2016 marks The Literacy Cooperative’s 10 year anniversary! To celebrate this milestone, we partnered with the Cleveland Bridge Builders Class of 2016 to showcase community organizations across Greater Cleveland that have incorporated literacy-based programs into their scope of service during the past 10 years. We asked them to write a post highlighting their journey, featuring the accomplishments, achievements and how they have helped the community learn and grow over the last ten years. We will be featuring the posts throughout the next few months.
Our first guest post comes from America SCORES Cleveland, written by Boo Geisse, Program Manager.
America SCORES Cleveland, Core Group at Poetry SLAM! 2015
Ten years ago, Donte Washington was a second grader at Empire Computech Elementary School in Cleveland’s Glenville neighborhood. An exceptional student from a religious, two-parent home, Donte struggled not with academics or poor behavior but with low self-confidence and extreme shyness.
“I was introverted, quiet, not willing to do anything,” he says. “I was a kid who didn’t participate in anything.”
Enter America SCORES Cleveland. A literacy and health youth development organization, America SCORES Cleveland impacts Cleveland youth by providing soccer and writing instruction after school.
When Donte first encountered SCORES in 2006, the organization was only two years old and had just expanded into the east side of Cleveland. Luckily for Donte, his school was one of them.
“I didn’t think I was going to like it,” he admits. “I had no idea what soccer was. I had never written a poem in my life.”
Donte’s comments are typical, repeated hundreds if not thousands of times in the ears of SCORES staff members. Soccer in the inner city? Poetry for youth who struggle to read and write? The odds seemed stacked against it.
Yet in the twelve years SCORES has run its unique programming in Cleveland city schools, the results continue to impress, and impress upon we who work for SCORES, the significance of the organization.
Ten years ago, America SCORES Cleveland was a small grassroots organization struggling to survive. Today, SCORES spans nine Cleveland schools in five neighborhoods and is geared for greater growth.
“When I came on, we were a three-person staff in seven schools, with only one program per school,” says Executive Director Debi Pence-Meyenberg.
SCORES was on uncertain ground when Debi started. In her first two months at the organization, she hired Matthew Williams, Program Director. A year later she brought Paul Khacherian on board as Associate Director. All three remain at SCORES today, and, with an additional two full-time staff members and a core group of dedicated interns, the program has grown to serve over 600 youths each year.
Here’s the breakdown: In 2008, SCORES expanded its 3rd-5th grade programming to include 6th-8th graders, growing the program alongside its dedicated poet-athletes. 2012 saw the birth of the Alumni Program for high school students who aged out of typical programming. Today, alums referee SCORES soccer games, act as assistant coaches to existing SCORES teams, volunteer at SCORES events and participate in college and career readiness programs hosted at the SCORES office. In 2014, the organization grew yet again—this time to create a “Jr. SCORES” program for 1st and 2nd graders.
“We have quadrupled in size,” says Debi. And greater reach means greater impact.
“SCORES programming now serves a CMSD student for an eleven year continuum,” says Matthew. “SCORES has been able to breathe life into our schools and our neighborhoods by providing positive team activities.”
Donte sharing his America SCORES experience at Poetry SLAM! in November, 2015
Nobody demonstrates this impact as fully as Donte. After that first season, he spent every year, every season in SCORES that he could. As a middle schooler, he was elected team captain by his soccer coach; he led warm-ups, ran drills and soccer practices and helped his team remain undefeated during his eighth grade year. In ninth grade, Donte emailed SCORES about staying involved—an inquiry that played a large part in the creation of the Alumni Program.
“[The SCORES staff] had had conversations about starting one,” Donte says. “And I just so happened to email them about staying in the program, and that’s what started it.”
Today, Donte remains one of SCORES’ most active alums. In addition to the work he does for SCORES, Donte is a high school senior, an employee at Marc’s and was recently accepted into Cleveland State University, where he will begin his college career this fall. Additionally, last November, when volunteering at SCORES’ signature annual event, the Poetry SLAM!, Donte was approached by a SCORES board member and offered a summer internship at a Cleveland company.
Of course, none of this surprises those who know him; Donte is recognized as a successful young man and a leader by all. From former coaches to SCORES staff, and poet-athletes to complete strangers, his presence leaves an indelible impression.
“Donte’s kindness, generosity and dedication are what have impressed me the most,” says Matthew, who has, alongside Debi and Paul, watched Donte grow up.
These types of comments still take the eighteen year old by surprise—but while he remains soft spoken and humble, Donte’s shyness is fading in the light of something new: a realization of who he truly is, and who he is to become.
“I have grown to be a leader,” he says. He contributes much of his transformation to his time with America SCORES Cleveland. “Without SCORES, I honestly don’t think I would be in the position I am today. SCORES kept me out of trouble. It taught me right from wrong. It’s the biggest opportunity I’ve had.”
As we at America SCORES Cleveland look back on the past ten years—of Donte’s life and our own—we can’t help but feel excited for the future. Donte plans to become a graphic designer; he’d like to design footwear and continue to volunteer and make positive change in his community.
And us? In addition to our regular programming, SCORES currently hosts four fundraising events each year, is on the national curriculum development team for all America SCORES’ affiliates, is a member of the Slavic Village P-16 Initiative, a Cuyahoga Arts & Culture “Cultural Partner,” a GCNCA P4SS and MyCom partner agency and, last year, received its first financial support from United Way of Great Cleveland.
Despite all of this, SCORES has no plans on slowing down.
Feliciana Hambrick-Thomas performing her poem, ‘Confusion,’ at United Way Annual Meeting March 4th, 2016
Ask Debi what her plans are for the future, and this is the answer you’ll receive: “In ten years we’ll have a staff of ten to twenty. We’ll be in twenty schools, and they’ll all host 1st through 8th grade programming. We’ll have a direct referral program for our alums and scholarships for our students for college.”
Some may think these goals lofty, but this mentality has not only kept America SCORES Cleveland alive all these years, it has made it thrive.
“I am inspired and humbled by the extraordinary youth I have the privilege to work with each day,” Debi says. “I continue to do this work because I believe these youth need a positive outlet for their creativity, and programs like America SCORES keep kids on the right path to achieve their full potential.”
We’ll drink (coffee) to that.
To learn more about America SCORES Cleveland head over to their website, www.americaSCOREScleveland.org
Be sure to follow them on Facebook and Twitter as well!