Almost through the cracks

April 12, 2011

By Zakia Williams

Richmond, Va. – A year ago, Ja’Quan Hicks,16, found himself falling through the cracks.
“I really didn’t go to class. I used to skip all the time,” Hicks said.
Hicks attended Armstrong High School located in the East End. His empathy was a result of the faculty and staff not caring, Hicks said. Now a sophomore, Hicks attends Church Hill Academy.
His school story carries a different tune.
“I used to always be like I got a C and a D is passing too,” Hicks said. I get As, Bs, and Cs now, he said. “C pluses.”
At Church Hill Academy, Hicks said the teachers have a stark interest in his well-being. They are more willing to meet him where he’s at.
“My teachers from my school live in my neighborhood, so they come and tutor me and help me out,” Hicks said.
Church Hill Academy is a private Christian high school that operates from the Peter Paul Development Center on North 22nd St. The school falls under the umbrella of the Church Hill Activities and Tutoring (CHAT) program. Percy Strickland, who established CHAT with his wife Angie in 2002, said the school was designed to help at-risk youth.
Click to listen to Angie Strickland describe how the program came to the couple’s doorstep

We were so concerned with the option that kids were being offered, we created a private school, Church Hill Academy, for kids who basically were dropping out,” Strickland said about the school that opened in 2007.
Hick’s former high school, Armstrong, ranked second amongst Richmond’s five high schools for dropout rates. The Virginia Department of Education latest statistics reported the school had 53 dropouts for the 2008-2009 school year.
Hicks could have been one.
Mica Morgan, unit director for Southwood’s Boys and Girls Club, said it’s a challenge to help at-risk youth because there’s no color line or socioeconomic status that sets them aside.
“Every kid walking is at-risk of something, whether that’s using drugs, joining a gang or being influenced negatively,” Morgan said.
Strickland knows this all too well. In addition to a school, CHAT offers tutoring, life skill classes, bible studies, career development courses and more. On Wednesday, students can choose from a wide range of activities to join. The idea is with more options fewer kids will slip away.
Hicks once wasted energy is now channeled through performing well in school. He’s also taking advantage of participating in the Nehemiah Workshop, a wood working class offered through CHAT.
Click here to watch an inside edition of CHAT’s Nehemiah Workshop

At the shop, located on 2708 Marshall Street, Hicks and his friend Archer “AJ” Malone, 15, are standouts.
“These guys had done the Wednesday night class so much they were clearly ready to do something different,” said Matthew Maio, who volunteers with Nehemiah Workshop. “And the thought was they’re looking for something that they might want to do for a job that we tackle some bigger things.”
Last year the volunteers created an advanced class that meets every other Saturday morning.
The boys take orders and earn $8 an hour for their three to four hour shift.
In September, the teenagers were introduced to their biggest project. They built 25 picnic tables for the Third Presbyterian Church on Pump Road. The project took Hicks and Malone, along with two other students who are no longer involved, three and a half months to complete. Many of those days spent working during the bitter winter temperatures. On this nice spring day, the boys and Maio reminisce about their experience.
“It wasn’t that long ago we were complaining about the cold. Now I want some shade,” Maio said.
“My feet were freezing,” Hicks said.
“It was a lot of fun,” Maio said jokingly.
“You had a lot of fun,” Malone replied.
With a little encouragement, the boys pressed through, Maio said.
While they build tables, Maio said the volunteers invest time to build relationships as well. A point he said Strickland emphasizes.
Ally Amick, a University of Richmond student and CHAT volunteer, shares her experience of being a cooking class leader

“He said your talent and your money and all that stuff is very welcome. But he said I want you to have a relationship with these kids and that’s what’s important,” Maio said.
Click here to listen to Percy Strickland, CHAT’s CEO, describe some reactions toward his relationship with CHAT students

While many kids their age are indecisive about what they want to be when they grow up, Hicks and Malone answered the question with ease. Malone said he wants to become a mechanic. Hicks said he wants to be a carpenter.
The program is affording the teenagers with plenty of experiences to decor their resume for those careers. Future projects include the students building a portion of a fence, working on a deck, and crafting wooden bed frames for Maio’s parents, Maio said. One of the goals for this year is to introduce the boys to projects outside of the shop.
Morgan said attendance speaks volumes about an organization’s success.
The teenager’s continuous participation in the Nehemiah Workshop, especially on Saturdays confirm Morgan’s statement.
Hicks said he appreciates the program for many reasons. One reason is because it helps him to stay on track.
“It keeps me busy,” Hicks said. “Keeps me from being on the streets.”
When lives such as Hicks have changed for the better, Strickland said the program’s mission is accomplished.
“These are great kids,” Strickland said. “And they shouldn’t be given a death sentence just because of where they are from and because opportunities aren’t dropping from the sky.”
Take a scroll down Church Hill Activities and Tutoring (CHAT) main locations and neighboring sites

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