By Rebecca Woltz
Young Dakoda Cribb was struggling in elementary school, earning C’s and D’s on his report cards.
Then, in the third grade, he joined a program through Partners in Ministry in Scotland County that aims to help children improve their reading and math scores.
Three years later, Dakoda is getting A’s and B’s, and he says he understands the importance of learning.
“When I first started here, I didn’t like math,” he said. “I hated math and science. Those were my worst subjects. But when I came here they taught me fun things about math and how you needed math in the world.”
Partners in Ministry, a nonprofit in the southeastern North Carolina town of Laurinburg, operates a food bank that serves hundreds of families, and it helps with housing, including through a program to renovate older residents’ homes. The group also runs youth programs that aim to help kids succeed in school and make good choices.
The program is now in the process of raising $3.5 million to build a new community center on its 11-acre campus. Plans include a gymnatorium, a workforce development training center, and space to host classes such as cooking, parenting, health education and nutrition.
Dr. Melba McCallum, executive director of the ministry, said the program needs more room to serve the community.
“We anticipate this program growing tremendously,” McCallum said. “It has continuously grown, and will continue to grow, and we don’t want to turn any child away.”
Scotland County is designated as one of the most economically distressed parts of North Carolina, according to the state Department of Commerce.
Nearly 29% of people in Scotland County were living in poverty in 2019, compared to 13.6% statewide, Census Bureau data shows. The county had a median household income of about $32,240, roughly $17,000 below the statewide median.
‘Out of the streets’
Partners in Ministry has two programs geared toward children – Strengthening Youth in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (SYSTEM), and Youth Empowered to Succeed (YES).
The SYSTEM program helps kids in third through eighth grades who are not proficient in math and reading. The YES mentorship program provides early intervention for at-risk youth ages 11 to 18. And the YES career program works with older teens and young adults.
“[These programs] give kids an opportunity to be out of the streets so that they will not be pulled into gangs and drugs and violence and teen pregnancy,” McCallum said. “Those are issues that breed poverty. We are here to provide a safe space for kids to have other opportunities.”
Scotland County ranked in the bottom of the state’s 100 counties “where young people are most at risk,” according to the 2020 NC Roadmap of Need, a report released by the nonprofit Public School Forum of North Carolina.
The report ranked Scotland No. 95 for teen pregnancy, 99 for children’s food insecurity, 96 for juvenile delinquency and 87 for overall education.
At Partners in Ministry, participants can be referred to the YES program by parents, school counselors, community leaders and the juvenile justice system. Each participant is assigned a mentor, and they work together for at least two and a half hours a week.
“The end goal is that they detour from whatever they were at risk of doing and we help them to be productive in society,” said Carlston Gould, the mentor coordinator for YES.
Success in the program is defined in three ways: obtain a GED or college degree, get a job, or join the military.
Participants have a chance to get paid internships, and they also attend training sessions, visit local manufacturing companies, and tour colleges, including N.C. State University in Raleigh and the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.
“Our students have visited colleges and learned that they’re more than just a basketball team or football team that you see on TV,” said Tyler Blue, YES career adviser. “They’re actually an opportunity, and you can increase your GPA and apply to these universities. That makes it real for them.”
Javon Quick, who enrolled in the YES program when he was 14, recently earned a bachelor’s degree in criminology with minors in sociology and leadership at UNC Wilmington. He hopes to attend law school.
Through the program, Quick said he worked with the local police department, the sheriff’s office and the district attorney’s office. Now he hopes to go to law school.
“The program made me more motivated,” he said. “It opened me up to a lot. I see the bigger picture now. I’m more focused on my future.”
Partners in Ministry has raised 70% of its fundraising goal, with the help of community donations and grants.
During the pandemic, the existing facility became a food distribution center, with pallets of food stored in a small auditorium and cafeteria – areas that were previously being used for youth programs.
Space is so tight that kids in the after-school program couldn’t all eat together at the same time. And the gym isn’t big enough for parents to attend special programs.
The new gymnatorium would offer space for indoor sports and drama activities, with plenty of room for spectators.
But field trips away from the facility are important, too, even for the younger children.
After kids learned about flying and had the opportunity to use drones, they went to the Wright Brothers National Memorial on the Outer Banks.
“Each time we do any type of activity or teaching, we will take them on an educational tour,” McCallum said. “That gives them an opportunity to see what types of careers there are in those areas, so that when they move into high school they’ll have a general idea of what they want to do.”
Another project included collaborating with NASA to build a rocket.
“That was really fun because it was a creative activity,” said Sariyah Covington, a rising eighth grader who has been in the SYSTEM program for a few years now. “We watched a lot of videos, we talked to a lot of scientists, we made rockets out of cups, paper plates, rubber bands.”
Sariyah said she enjoys her time at Partners in Ministry, especially when they compose and record music. Her teacher makes beats, the other kids rap, and Sariyah sings.
“It’s very fun because if you had a bad day it’s something to cheer you up,” she said. “Sometimes you can take your emotions out in a song.”
Dakoda dreams of one day playing in the NFL, joining the Army or becoming a comedian. And he understands why science and math matter in life.
“If you wanted to be a science person or a paleontologist, you would need science, technology, engineering and math,” he said. “You would need all that to become a paleontologist.”
How to help
Donations to support the building of the new community center can be made to Partners in Ministry Community Education Center at P.O. Box 1621, Laurinburg, NC 28353, or at pim-nc.org.
Rebecca Woltz is a freelance writer for the Border Belt Independent.