By: Staff Reports | Gwinnett Citizen

Path Project... literacy makes a difference
By Beth Volpert-Johansen

The first things you notice as you watch the after school activities at The Path Project in the Gwinnett Estates Mobile Home Park in Loganville are the smiles. As the Volunteers welcome children straight off the bus, the kids all have the program down pat.

Smile and say hello, turn in your work folder, carefully choose a treat, and find a place to sit. On one particularly warm March day, the kids gathered on the wide front porch of the trailer-turned-literacy center where they anxiously awaited storytime and interaction with the staff they obviously looked forward to seeing each day.

Supporting literacy, the ability to read well, is the main objective for The Path Project. Without the ability to read, the path to a high school graduation, and subsequently, a successful post-secondary education and work life are difficult to achieve. According to Executive Director  Jim Hollandsworth, students who cannot read well by the third grade have a much higher risk of never finishing high school.

When Co-founders Jim and Melinda Hollandsworth first became involved with volunteering in Gwinnett Estates, more than 80% of the students were dropping out of high school. “That kind of drop out rate from one neighborhood alone showed that there had to be something more to the issue,” says Melinda. “We learned that because most of the parents did not speak English and had not finished school themselves, it was hard for them to help their children learn to read and do homework.” Armed with that kind of knowledge, Melinda and Jim, an associate pastor at Graystone Church at the time, began to look for a program where they could volunteer to come in and help the students with their basic reading skills. There wasn’t one. “We started out wanting to volunteer for some organization,” says Melinda. “Then, we became the organization.” That organization was named The Hope Center, an outreach of Graystone Church.

The park manager offered space in the office, but the program very quickly grew too large. Church members began to volunteer and more children came to read each week. “The manager offered us a mobile home to expand,” says Jim. “The only catch was that it was riddled with bullet holes.” More volunteers came to gut the unit, paint and remodel. The resulting space is brightly painted with plenty of room for tutoring, reading, and classes. That was in 2009. Today, the program is now its own non-profit organization in five similar neighborhoods called The Path Project. “We want to walk beside these kids and their parents along the path to graduation,” says Jim. “Our goal is for everyone to have a plan for post graduation.”

The ultimate goal is for students to finish high school and go on to vocational training, college, or a steady job. Without a high school diploma and the ability to read, it is difficult for anyone to obtain a good job. Those who participate in The Path Project enjoy support from many business owners in the community who readily offer a personal look into their businesses. By gaining access to the real world of work, students hear for themselves what business owners are looking for in an employee.

Jim and Melinda would like to see the program become self-sustaining one day with support provided by former students who have completed school and gone on to a successful life. One such successful former resident of Gwinnett Estates has returned to the program as a college intern. She represents the success of finishing high school and is now a role model for the students in The Path Project. Maira Hernandez spends her afternoons reading with the youngest students in the project. Her own brothers, while no longer residents of the neighborhood, still come in for high school homework help. “They love it here; I love it here,” says Maira. “Jim and Melinda are two people you can definitely count on for anything; they have our love and respect.”

Maira is now in her second year at Georgia Gwinnett College studying Early Childhood Education. “I get so excited when the kids call out my name,” says Maira. “I love it when they walk out of here knowing that they have really read a whole sentence or book.” She loves to see them smile and show self-confidence.

Both Jim and Melinda have a great deal of respect for Maira. “She knows what these kids face,” says Jim. “Melinda and I can’t step into their shoes; Maira grew up in them.”

Seeing the results of the hard work it took to build The Path Project is like manna. It feeds the souls of full and part time employees as well as the volunteers from all walks of life. From the smallest Mom and Me classes to the newly formed soccer program, The Path Project is helping to form a community where there existed only tenants; families who lived in Gwinnett Estates, but didn’t interact with one another. Today, they talk, laugh, live, and play together. They support one another and enjoy the social aspects of an active neighborhood. And their kids read. They are on the path to graduation with the help of a few volunteers who saw a need, called out for help, and found a way to make a real difference.

To get involved through The Path Project as a volunteer tutor, reader, soccer coach, sponsor, or youth volunteer, visit www.Path-Project.org for more information. The annual fundraising gala and auction will be held at Graystone Church on Friday, May 1st. Contact Jim at info@path-project.org for tickets or donations.