Lakesha Partee remembers the first gathering of Operation Shoestring leaders in the week after schools and businesses across the state closed due to the rise in COVID cases. The group collected in the program office in midtown Jackson spread around a conference table. There was no laughter from the normally lively group. Fear, worry and shock filled the room instead.
“That day was like a pause, like you were gasping for air,” Partee, the Project Rise coordinator, said in a phone interview. “At (that) point your normal has been swept away.”
The Shoestring team not only worried for themselves and their own families as the pandemic ascended, but for the children of high-poverty Georgetown and MidCity neighborhoods in Jackson where the organization has been providing support for 53 years. Its goals are to ensure access to education, health and self-sufficiency services for Jackson Public Schools students in grades pre-K through 12. Operation Shoestring also provides parents with financial counseling, educational workshops, nutritional classes and other resources.
On June 7, 2021, Project Rise Summer Camp began in-person after-school operations back in the colorful facility on Bailey Avenue for the first time in more than a year. The six-week summer camp themed “Reconnection Summer: Get Ready to Reconnect, Re- Engage, and Rediscover!” will operate from 7:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. for students of Galloway and Walton Elementary Schools in the capital city.
“The most important thing is to figure out how to reconnect with kids and families so that they feel affirmed; they feel heard; and they are ready,” Executive Director Robert Langford told the Mississippi Free Press. “We see this summer as a transition between isolation into what we hope will be something better next school year.”
‘There Is Nothing Wrong With Change’
Even as they packed their offices in preparation to work from home for an unknown amount of time, the Shoestring staff understood the importance of continuing to provide support to families. They soon began a robust online academic program using Canvas platforms to offer support through Zoom meetings and programs such as Lexia Learning and Moby Max. They also provided more than 100 Samsung tablets or Chromebooks for students needing technology to participate in classes.
St. Andrew’s Episcopal School shared videos of physical-education lessons. Alcorn State University donated soil, water, seeds and videos to start home gardens. Parents of students enrolled in the program received biweekly boxes of fresh produce and fruits from Footprint Farms and other staples from local grocers through a partnership with the University of Mississippi Medical Center, as well as direct cash payments of $500. They could participate in weekly gardening and nutrition classes online, which provided healthy recipes and cooking tips.
The pandemic provided an opportunity for Operation Shoestring to reassess how to best meet the needs of their families.
“What I’ve learned during this pandemic is that there is nothing wrong with change. A lot of the time what may seem like a bad time is really, truly a blessing,” Partee said. “Throughout this time I was able to really take time out to hear the children and listen and to deliver and give them what they asked for. I was able to hear and see their response. It’s a totally different response, and it feels wonderful.”
In the Wake of James Meredith Shooting
Operation Shoestring’s mission has always been to improve the lives of those in the area it serves. White Jackson Methodist faith leaders founded the organization in 1968, inspired in part by the 1966 shooting of James Meredith in Hernando during his Walk Against Fear. The men, members of Laymen’s Overseas Service Board, felt compelled to respond in support of the Civil Rights Movement. They met with the local NAACP who suggested ramping up efforts in voter registration.
However, conversations with community members revealed that their most pressing need was the creation of safe spaces for children to play in Jackson’s Pleasant Avenue community. Together with volunteers from Millsaps and Tougaloo Colleges and community members, the group found vacant lots. They used donated materials to create playgrounds in the community. They eventually became known as the Community Action Group and sought to promote action, consciousness and self-sufficiency.
Later, as the ministers faced backlash for their work with the Black community, they received support from Rev. Russell Gilbert of Wells United Methodist Church, which is on Bailey Avenue close to what was then the Jackson Mall (and now the Jackson Medical Mall). The group began meeting at the church, and brainstormed Operation Shoestring as the first major project of the Fund for Reconciliation sponsored by the Mississippi Methodist Conference.
“The name (Operation Shoestring) came from the fact that they had practically no money and had to do this community-development work and social-justice work on a shoestring budget,” Langford said.
In its early years, Operation Shoestring included a medical clinic that operated out of the basement of Wells UMC, which provided food stamps and other critical community services. Over the organization’s 53-year-history, it has offered a myriad of services, but the focus on creating opportunities for children and families has remained unchanged.
Operation Shoestring now continues its equity, anti-racism and social-justice work through after-school and summer programs for the Georgetown area and the neighborhoods on the southern end of Bailey Avenue.
Ready to Reconnect
With the reopening of the summer program, Operation Shoestring will do more than address the educational inequities the pandemic exacerbated. The program is stressing the importance of social emotional learning. During May 2021, volunteers participated in a training with licensed social workers through Mississippi Families for Kids. The workshops offered those teaching in the summer camp tools to assist in creating safe spaces for children to express their thoughts and emotions and tips on identifying signs of trauma and potential triggers.
“Paying attention to the social and emotional needs of kids right now is probably even more important than addressing the academic work, although we will be addressing the academic challenges that the pandemic brought to us,” Langford said. “I think coming out of the pandemic we know the value of that. Jackson Public Schools know that it is a priority for them to address the social and emotional challenges coming out of the pandemic, so we are piloting that this summer and bringing in the professionals to teach us how to do that.”
Operation Shoestring is also planning a summer camp for parents in response to positive feedback from parents who participated in Zoom classes during the shutdown. “We were getting a lot of feedback about how much they were enjoying spending time with each other virtually through some of the programming that we were offering in the spring,” Langford said.
“We posed the question (to parents) if they would be interested in some form of summer camp and received an overwhelmingly positive thumbs up.”
With the help of community partners, students can participate in several camps that will allow them to rebuild community and explore their interests. Students will travel to St. Andrew’s Episcopal School for sports, music and STEM camps. Mississippi State Extension Services will be providing nutritional activities.
Partners iLead Mississippi, Mississippi Families for Kids and Image Achievers will come to the center to provide advocacy and leadership skills. Students will also be able to participate in swim lessons or swim safety courses. They can go on field trips to local museums and attractions as well as enjoy enrichment programs. Langford believes that these programs will offer the students an opportunity to socialize and spend time with peers, something that has been absent during the pandemic.
Tapping Into the Needs of Teachers
Educational acceleration remains a major focus of the program. Partee says the organization has hired a consultant to build and restructure its academic programs. Dr. Stephanie Harper will create lesson plans, activities and train teachers on learning strategies in an effort to create more synchronization with JPS standards. Enrichment activities are also being aligned with MDE standards.
“I want to make sure that we are tapping into the needs of our teachers,” Partee said.
Operation Shoestring will also continue some of the support programs begun during the pandemic such as distributing food and produce boxes and direct cash payments to enrolled families.
The summer camp will still suffer some effects from the pandemic. Instead of servicing its usual 300-plus students, only about 60 students can participate. The summer program will only be held at the organization’s primary location on Bailey Avenue due to not having access to its usual JPS elementary satellite sites. Parents will not be allowed inside the center, and temperature checks will occur each day along with frequent sanitizing and disinfectant.
Students will remain in specialized small groups throughout the day, desks will be encased in plexiglass guards and face coverings are required.
Still, both Langford and Partee believe that it will be good to get students back together in the building for both teachers and students.
“(They can) reconnect with their friends that they may have seen in classes if they were in person,” Langford said. “… There are ample opportunities for the kids to have fun and reconnect and re-engage with each other and adults in really an affirming, nurturing environment.”
“I really don’t know if our children understand the impact that they have on us,” Partee added. “A lot of time, we look at the impact that we have on them, but really they are the ones who have the impact on us and push us to really do the work everyday.”
Langford hopes their work inspires others to create similar programs in their communities. Operation Shoestring is the lead agency of the Mississippi Statewide Afterschool Network, which seeks to create more quality afterschool programs across the state.
“We want to encourage folks to do this kind of work in their own neighborhoods and their own communities in a way that works for them. If we can be a resource in terms of connecting with best practices or talking, we are happy to do that,” Langford said.
“For this summer and as we are trying to come out of hard COVID times into something better, I really want to encourage folks to think about how to create nurturing, positive, and supportive children and youth programs this summer and in the fall. It’s incredibly important.”