Mar 6, 2018
LOVELAND, Ohio -- There was a time not so long ago when Ashli Nicely’s daughter refused to read aloud.
“She felt like she was so behind, and some of her peers could do a lot better,” Nicely said.
But that has changed since little Mya started getting help at NEST Community Learning Center, a nonprofit that works with families at low-income apartment communities in Loveland.
Started in 2016 by retired schoolteacher Evangeline DeVol, NEST takes its services directly to families using an old RV that has been retrofitted into a classroom on wheels called the “NEST-mobile.”
During the school year, DeVol backs the NEST-mobile out of her Loveland driveway Monday through Thursday and visits three apartment complexes, one after the other, for an hour and 45 minutes at each stop. DeVol and her trained volunteers help students ranging in age from preschool through high school with everything from basic reading to higher-level math.
The goal is to help level the playing field for suburban kids living in poverty who lack the resources available to their inner-city counterparts and feel out of place compared to their more affluent classmates. The NEST-mobile provides each student with a healthy snack and structured playtime outside when the weather is nice.
But the most critical part of the mission is the homework help and tutoring.
When parents register their kids to be part of NEST, they give DeVol and her volunteers written permission to discuss their kids’ work and struggles with their teachers at school so they can make sure students are getting the academic support they need.
“We believe that every child is very precious and every child has skills and abilities, and they want to be successful. And solely based on the one thing they didn’t get to choose -- where they were born -- they are struggling,” DeVol said. “And each of these kids deserves a fighting chance, and that fighting chance is the educational component.”
Greater Cincinnati has been paying much more attention to child poverty in recent years, with some of the region’s most influential leaders in business, politics and community work coming together to form the Child Poverty Collaborative back in 2015.
But DeVol argues that suburban poverty gets far less attention than the more concentrated poverty in urban areas. And while most inner-city teachers enter their classrooms each school day expecting the challenges that poverty brings, suburban teachers usually do not, DeVol said.
As part of her work with NEST, DeVol talks to women’s and church groups and even makes presentations during teachers’ professional development days to discuss the growing problem of suburban poverty.
“It’s just getting bigger and bigger and bigger, and what’s the plan? There isn’t a plan for the most part,” she said. “One superintendent told me: ‘We’re treading water. We don’t know how to work with this, and our teachers don’t.’”
The struggles are different for kids in the suburbs, too, DeVol said.
She spent more than 20 years working as a teacher in impoverished neighborhoods. As difficult as concentrated poverty is for families, she said, there was a sense of community. Kids didn’t stand out just because their families got food stamps, she said, or lived in government-subsidized housing.
That’s different in a place like Loveland, where more than half of all the city’s families had household incomes of $75,000 or more in 2016, according to the latest U.S. census data.
The after-school programs and activities at Loveland City Schools are out of reach for kids who have to take the bus home right away to look after their younger brothers and sisters while their mothers are at work.
“We have one young lady who gets off the bus -- she’s the oldest of five. Before she sees us, she has to do the dishes from the night before, sweep the floor and look after baby brother while Mom takes a shower. Then she can come work with us,” DeVol said. “We have a young man who gets his first-grade sister off the bus and gives her a snack. After Mom gets home, he can come.”
The program has been good for the community as a whole, too, said Capt. Bruce Hawk of the Loveland Symmes Fire Department.
Hawk has been working with NEST for about six months, he said, stopping by the apartment communities when the NEST-mobile visits so the kids can see a firefighter in a different context.
“A lot of times when we’re here, it’s for a bad reason,” Hawk said. “This builds the relationship and lets them see us in a different light.”
Other police officers and firefighters have told DeVol that risky behaviors have decreased in the communities where the NEST-mobile visits, she said.
“It’s a win-win all the way around,” she said.
But NEST wouldn’t be successful without the relationships that DeVol and her volunteers have built with the parents of the kids the program serves.
DeVol formed those bonds by going to parents’ apartments during NEST's first summer to introduce herself and explain the program.
Jessica Haney was one of the first moms to meet DeVol at Westover Village and even ran the site for the summer program, where NEST focuses on providing lunches to the kids and giving them academic enrichment so they don’t forget too much of what they learned the previous school year.
NEST has helped Haney’s 9-year-old daughter, Raigan, with math and helped the fourth-grader make new friends, too, Haney said.
“She’s getting tutoring that I wouldn’t be able to provide for her if it wasn’t for NEST,” she said.
Ashli Nicely said she feels the same way.
NEST has provided tutoring and homework help for her son, Gabriel, who is 12, and 8-year-old Mya since the program began in 2016.
“Having NEST, now she will read to me, and she’ll read to others,” Nicely said of her daughter. “She’s more confident.”
She also appreciates the communication between NEST, the parents and their kids’ schools, she said. Nicely attends nursing school full time and works and said there is no way she can add a bunch of teacher conferences and school meetings to the mix.
“It means the world to me,” she said. “I would not be able to make it through nursing school without NEST and be able to be a good mom to take care of my kids and their schooling along with mine.”
Kids who participate in NEST said it means a lot to them, too.
“I like how they won’t let you fool around, and you get your homework done quickly,” said Jayden Lovelace, a 10-year-old fourth-grader who visits the NEST-mobile after school. “I also like the ways that they teach you to do stuff.”
If Jayden had his way, he said, he would go to NEST all the time instead of school.
“It’s fun at NEST,” he said. “It is fun at school, but it’s way better at NEST than at school. Like you have a certain tutor instead of having to wait for your teacher to come around and everything.”
That one-on-one attention has helped Ethan Wilson a lot, too, he said.
Ethan is a 13-year-old eighth-grader at Loveland Middle School who started going to NEST last year when he was having trouble completing his homework.
“It’s always a great opportunity to get to come down here and finish your homework,” he said. “Today, I was struggling with a hard project. And my friend, Jonas, my boy on the bus, he always helps me get my homework done, and we don’t mess around. We just get it done like that so it’s just done and then you don’t have to worry about it.”
Ethan’s little sister, Haleigh, who is 9, likes NEST, too.
“I was doing this article about bees, and I got a 50 at first. A 50 percent when I was done,” she said. “So we went to a different article, and it had even more questions, but I still got 100 percent.”
The people at NEST taught Haleigh how to read more carefully, she said, and go back to the text.
And this year Ethan has been getting all As and Bs on his report card, he said.
Making that kind of difference is what NEST is all about. DeVol said she is convinced that it will take programs such as NEST -- that approach poverty in new and innovative ways -- to reduce our nation’s child poverty rate.
She would like to add another NEST-mobile to her program so she can help more students, and she hopes other communities that learn about NEST would want to replicate the program, too.
DeVol argues something has to change.
After all, the Johnson administration declared a federal War on Poverty in 1964, and the government has spent billions of dollars on the work.
“Fifty some years later here we are. And in a lot of cases, we’re doing a whole lot worse,” she said. “NEST was created with that in mind. All the same old, same old is not working. All these one-size-fits-alls have not really made the difference we want to.”
More information about NEST Community Learning Center and how to volunteer and contribute 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 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 email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.