By NICHOLE GOLDEN, Staff Writer | Published June 23, 2017
ATLANTA—A pilot enrichment program at St. Peter Claver Regional School in Decatur, made possible by the Christ Child Society of Atlanta, will help students avoid the summer academic slide.
Fifty students from pre-kindergarten to eighth grade are participating in the summer series on Wednesday mornings.
The Christ Child Society funded the program to help students with math, literacy and critical thinking skills during vacation months.
Since 2014, Christ Child volunteers have been a regular presence at St. Peter Claver, offering story time activities during the school year, boosting the library’s book collection, and transforming the grounds with garden areas.
Susanne Greenwood, principal of St. Peter Claver, said CCS members partner with students one-on-one, offering reading fluency programs twice a month.
“In conjunction with this literacy support, these miracle-worker volunteers enhanced our beautiful school grounds and provided all the resources,” said Greenwood in an email.
Society members donated soil, flowers and herbs, trees, blackberry bushes, vegetable plants, seeds and stone bricks for planters. Green areas became lush gardens including a butterfly garden.
At Christmas, CCS volunteers offered a craft activity, a pizza lunch and the gift of a classic book to each student.
“Their generosity knows no ends as they have donated hundreds of books and somehow find the time to replant a tree and replace a rose bush,” said Greenwood. “Most of all they love our students and our students love them, often asking ‘when is my CCS reading partner coming back?’”
A focus on literacy
In the fall of 2016, Casey Long, Christ Child Society president, and vice president Patti Anhut proposed the summer learning program to support the goal of improving reading and math literacy.
The program began May 31 and continues through the end of July.
“Again, Christ Child Society of Atlanta members are providing all the resources for this summer program as well as a stipend for each SPC teacher committed to leading a group of students,” said Greenwood. “These weekly engaging sessions will have the double effect of sustaining summer learning, which can sometimes erode over the weeks of summer without educational bridge activities.”
Long said literacy has become a focus of the Atlanta chapter and the national organization. The local group received its charter from the National Christ Child Society in Rockville, Maryland, in 2004.
Mary Virginia Merrick founded the first CCS chapter in 1887 in Washington, D.C. Merrick’s parents died when she was young and she raised her siblings despite being paralyzed.
“She fell out of a tree house at age 14,” explained Long.
Throughout its history, the Christ Child organization has been known for its signature layette program. Members assemble infant care items and donate the layettes to mothers in need. A housekeeper of the Merrick family had nothing but rags to swaddle her own newborn, and Mary Virginia was moved to action.
“That’s why she started the layettes,” said Long.
Merrick made serving the poor and their children her life’s work.
In 2003, the Vatican declared Merrick a Servant of God. The Archdiocese of Washington, D.C. initiated the cause of beatification and canonization for her.
Merrick started hospitals, provided tutoring, parenting classes and child-care programs—accomplishments that Long finds amazing. The society founder spent most of her life in a reclined state, needing a special brace to sit upright.
Stocking the school with books
A co-founder of CCS of Atlanta, Long said the group now has nearly 80 members with news of it spreading from “friends to friends.” Long’s mother and grandmother were Christ Child Society members in Ohio. More empty nesters have joined. Society members represent a number of different parishes in the archdiocese.
The summer enrichment is an expansion of programs held during the school year. Volunteers work with St. Peter Claver students whose primary language at home is not English.
During the school year, volunteer readers share books with class groups and then a related craft activity. After hearing Eric Carle’s “The Very Hungry Caterpillar,” pre-kindergarten and kindergarten students made caterpillars from craft poms and pipe cleaners. Young readers tried balancing apples on their head after listening to “10 Apples Up on Top.”
“It’s just been really wonderful,” said Long, a former teacher of the visually impaired.
The summer program at St. Peter Claver is designed and led by trained teachers.
“We hope that the summer immersion in literature and reading will give the identified students a head start or an opportunity to catch up before their new school year,” said Long.
At the end of the summer, students can choose gently used books to add to their home library.
Christ Child members donated copies of the 2016 and 2017 Caldecott and Newbery award-winning books, the years’ most distinguished children’s literature, to St. Peter Claver’s media center.
Long said in determining ways of best serving the students, the question to school administrators was, “What do you need from us?”
Garden for exceptional children
In 2016, the Catholic Foundation of North Georgia provided a $2,000 grant to CCS to expand its layette program.
The women assemble and distribute layettes of baby care items and information on child care, collect books, and rock infants at Grady Hospital’s Special Care Nursery.
The society’s layette outreach serves the Grant Park Clinic, Mercy Care Clinic, Pregnancy Resources of Doraville, Pregnancy Aid Clinics, Beacon of Hope and Sheltering Grace.
“I feel it’s so important to be a good steward,” Long said of the monies received.
CCS also maintains an outdoor classroom garden at the Elaine Clark Center for Exceptional Children in Chamblee.
The garden was named for the late Elizabeth Huffner, a CCS Atlanta member. Her father donated funds to expand the current garden and add a toddler playground area. The new playground will incorporate multisensory panels. Long said the playground work should be completed by early fall.
The Atlanta chapter hosted the National Christ Child Convention in 2016 and attendees were able to visit Elizabeth’s Garden.
The vegetable and flower garden provides a hands-on, sensory experience for the special needs students served by the center. Christ Child volunteers use herbs and produce grown there in cooking classes for the children.
“We go out and pick herbs and try to make little pizzas,” said Long.
The students helped dig up sweet potatoes to make fries.
“We wanted to do something to honor her,” added Long about Elizabeth’s Garden. “It’s been such a magical place.”
Students at Cristo Rey Atlanta Jesuit High School have also come to know Christ Child members as the women volunteer there regularly by serving lunch.
Christ Child Society of Atlanta welcomes new members and uses the skills and gifts of all, which range from gardening, to graphic design to being former educators.
“You combine the talents,” said Long.
As Catholics, Long and fellow society members enjoy working with multiple organizations to challenge poverty.
“There’s so much power,” she said of the collaboration with others.
To learn about the Christ Child Society of Atlanta, visit www.christchildatlanta.org.