Operation Give Back knows child poverty touches all parts of the Tri-State

'We've still got a ways to go'

BLUE ASH, Ohio -- Donna Lewis was a single mom with two young sons when she first heard about Operation Give Back.

Her boys were students at Symmes Elementary School, and their teachers recommended tutoring. But Lewis didn't have the money to pay a tutor so the school's principal told her about something called Operation Give Back.

Lewis and her sons gave it a try. That was five years ago, and Kentrell and Giovani have kept going to Operation Give Back ever since.

"They're just there whenever they need support," Lewis said of the organization's tutors. "When they first started, they needed that one-on-one support. Now since they're older, they don't need as much."

Kentrell, age 12.

Started in 2002, Operation Give Back volunteers tutor about 32 students three days a week at the organization's Blue Ash facility. Efforts focus on low-income students in Sycamore Community Schools, a school district that isn't exactly known for student poverty.

Giovani, age 11.

"People look at Sycamore schools as being a very well endowed school district," said Carla Eng, president of Abstract Displays, Inc., in Blue Ash and a long-time volunteer with Operation Give Back. "But one-quarter of the kids in the district are part of the free- and reduced-price lunch program."

That hidden, suburban poverty is what prompted Lee and Wendetta Langston to begin Operation Give Back all those years ago. The couple started by helping kids after school in the basement of their home. They incorporated the organization as a nonprofit in 2003.

In addition to tutoring, Operation Give Back now sponsors Whiz Kids weekly literacy hour, monthly weekend movie nights and summer tutoring. It also has a food pantry, offers training and coaching for parents and gives "back to school" supplies to 300 children each year. The organization just completed its annual invitation-only Holiday Store, which serves 1,500 children and their families each December.

Still a ways to go

The Langstons relocated to Alabama earlier this year, and Wendetta Langston transferred the role of program director over to Leanne Berke at the start of this school year.

The Langstons continue to stay involved with the organization, though, even from afar, Berke said.

Lewis, in fact, still talks with Wendetta Langston just about every day, she said.

That's partly because of the close friendship the two women have formed over the years. Wendetta Langston never looked down on Lewis just because Lewis lived in low-income housing, she said. But it's also because Wendetta Langston convinced Lewis to go to work full-time for Operation Give Back a few months after Lewis had her baby daughter.

Volunteers staffed Operation Give Back's Holiday Store on Dec. 10, 2016. Phil Didion | WCPO Contributor

Now a mother of four, Lewis, 33, is the administrative assistant for the organization while she goes to college to earn her bachelor's degree in social work. For the first time this year, she also took over managing the Holiday Shop. Lewis had volunteered in the shop for several years.

"I love helping people," she said.

And she understands first-hand how much Operation Give Back's help is needed in a part of Greater Cincinnati that few people ever would expect to need help.

"I think people are still blind to the fact that the poverty rate is high, no matter what your ZIP code is," Lewis said. "We do have a lot of people in poverty in our area. We've still got a ways to go."

That's what inspires Berke, too, she said.

A former teacher, Berke got involved with the organization through the Parent Teacher Association at her kids' school.

Volunteers helped parents shop at the Holiday Store on Dec. 10, 2016. Phil Didion | WCPO Contributor

Her goal as the new program director is to continue Operation Give Back just the way the Langstons envisioned the organization.

"I'm the only change," she said. "We're continuing their vision. The people here live it and breathe it."

More information about Operation Give Back -- including ways you can help -- is available online.

Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and also shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. Childhood poverty is an important focus for her and for WCPO. To read more stories about childhood poverty, go to www.wcpo.com/poverty.

To read more stories by Lucy, go to www.wcpo.com/may. To reach her, email lucy.may@wcpo.com. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.

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