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Pieces of Eight

ECU education professor Mark L’Esperance is a founding member of Building Hope, a Greenville program that serves at-risk youth through mentoring, tutoring and life skills programs and activities. (Photo by Marc J. Kawanishi)

ECU Helps Built Hope for Greenville At-Risk Youth

By Christine Neff

At its heart, Building Hope is about building community – and it takes a village to do that.

At the Community Life Center on Ninth Street in Greenville, children thought to be at-risk academically or socially develop the educational skills and spiritual background they need to overcome life’s challenges.

Three local visionaries – a pastor, a businessman and an East Carolina University professor – founded the organization eight years ago with 15 elementary school students.

“We knew if we could plant the seed with those 15 students, the fruit would be beyond anything we could imagine,” said Mark L’Esperance, a co-founder and professor in ECU’s Department of Curriculum and Instruction.

They were right.

The center has now served 300 youth from first grade through graduation and continues to grow. It provides after-school tutoring, a safe place for students suspended from school, a dropout prevention program for young men and much more.

The non-profit organization has several full time staff members but relies on community support to be successful. East Carolina University contributes to that success in a big way.

Students in ECU’s Family Counseling and Therapy Department give presentations on Internet safety. Interns from the Child and Family Therapy school dedicate hours at the center. Greek organizations plan holiday parties and other service events for the kids.

ECU Teaching Fellows and Project HEART volunteers tutor and mentor the children. “We could not run the program without these dedicated students,” said L’Esperance, president of Building Hope’s board of directors.

Betty Beacham, director of ECU’s Project Heart, noted the need for services like Building Hope in Greenville. “We’re pleased to be a part of it,” she said, of the program.

Project HEART provides the center with one to four students who serve as teachers for the year. They have been trained to work with children who face academic and social challenges. “We view this as a community venture, and it takes all of us to help these kids and their families,” Beacham said.

Stephanie West-Puckett, a member of the ECU English department, has incorporated volunteer work at Building Hope into two of her freshman-level courses. In spring 2008, her students led a storytelling project that involved the kids and their parents. The college students, who were learning the art of listening, typed the stories as they were told aloud. The project culminated in a printed collection, “Tar River Tales.”

“We were building literacy and communication skills, but I told the kids right away, ‘This is not going to be like school. This is going to be fun,’” West-Puckett said.

Help from ECU doesn’t always take academic forms.

Lester Zeager, a professor in ECU’s Economics Department, got involved through a landscaping project several years ago. He helped turn the backyard into a playground, and now volunteers regularly.

“You’ll hear people talk about problems in the city, complaining about them,” he said. “Here’s a chance to go beyond that, to do something constructive to help make the community better.”

One of ECU’s biggest supporters has also been a lead benefactor for Building Hope. Walter Williams, founder of Trade Oil Company and an alumnus of ECU, has been involved since the program started and donated the 7,500-square foot facility where the organization meets.

“In our world today, about all you really have, if you’re poor, is hope,” Williams said. “I think they do a great job of trying to build that.”

ECU volunteers and Building Hope staff agree that both parties benefit from the connection.

“We know that (college) students learn better when they are involved in community service projects,” West-Puckett said.

“They make connections and solidify career goals. I think it’s important that my students see their responsibility as literate, educated people.”

Zeager noted the kinship formed by volunteers who come from the university, as well as area churches, businesses and other organizations. “It’s enriched my life,” he said, simply, of his involvement there.

L’Esperance said most volunteers come to Building Hope wanting to “give something back.” But “about 95 percent of the time,” he said, “they realize they’re getting something.”

The children benefit in many ways, too. They meet ECU students, members of the faculty and staff and get a feel for what higher education is all about. They gain role models, and develop positive adult relationships.

“This is an example of the community coming together to improve the lives of these kids. ... We realize that these are great kids with bright futures. We just have to put in a little extra time and energy to give them the chance to grow,” L’Esperance said.

For more information or to get involved, visit http://bhclc.org or call 757-1840.

This page originally appeared in the Aug. 29, 2008 issue of Pieces of Eight. Complete issue is archived at http://www.ecu.edu/news/poe/Arch.cfm.