Delta Nonprofit for Youth Promotes Education, Character-Building
As grade school progresses, kids wish for smooth sailing while advancing from one level to the next. For Coahoma County students, the Spring Initiative makes that possible. The after-school program and non-profit organization funded with a grant provided by the Community Foundation of Northwest Mississippi is a place where Clarksdale’s youth get free tutoring and mentorship, and they also work on character development.
Moreover, the directors, who emphasize the importance of a firm educational foundation, have encouraged the middle schoolers in their program to apply to Rankin County’s Piney Woods Country Life School. Seven students from the Spring Initiative were accepted in 2015.
The boarding school, south of Jackson and three hours south of Clarksdale, is for 9th through 12th graders and seeks out students who have been prevented from performing as well academically due to obstacles involving their surroundings and other conditions. Piney Woods’ college preparatory curriculum sets the bar high to ensure the high school students are ready for a higher level of learning.
Spring Initiative co-founder and co-director Bianca Zaharescu was just 21 years old when she and program founder Anja Thiessen, then 27 years old, started the program in 2011.
The two millennial overseers of the youth and family organization migrated to the Mississippi Delta from Champaign, Illinois. As young women and volunteers at Sherard Elementary School in Clarksdale, Zaharescu and Thiessen saw a need for improvement.
The directors incorporated the KIPP charter schools’ research-based model for building character. It encourages perseverance, optimism, curiosity, zest, gratitude, kindness, bravery and self-control when doing school work and in interpersonal settings.
“Every day we start out our programming with a healthy snack and sharing time, during which each student gets to share their highs, lows, and hopes for the day, as well as respond to any categories that have been suggested by other students or adults,” Zaharescu said.
“This time has been a very powerful opportunity for people to practice communication, confidence, self-awareness and empathy by not only sharing their own personal experience with the group but also practicing listening to others in a kind and engaged way,” she explained.
“The second part of our day is called ‘Academic Time,’ and during this time we specifically invest in our students’ academic skills and confidence through targeted lessons and tutoring,” Zaharescu detailed.
The long-term program for both Clarksdale youth and families also offers social service support and welcomes volunteers, holding group sessions at spots such as First United Methodist Church, St. George’s Episcopal Church and the Coahoma County Agencies Building.
The program has something for just about every age group. The “Delta Baby University” is for expecting mothers and parents with infants and toddlers up to age three. Lectures are given by child and family psychologist Dr. Franziska Reff. It offers a prenatal class and a class that encourages strong parent-child relationships.
There’s the program for second and third graders, “Little Spring.” “Junior Spring” has students who have been promoted to fourth and fifth grade for the 2017-2018 school year. “Big Spring” is for sixth to eighth graders. “Spring UP” is for high schoolers, and “College Spring” assists young adults who have earned a high school diploma and are aiming for a bachelor’s degree.
The groups meet in the afternoon, doing activities until around six or seven in the evening.
“Spring” wraps up a day of learning with an Applied Learning segment. Guests teach lessons on topics they are passionate about and share expertise by demonstrating their knowledge with hands-on activities.
The program won the CFNM’s Crystal Ball program 2017 award for nonprofit of the year.
“We work with students to build up any of the foundational skills that might be shaky or missing and work closely with teachers to ensure that we are best supporting our students to be as successful as possible in their classrooms,” Zaharescu said.
The groups may attend book talks; community events; exhibits in nearby cities; or take trips to the Zoo, Civil Rights Museum or Children’s Museum. Groups have even gone to New York to visit the Empire State Building, and to Ohio for a day at Kings Island Amusement Park. “We have run over 30 5K races with our students of all ages in the past three years,” Zaharescu said.
Perhaps the biggest issue the program tackles is one of self-esteem.
“Many students are struggling to believe in themselves, their worth, and their futures by the time they arrive in Spring,” Zaharescu said. “They might be getting in trouble consistently and feel like they are unable to find any constructive way to channel their variously intense emotions and experiences. Or they may feel like they are ‘slow,’ ‘stupid,’ or something is wrong with them and they cannot be successful in school or in life.”
The program is governed by a board of directors from Clarksdale and New York City who offer financial support and expert assistance.
The children of Spring Initiative are proving that the organization is making a difference.
“Students are getting on the honor roll, making huge progress in reading and math levels, engaging more seriously and excitedly with school and work, and in the past two years, all of our third graders passed their reading gate exam,” Zaharescu rightfully bragged.
Melody Dixon is a 24-year-old freelance journalist and grace revolutionist who resides in Clarksdale, Mississippi. She earned her bachelor’s degree in print journalism from the University of Mississippi and enjoys keeping up with the latest in popular culture, especially fashion and feminism.