When an after-school program abruptly ended, a Macon church and Mercer University stepped in to fill a need for local families. This is the second year that Centenary United Methodist Church, located adjacent to Mercer’s campus, has provided after-school care for children who attend Alexander II Elementary with assistance from Mercer student volunteers.
Prior to the start of the 2022-23 school year, Alexander II notified families that it was discontinuing its after-school program. As parents scrambled to make other plans, Centenary pastor Sara Pugh Montgomery started making arrangements to create a program at her church.
“It is filling a very necessary void,” said Carolyn Reichert, who has a son in kindergarten and a daughter in second grade at Alexander II. “It has been incredible that Sara Pugh Montgomery put this whole thing together almost out of thin air, in no time at all. We had no other options for after school.”
Centenary had previously offered a once-a-week tutoring program attended by a dozen Alexander II students, so Montgomery started by reaching out to congregants who had been involved in that. But the church would need more help for a daily program, so she contacted Mercer’s service and civic engagement office.
Mercer students tutor children at local schools, churches and nonprofit agencies through the America Reads/America Counts work study program, and Centenary was able to become a partner location. The addition of Centenary provided a walkable tutoring location for students who don’t have transportation, said Margaret Rooyakkers, Mercer assistant director of service and civic engagement.
“Not only is it a wonderful job that fits into student schedules, they’re also getting to interact with the community and get some of those transferable skills for when they go out into the workforce,” she said.
Mercer currently has about 90 active America Reads/America Counts tutors, 17 of which are assigned to Centenary. Typically, five to eight Mercer students help at the church each day, in addition to church volunteers.
“It really was born out of this community need, recognizing our proximity to Alexander II,” said Montgomery, who has a daughter in first grade at Alexander II. “Without the (Mercer) partnership, we would not be able to operate this. The students have been phenomenal. Elementary school kids love college kids.”
The program, which runs from 3-6 p.m. on weekdays, served 32 children last year and has 26 this year. So far, it has largely been funded by grants and donations from parents and community members.
The tutors meet the children at school at the end of the day and walk them across the street to Tattnall Square Park for some outdoor play time. Then, they go to the church for a snack and are split up by age for reading and homework. Students are encouraged to finish their homework first, and then they can do other activities like games, art projects and puzzles. Twice a week, they have the option to join in a yoga session.
“They seem to genuinely like being there,” Reichert said of her children. “They want to be there until the last second of pickup time. They are getting their homework done. Every parent would attest to that being their favorite part, that we don’t have to deal with it. It’s already been taken care of.”
Josh Rogers, whose son and daughter go to Alexander II, said his wife, Meaghan, had to temporarily decrease her work hours when the school’s after-school program ended. The new Centenary program solved a major logistical problem they were facing.
“The most important thing is that Meaghan and I are able to do our jobs. Both of us have longer working hours than the school day,” he said.
Mia Skinner, a third-year sports marketing major, has tutored at Centenary since the spring.
“Interacting with the kids, that’s my favorite part,” said Skinner, who usually tutors the first- and second-graders. “It just really brightens my day. They get excited at the smallest things.”
Skinner said she hadn’t worked with young kids before this job, and it’s been a great experience for her. She and fellow tutor Nicholas Milsap, a sophomore double-majoring in secondary education and math, said this job has opened up other opportunities for them to work with kids, such as at STEM camps and as summer tutors.
“One of the things I really enjoy hearing about is how much the kids that they tutor look up to them as mentors and role models and how they want to be Mercer Bears themselves,” Rooyakkers said. “We are so prominent, especially where we’re located, that they can’t get away from not knowing what Mercer is. Having our students being out there being those role models is super cool.”
Milsap, who has tutored at Centenary since fall 2022, normally works with the first-graders. He said he enjoys hearing the kids’ stories and what they have been up to.
“I love the program format,” he said. “We give the kids an opportunity to play outside, we give them a snack, and we help them with their homework. It’s really easy to establish a connection with the kids. I love the people I work with. We all care about each other, but the kids, they notice when you’re not there, and they’re so excited to see you.”
Rogers said the Mercer students, community and children all benefit from the after-school program.
“The (kids) beg us to let them stay as long as they possibly can,” Rogers said. “They’re getting help finishing their homework … and volunteers keep them motivated and encouraged. They’re getting physical, emotional and educational support. It’s just a really great program.”