”

She created a rewards system in which students earn gift cards for reading and writing reports for a certain number of books. The program emphasizes literacy but also helps the students learn life skills like time management, responsibility and focus.

“I’m very businesslike in my approach,” said Cherrilyn. “I expect them to be on time, I set a deadline, and they are rewarded on ‘payday.’”

Omaha North Corps staff also have been trained in the Love and Logic Approach, a curriculum for parents and teachers. “We try to communicate to kids why we don’t want them to do certain things and why those actions have repercussions,” she explained. “We also model what it looks like to make a mistake, take ownership of that mistake, and then move forward into restored relationship.”

Whether it’s on the basketball court, at the lunch table, in Ms. Cherri’s study room, or working one-on-one with Lt. Ken or Captain Sam, kids in the afterschool program at Omaha North Corps are getting the attention, love and guidance they need to grow and thrive.

“The bottom line is that we are focused on relationship-building,” said Captain Sam. “And because of that, it’s easy to see the transformation taking place, even day to day.”