Photo by Brian Giandelone
COVINGTON -- Growing up in West Virginia, Bea Jackson didn't have to look any further than her own doorstep to find a role model.
"My grandmother was a very strong influence in our home," Jackson said of the woman who helped raise her. "Everybody in the neighborhood and the community would come to my grandmother and she would take people in and give them a place to eat and rest."
Jackson is a product of that influence, having spent her adult life helping children reach their full potential. She is the executive director of Washington Street Community Center, a nonprofit that offers a variety of enrichment programs for youth in the community.
"Being a people person, I want to be of service to others. I do feel that's a big part of who I am, and I credit her with that. That's her fault," Jackson said with a smile.
When Jackson moved to Covington in 2002, she kept hearing about a remarkable place called Washington Street Community Center that offered an after-school tutorial program for local students. Tucked away on a small road off Washington Street, the center proved difficult to find.
"My husband and I would play a little game where we'd take off in search of Washington Street," Jackson said. Once she finally found the center, she contacted the board of directors and convinced them she was the right person to lead the facility forward. She had previously worked with the DeKalb County Council on Aging and the Northwest Georgia Girl Scouts Council.
At the time, the after-school tutorial was the only program offered at Washington Street. Jackson wanted to change that, believing that a well-rounded child has a better chance at success. She decided more than just academic training should be offered.
"More than anything, I wanted to make this a place that was accessible to as many people who could use the help. I wanted to make sure the community knew about this diamond in the rough," she said.
Jackson added a summer enrichment program that at first focused on younger children. But soon Jackson realized there was a lack of services for students in middle and high school.
"I kind of felt like they were left out of the mainstream in Covington. People were looking out for the babies. But with this group, there was no place for them to gather," she said. The Young Legends Program was born, serving students in seventh grade through high school. Participants in the year-round enrichment program learn life skills such as CPR, public speaking and financial management. They also perform community service, take tours of colleges and receive help applying for scholarships.
"We want to attract a group that wants to be a little more serious about life, that is doing a decent job in school but never gets to share any of the spotlight," Jackson said.
The program accepts 20 students a year, and so far, about 100 students have participated. Jackson estimates 98 percent of participants go on to attend four-year colleges and the other 2 percent join the military. Many come back and volunteer at Washington Street.
"It gives me a great sense of pride and satisfaction in seeing them go on to do well. It's about feeling a sense of accomplishment and knowing we must be doing something right," she said.
The after school program still continues at Washington Street for children in kindergarten through high school. It has grown from 10 to 12 participants twice a week to more than 50 every day.
Before they begin their homework, the children can take part in reading theater where they read stories and perform skits, lead by Mollie Melvin, the director of The Learning Center, which focuses on childhood literacy. On Fridays, they get a break from academics, with Fun and Fitness day. Activities include sports, theater and dancing, as well a cultural studies with Washington Street's corporate partner, General Mills. Employees teach the children about different cultures in an interactive format. Most recently, they made masks for Mardis Gras.
It's all free for those who qualify, thanks to a federal grant received through a partnership with the Newton County Board of Education. The criteria is based primarily on household income; performance on the Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests is also considered.
Other programs at Washington Street include Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops, a band school and the Grandparents Kinship Care Program for grandparents who are raising their grandchildren.
The facility is now overcrowded; the Newton County School System recently donated a trailer to meet additional space needs.
Louise Adams, who directs the after school program for children in kindergarten through second grade, said Jackson has "been invaluable to us."
"She's there all the time and she's a good organizer and she's dependable and supportive of all of our activities," she said.
Washington Street has become a family affair, with Jackson's husband Wick coordinating the after-school program for children in third grade and beyond.
Jackson believes Washington Street has made an impact on the local dropout rate and provided a safe haven for children who would otherwise be home alone, or perhaps getting into trouble, after school.
"They tell me I have a passion for children. I want to see them succeed. I think kids are the most special human beings on Earth. They are capable of anything their hearts desire with the proper connections, guidance and direction and support. I want to be that vessel for them to make connections in this world," she said.