The saying “It takes a village to raise a child” certainly is true when it comes to Springfield’s homeless children. The Matthew project provides clothing, food, tutoring, mentoring and life skills classes to District 186 homeless children. Each school year, District 186 identifies the homeless children in the district and chooses a school to partner with the Matthew Project.
Throughout the school year, the Matthew Project provides one-on-one mentoring and tutoring for the kids. The Matthew House was purchased in 2012 by Ann Libri, Executive Director for the Matthew Project and her husband, Tony. Their vision was to provide a comfortable, welcoming and worry-free place where kids could come once a week, get a hot meal, and study.
So, every Thursday night they are bussed by the Springfield Urban League to the Matthew House. It is here that they spend time on homework or school projects and eat dinner provided by the Dominican Sisters at Sacred Heart-Griffin. At the end of the evening, the children get to spend “Matthew Dollars.” Matthew dollars are earned at school for anything from good grades to good behavior. In the house, there is a fifteen-foot of donated items like underwear, socks, pencils, and alarm clocks. They can “purchase” an item they may want or need with Matthew Dollars. This is their favorite part of the night.
The program is effective but stops at the end of the school year. “Where most kids look forward to summer, our Matthew kids look at summer with great anxiety,” says Ann. Matthew kids are at their greatest risk during summer. She continues, “They have little to no supervision, academics is not a priority, and often, they do not know when their next meal will come.”
To solve this dilemma, the Matthew Project partnered with the YMCA to provide the Matthew kids with a healthy, happy summer. The first hour of every day at YMCA summer camp is spent with District 186 teachers who ensure the kids do not lose the achievement gains they made during the previous year. Then, the kids experience all the great things that summer camp provides! The camp offers crafts, canoeing, trail hiking, archery, and games like tag and Red Rover.
Since the children are homeless, where they are picked up in the morning is not necessarily where they will stay that same night. So, the program provides transportation to and from the YMCA so that mobility is not a barrier to participation.
One of the greatest gifts of summer camp is the food program. A grant awarded by the Central Illinois Foodbank provides breakfast and lunch to summer campers at the YMCA. Can you imagine the impact this has with the Matthew kids? The stress of not knowing where their next meal will come from is eliminated. They know each day they will have a good, healthy, hot breakfast and lunch. Many times, extra food is packaged and sent with the kids to further ensure food security.
Mackenzie is a nine-year-old boy that participated in the Matthew Project last summer. He and his sister Adrianna loved being part of the summer camp experience. When you ask Mackenzie what he likes about the YMCA summer camp, he quickly says, “Swimming! That’s my favorite.” The kids are given twice-weekly water safety and swim lessons. Most drownings are suffered by low-income children and are 100% preventable. Many of these kids have never been exposed to a pool. Summer camp offers them exposure to and confidence around water.
The first year these two agencies partnered, fifteen Matthew kids were sent to YMCA summer camp. Last year, we had fourteen kids. In 2017, we are projecting about sixteen children who will participate in summer camp. The program is fully funded by generous donors to the YMCA Strong Kids Scholarship Fund.
Mackenzie and his older sister have transitioned out of the homeless program. They are currently living with their father in permanent housing. Makenzie and Adrianna are both members of the YMCA and are Strong Kids scholarship recipients. We love seeing them both YMCA branch locations. We know they are having fun and making lasting friendships. Ann expresses her gratitude. “The kids would be lost without the YMCA Summer Camp. We are so very grateful such a great opportunity is being provided to these kids. After all, every kid deserves a memorable summer.”