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Shining a Path of Love

A Smyrna-based non-profit is helping set Cobb County kids on a path to success.

Even though school is out for summer Path to Shine is working hard to keep kids in school through a partnership with MUST Ministries’ Meals on a Mission program.

Path to Shine is a 501(c)(3) non-profit that seeks to impart in disadvantaged children the importance of staying in school. This summer the group partnered with MUST Ministries’ Meals on a Mission program, an extension of the Summer Lunch program that provides disadvantaged kids with lunch and an activity in the months they aren’t in school.

Lesley-Ann Drake, Path to Shine’s founder and director, and a team of about four volunteers were assigned to deliver lunches to kids at Shepard Walk apartments in Marietta. During the school year these kids would be eligible for a free or reduced lunch through a federal program. While delivering the lunches, Drake and the other Path to Shine volunteers read the kids a story, do arts and crafts and a learning activity like a word search or a Sudoku puzzle. The aim of the program is to keep the kids learning even when school isn’t in session.

“The consistent message is these children are perfectly capable of learning,” she said. “They need more time and more days. So they need a longer school year and a longer school day, but how do you fit that in with the existing system they have in the United States in the public school system?”

Drake explained that a little bit of extra teaching goes a long way.

“We’ve got maybe 10 minutes of actual education and stuff here, but it’s 10 minutes they can take with them, which is more than nothing,” she said. “And if we don’t do it, they get nothing.”

During the school year, Path to Shine sponsors a weekly after-school program for disadvantaged kids like the ones at Shepard Walk. Last year about 20 students from in Smyrna participated. Two children were paired with one adult volunteer.

“During the school year we do an after-school program that includes snack and time to play and a solid hour of academics, which is obviously structured by the school because they’re in school,” Drake said. “So you’re either helping them with their homework or reading with the children. And again with that one adult to two children ratio they get a lot of attention. There’s always at the end of the academic time a group time where we’ll focus on some kind of group activity.”

Drake sites that 75 percent of state prison inmates are high school dropouts as a reason for starting Path to Shine, but her real inspiration came from a girl she calls Susan.

“I volunteer on Monday nights at the Elizabeth Inn, which is another MUST program that’s their homeless shelter,” she said. “April a year ago, a young woman came in with her 4-year-old and her 18-month-old and her five-month-old twins and she was pregnant with her fifth child. She was 19 years old and she was homeless. And I just felt that I needed to do something.”

Drake recalls crying the entire drive home that April evening. By the time she pulled in her driveway, she had begun to form a plan.

“I believe this is what God wanted me to do and I believe that God sent Susan—Susan is what I call her—to the shelter that night,” she said. “By the time I got home I realized I needed to do something.”

More than a year later it appears that Drake’s idea is working. After one semester at Green Acres Elementary School children’s attitudes toward math had improved by nine percent and students were scoring better on their reading assessments.

Path to Shine’s success at Green Acres has sparked interest at other schools. Drake hopes to have after-school programs at and Fair Oaks Elementary School in the fall. A friend of Drake’s has set up a Path to Shine program in Macon as well.

"I would love to see hundreds of kids involved with PTS,” Drake said.

Until then and until school begins in August, Path to Shine will continue to work with MUST Ministries’ Meals on a Mission program. Drake and her team of volunteers will be delivering lunches again the week of July 18.

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