Debra Wiens and STUGO members with some of the items purchased for Bridge of Hope. Photos from STUGO.
There was the easy part: four STUGO members traveling to Target with teachers David Aiello and Debra Wiens to pick out hundreds of toys. It was easy to grab baby dolls and Uno Cards and throw them in a shopping cart, to take pictures and to grin as they carried the bags bursting with holiday joy to the car.
Although this seemed quite simple and fun, there was still the hard part: entering the Bridge of Hope shelter with the bags of toys, and coming face-to-face with the issues that are plaguing a community only 15 minutes away from CHS.
On a Monday morning, Clayton High School teachers unexpectedly began to collect loose change from students. Despite the brevity of the fundraising effort, students at CHS had raised over $900 by that Thursday. STUGO members then used this money to purchase toys for a community in desperate need — a community that, without CHS, would not have special toys to place under a Christmas tree.
“It was a really great opportunity to be able to help kids and their families be able to enjoy the holidays,” said CHS junior and STUGO member Annelise Laakko. “It was something so simple as spending an hour or two in a store and purchasing toys, and we were able to really impact a community. I feel really fortunate to have participated and so should everyone who donated to the cause.”
However, while many students patted themselves on the back for the feat of raising so much money in so few days, there are many bigger issues still hovering over this desperate community.
When Stephen and Robin Boda moved to St. Louis, they originally intended to fly to Africa for one year to help children in need. However, the pair soon witnessed the challenges and issues that permeated their own neighborhood.
“There is a disparity between the rich and the poor, and it’s getting greater and greater,” Steve said. “We thought to ourselves, ‘what can we do to make this better?’ We started working with World Impact, working in this neighborhood that we raised our kids in, and asked the people living here what their needs were. It’s one thing to come in and say, ‘oh, these houses are bad, the crime rate is high,’ but it’s another thing to sit down the people who live here and talk to them about what they think are problems.”
Together, Stephen and Robin run Bridge of Hope, a community shelter in St. Louis that provides food, showers, tutoring for all ages, clothing and hope for anyone who needs it. Because of these resources, Bridge of Hope is considered a “safe place” where individuals in need of help can come to start new lives.
Debra Wiens, history teacher at CHS, has been working very closely with Bridge of Hope for over a year.
“A friend told me about Bridge of Hope [and how] they were trying to change lives, and that they needed tutors, and that I should try it,” Wiens said. “I went and fell in love with it. I just started as a tutor and enjoyed the relationships that I established with people there. I wanted to help the director, Robin, too. I believe so strongly in what she does.”
Robin tutors for the SAT, ACT and GED, as well as general tutoring for anyone who needs it. She teaches over 300 students from ages six to 80, varied each day by people who come to the shelter for help.
“We are currently tutoring a 70-year-old woman who kept saying ‘teach me to read, teach me to read.’ She never thought she would be able to read.; people in her life told her she wouldn’t be able to. But now she is. This place is about creating opportunity for these people,” Robin said.
Although education is a significant issue in society, Robin hopes that she can teach anyone of any age basic skills that an individual needs in the real world.
“The classroom is my world,” Robin said. “I kept hearing from people in my community ‘my kid is having trouble in school,’ or, ‘I need my GED.’ Education is an issue that is front and center in these communities. Over the years, I have been predominantly trying to teach basic education. I want all of my students to be able to read, write, and produce math at a fourth grade level.”
The need for education is drastic in these communities.
“Of course, I want my students to get their GED, I want them to get a good score on the ACT, but the reality is that I only have some students that do these things,” Robin said. “I am teaching the bulk of these students how to do the fundamentals such as reading.”
Wiens is one of many tutors who help Robin teach children and adults on weekends at Bridge of Hope.
“I listen to the people who are in the neighborhood and in the community to know the challenges that they face. They know what they need,” Wiens said. “I’m just trying to help bring structure and connect to people beyond their neighborhoods. They know what they need; they just don’t have the resources in which to achieve.”
Through dedication and time, many individuals are helping this community and are rewarded by learning important skills, developing new relationships, and gaining different perspectives about the world.
“Everyone has a lot to learn,” Robin said. “Sometimes [tutors are] like ‘woah, I can’t believe what these people are going through.’ The tutors will often come back and say ‘I’m so humbled to work here’ because they are finding out that life is hard for our community because they’re seeing it up close and personal. And, the tutors are of course teaching these people something too, but there’s education that goes both ways. Everyone has something to teach each other, which is super cool and important. If students believe they have something to teach the tutor, they can let down their guard a little bit.”
Because of their incredible work and commitment, Stephen and Robin have gradually connected individuals together through powerful relationships.
“Everything we do here is based on relationships,” Stephen said. “When I was little, I needed someone to fix me. I had resources that could feed into me. These little kids [are] hungry for the same resources. There was a time when both [Robin and I] needed to be served, and we know how it felt when people served us and helped us. We don’t do it necessarily for our own happiness, but we do it because there’s a need.”
Ultimately, Stephen and Robin recognize that they need to motivate the individuals in their community.
Although many of the individuals have faced struggles and challenges in their lives, Stephen and Robin believe these individuals have the strength to achieve great things with just a few small steps in the right direction.
“We have to empower them, encourage them. It’s not like we’re putting a carrot in front of a horse and they can never get the carrot,” Stephen said. “It’s having goals and breaking those goals down step by step. We celebrate when they take step forward, and we weep with them when they make mistakes. We tell them to get back up, let’s move forward. We move forward from our mistakes.”
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