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Written by Denise Gary
Photographs ©Denise Gary and ©Dina Gerdon
Sometimes our government abandons our kids and it is usually the kids that need the most help. Fortunately, there are people who refuse to accept this kind of abysmal disregard for our nation’s greatest resource – the minds of our children. Ron Neil, Jerry Lewis and everyone involved with Children First Academy (CFA) are just such people. When the school district pulled funding and closed the Pappas Schools in Phoenix and Tempe, Arizona, the homeless children they served were stripped of their unique educational opportunity. That is when Ron Neil, superintendent of Sequoia Charter Schools, stepped in. New buildings were immediately found and the schools were reopened under their new and highly appropriate name, Children First Academy. Not merely schools, they offer food and clothing, as well as medical and dental care. Perhaps more importantly, the schools provide stability, which is so desperately lacking in these kids’ lives.
Having recently relocated to the Phoenix area, I had the privilege of personally delivering fifty-two new books to the CFA Phoenix campus after KNTR was contacted regarding the school’s plight by Sequoia Accounts Payable Supervisor, Tina Worley.
Tina Worley submitted a donation request to KNTR on behalf of CFA. ©Denise Gary
I was greeted with the warmest of welcomes by the staff and students of this incredible school. In addition to Ron Neil and Tina Worley, we were joined by Assistant Superintendent Jerry Lewis, Principal Jarret Sharp and Community Development Director Dina Gerdon.
Denise Gary, Tina Worley, Jarret Sharp, Ron Neil, Jerry Lewis and Dina Gerdon. ©Denise Gary
Mrs. Smith’s second grade class made a beautiful thank you card, which I was thrilled to receive on behalf of Kids Need to Read’s volunteers.
Denise receives a kid-made gift for KNTR. ©Dina Gerdon
After handing out books to Mrs. Smith’s class, I was swarmed by the older students eagerly wanting new books to read. It was so exciting to witness their anticipation and enthusiasm for the books.
The kids eagerly descend upon the KNTR books! ©Dina Gerdon
Afterwards, the students came up to introduce themselves, shake my hand and thank me. I received a few great hugs too! I was very impressed with their professional manners.
Following the presentation of books, I was taken on an astounding tour of the school by Laura, one of the school’s Goodwill Ambassadors. Laura is one of the older students, an intelligent and polite young lady exuding leadership qualities. She has been a part of Pappas Schools and Children First Academy since kindergarten. Watching her escort us through the school with confidence, there was no doubt in my mind that she will find success in life.
I was completely taken aback by the revelations that awaited me on my tour. Since CFA was not allowed to make use of the original school building, an old used car dealership a stone’s throw away was quickly converted into a school. I found warmth and joy everywhere I looked in the form of bright, cheerful murals painted along the hallways, stairwells and walls by the students. Colorful artwork hung from the ceilings and on the walls, thanks to a creative, volunteer art teacher.
One of many student-painted wall murals throughout CFA. ©Denise Gary
A Native American student had painted a stunning, swirling sun on the library floor, paying proud homage to his roots. The library consisted of only three shelving units, due to the school having to start over to restock its library.
Goodwill Ambassador Laura proudly showing the library. ©Denise Gary
This school provides much more than an education – it provides sustenance for mind, body and spirit. A food pantry supplies wholesome food (no candy!) to the students’ families, courtesy of the local community. The school also furnishes a healthy breakfast and lunch to the kids every day. The lunch I saw looked yummy and Laura confirmed that the food is good.
CFA also provides for hygienic needs, as well as offering a shower and laundry facilities for the students. A clothing closet is tended to by the older kids. There are no excuses for not attending school here – students are taught to take care of themselves. Buses pick the kids up, but scheduling is extremely complex due to constantly changing locations.
Outside, I was shown the WOW Mobile (Wellness on Wheels), a mobile clinic that comes to the school twice a month. ASU College of Nursing provides free care and medicine through this traveling clinic. A dentist comes once a month, as well. On his first visit, 200 cavities were filled, hence the ban on candy! The filling rate is now much improved.
The WOW Mobile bringing care and kindness to CFA! ©Denise Gary
Birthdays are special affairs here, complete with parties and clowns. The birthday celebrant is gifted with a book (easily hauled around for itinerant lifestyles) and a board game (to encourage family bonding). Sugar-free popsicles replace cakes in accordance with the sugar ban.
Near the end of my tour, we peeked inside Laura’s classroom and were greeted with the unexpected site of the students spread about the room with their faces buried in their new KNTR books. It was heart-warming to see them quietly engrossed in their reading and I knew their imaginations were carrying them worlds away.
Before I left, Jerry Lewis thanked me and all of the KNTR volunteers for the work we do. Ron Neil commented on the high quality of the books we delivered. I was so pleased that he noticed, since this is something KNTR refuses to compromise on. As he talked about the schools and the students, his deep level of caring and commitment was obvious. All of us at Kids Need to Read are honored to be a part of furthering the education of these terrific kids. The light of literacy is the key to their successful future and KNTR will not neglect them.
Denise talks to the kids about reading. ©Dina Gerdon
In May, KNTR will make a book donation to the CFA Tempe campus, as well as give each child at both campuses a free copy of Highlights for Children magazine. (Thank you, Highlights for Children!) We will also be partnering with SpazDog Comics to present an educational comic book event at both schools. We won’t stop there….
- Denise Gary on April 25th, 2009 12:40 am
Thank you, Tim! We are very excited about our upcoming visit to Tempe. The continuous community support you are receiving is a testament to the great work CFA is doing.
- Denise Gary on April 25th, 2009 12:40 am
Tina Worley on
April 28th, 2009 7:47 pm
I see a terrifyin’ space monkey in that first photo of me. It hitched a ride on my purse!
Thank you for sending me to your article, what a great read. I am always a bit sad to hear about poor educational funding but it definitely warms your heart when you see dedicated folks giving so much of themselves for deserving children!