Loaves and Fishes works to help kids find stability, ‘spark’

By Todd Cohen

RALEIGH, N.C. — Two years ago, the family of a child in the after-school program at Raleigh nonprofit Loaves and Fishes had 18 different addresses in 12 months.

“The kids we work with, typically, the lives they’re in get disrupted from having to move,” says Joe Burmeister, executive director at Loaves and Fishes. “They come from poverty, and there are lots of things in their lives that are not stable.”

So Loaves and Fishes, through academic and other support it provides to children and their families, works to form “stable, long-term relationships,” he says.

Loaves and Fishes dates to 1982, when Betty Anne Ford and Nancy Newell were giving tennis lessons at Peace College in Raleigh, now Peace University, and started talking to kids who lived in public housing at nearby Halifax Court and congregated at the tennis courts to watch the lessons.

The conversations inspired Ford and Newell to start a summer enrichment program for 12 first-and-second-graders. When the kids showed progress in reading and social skills, the two women secured a grant from the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation in Winston-Salem to expand Loaves and Fishes to a year-round program, initially for children in kindergarten through second grade.

Yet when those 12 kids moved beyond second grade and graduated from the program, their school performance fell. So Loaves and Fishes expanded over time to continue to serve them through high school.

In the just-ended school year, Loaves and Fishes served 51 children from 28 low-income families, 90 percent of them black, the rest Hispanic.

Since the nonprofit began operating, 200 students, or 93 percent of the kids it has  served, have graduated from high school. One of them, Dana Wright, started in the program as a second-grader and now is the nonprofit’s director of family support.

Located in leased space at Milner Memorial Presbyterian Church on New Bern Avenue, Loaves and Fishes operates with an annual budget of $250,000, a staff of two people working full-time and five working part-time, 50 active volunteers, and up to 10 interns from six Triangle colleges and universities who mainly assist teachers.

Most of the students Loaves and Fishes serves attend one of five Wake County public schools in southeast Raleigh.

Four days a week, the nonprofit’s two minivans pick up the students at the schools at dismissal and drive them to Loaves and Fishes, where they get a snack, followed by academic support and other activities, including exercise and field trips.

And once a month, the children and their families participate in Family Night, which typically feature a workshop or speaker for the adults on topics such as financial literacy, budgeting, nutrition and exercise, and gang prevention.

Loaves and Fishes works closely with the students’ teachers and, with parents’ permission, tracks their academic and social progress in school.

And to address other needs, it refers families to agencies such as The Green Chair Project for household furniture, local churches for assistance paying electric bills, and Wheels 4 Hope to buy refurbished used vehicles.

Loaves and Fishes gets all its funds through contributions, mainly from individuals and 30 faith congregations, as well as some businesses and foundations, and two events.

Now it is seeking foundation support to create its first fundraising position, and plans a campaign to raise money to hire a specialist in social and emotional learning to work with its teachers.

“Our kids come from poverty, they’re almost always not doing well in school, so it would be really easy for them to think that’s how life is going to be, that they’re not going to do well, they’re stupid, and that’s just the way life is,” says Burmeister, a former partner with KPMG and former senior executive at several tech firms. “We try to help our kids discover their spark.”

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