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A Beacon of Hope
By Cole Ruth '95

 

Matthew Flemming had a great freshman year at Calvin, he was involved in the theater, and working hard in his classes as a religion major-but something was missing.

As a senior at Lynden Christian High School in Washington, Flemming worked on remedial reading skills with second and fourth graders. "That's where I first learned the importance of literacy," he said, "how it gives children a sense of worth. Because reading is such a basic skill, it becomes an integral part of a child's self-image: they're judged equal if they know how to read, and inferior if they don't."

Flemming realized that he missed working with children, and having the opportunity to give to other people. He said that although he made excuses for himself-schoolwork was too difficult, he didn't have time--he knew he had a duty to give back blessings to God through other people.

At Calvin's Service Learning Center, Flemming learned that there were no tutoring jobs available, but there was a library that needed help.

The library--located on Grandville Avenue near the corner of Hall Street in a Hispanic neighborhood of Grand Rapids- was housed in a small, newly renovated residence.

Several years earlier, in 1994, it had been a dilapidated structure when a young student came to the neighborhood association across the street looking for an atlas to do his homework. Mary Angelo, the director of the Roosevelt Park and Grandville Avenue Neighborhood Association, was well aware that the closest atlas was probably at the Madison Public Library-at the corner of Madison Avenue nearly ten blocks away. The public library had been approached previously about building a library in the Roosevelt Park neighborhood, but decided it could not proceed because of a zoning ordinance and employee safety issues.

Faced with this dilemma, Mary Angelo decided it was time to see what she could do. It was then that she looked outside the window of the neighborhood association's building and noticed the aging and poorly kept house across the street.

With support from the neighborhood association, Mary Angelo approached foundations and private individuals with the idea of the Grandville Avenue Neighborhood Library, and soon contributions came in from Steelcase, MichCon, Grand Rapids Arts Foundation and many other sources. In the end, enough money was raised. The house was sold to the neighborhood association for one dollar, completely renovated and supplied with a collection of 300 books.

Initially the library was run only by Sister Joan Pichette, of the Grand Rapids Dominicans, as a service to the community.

On his first day at the library, Flemming was assigned by Pichette to work with a fifth grader who did not yet know the alphabet. For two weeks Flemming worked with the student, and at the end of those two weeks, after having learned to sound out letters, the student transferred into a special education class in order to receive more attention.

After that Flemming did start tutoring-helping the children with their homework and reading. "It was really an act of providence," he said, "a perfect and wonderful illustration of bait and switch." But Flemming was also doing a lot more than tutoring. Even though he was working most evenings on a play at Calvin, he came in two afternoons each week and began developing relationships. But by second semester, he had captured the lead role in a Calvin production, and was no longer able to work at the library.

During his junior year, sensing again that lost part in his life, Flemming returned to Grandville Avenue, and volunteered to run the library on Saturdays and once a week.

"That was when the kids began to be an integral part of my life and my identity," said Flemming. "The kids grow on you." Flemming also began using drama as a tool to help the kids learn. He assisted one child in reading a poem for his school talent, and then later attended the performance. He found that he could motivate them to do other things, to read new books because of their connection to movies-or sometimes he would go outside and just play football with them.

Through his work at the library, Flemming said he came to several conclusions about poverty and the assumptions we make. "These students get on a bus at the end of the day and go home, and once they're home, they have no means of transportation-no access to their school's resources. These are the students that end up being called lazy or apathetic. But all you have to do is provide a safe environment where they can study in the way that the more advantaged are accustomed.

"There is an unstated assumption that people in poverty don't take care of something nice," said Flemming, "but already the library has revealed the absurdity of that assumption and the racist undertones that go along with it."

Although neither Pichette nor Flemming live in the neighborhood, their shared commitment and time make them a part of it. In an area where people are often uprooted overnight, where turmoil and moving factors of everyday life, the library remains a solid and stable aspect of the community. "As a ministry," said Flemming, "it's one of consistency."

Both Pichette and Flemming agree that the success of the library is based on this consistency-on the fact that they are there when they say they'll be there. "When Matt's not here on a given Saturday," quipped Pichette, "he hears about it."

On weekdays the library opens at 10 a.m. While the children are in school, it is frequented by adults who come in to work on their resumes, students who've dropped out of school, parents and teachers, who bring their classes..

"This place is more than a library," said Flemming, "for some it's like a home-a place where they can share and be listened to. In a neighborhood like this, where poverty, crime, divorce, abuse and social problems are prevalent, still the worst thing of all is that these kids are robbed of a sense of safety and belonging and community. This is something the library organically provides-a safe haven.

"You begin to realize what a tremendous role motivation plays in our lives. If children don't master reading at a very young age, they soon become aware of their inadequacy and lose motivation. It's amazing to see how, as you build that trust, the children become more and more comfortable with reading, and therefore with themselves."

Pichette attributes the development of trust to her and Flemming's shared commitment to being there: "Do what you say you're going to do," she said, "Sometimes the more important quality of leadership is being there-just showing up. This is how Matt has really become a role model for the boys in this neighborhood-he shows up when he says he's going to. The young boys can depend on him. That's something that is quite foreign to a lot of them."

More than 527 people now have library cards at the Grandville Avenue Neighborhood Library. "All you have to do to get a card is sign your name in a book," said Pichette. "It's another very important aspect of how the library functions, and something we couldn't offer if the library were publicly run."

"In the beginning," said Pichette, "I had a list of rules. But now there are no rules. I used to say no talking, but kids need to talk. They can't learn in a vacuum. In the few cases where I need to ask someone to leave, I always say: 'Leave now, but come back tomorrow.'

"It's really fortunate that we are able to work this way, because it makes for greater understanding and empathy between us and the students that come here. They've learned to respect each other, the building and the materials because it's theirs. It's their library; their books. The library and everything in it belongs to the neighborhood. Very few books don't came back, and in cases where they don't, it's because those families have moved."

Although the library started off with only 300 books, their current holdings total more than 4,000. Purchased through donations, which, said Pichette, continue to come in. The library also has three computers which patrons can use to do their homework or research. All of these services are free for the children and the community.

After volunteering at the Grandville Avenue Neighborhood Library for several years, Flemming is one of its strongest advocates, and when the library held its third year anniversary party for children and donors, Pichette asked Flemming to speak.

In his speech, Flemming talked to the audience about how, when you affect lives of individuals, you affect generations. Flemming told them: "By giving to the library, you've raised up a community and not just an individual. It may be wonderful to look at the statistics, but statistics change and fluctuate. This is a long-term, consistent investment in people's lives. The impact is greater than in any program, because it's the community involvement that matters-the fact that it's their building, and that our only role is to help them help themselves."

Flemming sees the library as an important way for the children in the Roosevelt Park neighborhood to be able to see the world outside. "These kids don't really get out of the neighborhood," he said, "and even when they do, they take it with them. It's their baggage, this place." So this past year, Flemming brought some of the children with him to Calvin for a day. As they were walking around campus, one of them said, "This must be a very special place." And Flemming said, "Yes, it is."

Flemming is excited to think about the future of some of the children he's had the opportunity to meet, and more than anything he has been struck by their talent-and the potential waste of that talent when children are not given the means to use it. He and Pichette have watched children be literally transformed as they have been given the tools, through reading, to do more with their lives, and they have seen parents, too, become more involved because of the library.

"Especially this year-it's the first time that I've been able to see people in the neighborhood become accustomed to the library, because there's a kind of elitism implied by a library, and it's taken some getting used to," said Pichette

For his efforts, Flemming was awarded a Calvin Alumni Association Volunteerism Scholarship in 1999. He will graduate from Calvin this May with majors in religion and philosophy and plans to attend graduate school. Pichette said she's not sure she'll ever be able to replace him, but Flemming has made it a primary goal to find someone who is willing to come in regularly and maintain a high level of commitment.

Pichette said that the first time she saw the library, she thought of it as a beacon of hope. "We don't live to see the results of this work," she said, "but the work is done and we touch lives everyday. Even when we don't always see or understand, it's still of the utmost importance that there are people like Matt who keep it going."

Cole Ruth '95 works in the marketing department of Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Services in Grand Rapids.

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