Alternative School Grads, Students Give Back
Three Programs in One Location Inspire Neighborhood Impact
“Is a square a rectangle, or is a rectangle a square?” Kevin asks Luis, his mentor at PPL’s Homework ‘n’ Hoops afterschool youth program. Together on a Monday evening, they tackle math problems of area and perimeters. Just upstairs and hours before, Luis was solving his own math problems as a student at PPL’s MERC Alternative High School, which serves low-income students with barriers to obtaining a diploma in a traditional school setting. The proximity of PPL programs is inspiring MERC students and alumni to give back.
“We’ve worked to instill in students that MERC is more than a school,” MERC lead teacher Sheri Langevin said. “We are a community, and we’re only successful if we strive to make it better. We also tell students that they are responsible for their community outside of MERC and should strive to make a positive difference.”
Many students at MERC are following that lead within the halls of the building. MERC is located at PPL’s Bethlehem Community Center in south Minneapolis, also home to Homework ‘n’ Hoops and PPL’s Early Wonders Preschool, giving students a chance to volunteer in a familiar setting. Some have volunteered in the preschool classroom while others, including MERC graduates, are tutoring grade school children after school, inspired by the opportunity to help others where they were helped.
“Going to MERC was a priceless experience,” said Felt, who went to MERC nearly twenty years ago. “This place has been a community staple. It’s a rare thing to have someone from this neighborhood give back to the kids. I didn’t have a role model growing up, so I jumped at the chance to help.”
“I really enjoy being around the kids” said Paloma, a recent MERC graduate and a one-time Homework ‘n’ Hoops participant herself. “I’m the oldest of nine, so it’s an opportunity to be a big sister again. I like having a mentee who knows I’m here to help them out.”
The connection between the programs has changed the climate at MERC. Preschool children see the older MERC students as role models, helping improve the behavior and self-esteem of the students. In turn, MERC students pass along the support they receive in the classroom.
“It’s a strong testament to MERC that students have such a positive experience at the school that they want to come back and volunteer in the building, even though the program is separate from the school,” said Mari Jo Long, who supervises the Homework ‘n’ Hoops program. “Those volunteers have grown up here so they are deeply connected with and committed to this area. It shows in their mentoring.”
“Our students do not always have much, and life often has given them many burdens to bear,” Langevin said, “but we believe they have much to offer.”