Felix Lora measures success of the Sandy Springs Mission after-school program by students like Jeni Nunez.
Nunez, a Riverwood International Charter School sophomore, plans to become a psychologist after attending the University of Georgia or Kennesaw State University.
“When we started [the Sandy Springs Mission] there was no intention of having these kids go to college,” said, Lora, executive director. “They didn’t have a vision to go past middle school, the kids that we have. So for us it was making them have the big dreams. Now, they will say, ‘Oh yes, I plan to go to college.’ “
The Sandy Springs Mission operates two after-school programs four days a week – Mondays and Thursdays at Mount Vernon Baptist Church, and Tuesdays and Wednesdays at the Church of Atonement. On those afternoons, Lora has picked up 82 to nearly 140 students from High Point and Lake Forest Elementary Schools, Ridgeview Charter School, and Riverwood International Charter School on the Mission school bus.
Later he drives them home.
After much nudging and persistence by Mission board of director, Rev. Charles Starr, the Fulton County Board of Education now provides a bus and driver that transports students from High Point Elementary to the Mission program at the Church of Atonement.
“It’s a huge burden off Felix’s shoulders,” Starr said. “I’m there to knock obstacles out of the way so Felix can do a good job.”
Fun First, Then Homework
Sandy Springs Patch visited the after-school program at Mount Vernon Baptist Church recently. Before students tackle homework, they drop their books in the gym and play dodge ball or soccer, and then have sandwiches, prepared by Lora and volunteers.
“We want to make it fun. We don’t want it to be going from school to school,” said Lora.
Jeni Nunez and some of the other Riverwood students tutor the younger children. “I used to go to a similar program when I was younger,” she said. “This is kind of giving back to what someone gave to me. It’s really fun. You know you’re helping and doing something good…and you get to hang out with your friends.”
The Sandy Springs Mission was similar to the Community Action Center when it was started by Mount Vernon Baptist Church in 1999, providing food and clothing assistance to many Latino residents in need. Lora’s two predecessors were ministers. When he was hired in 2001, Lora began to shift the Mission’s focus to education.
“We are still faith-based, but our main goal is for these kids to get to college,” Lora said. On Presidents' Day, he took 18 Riverwood students on a tour of the UGA campus.
Lora, a native of the Dominican Republic, wants students to see him as an example of what they can accomplish. He has a Masters Degree in Divinity and plans to obtain a doctorate in non-profit management.
“I tell them, ‘Even if you cannot afford Harvard, you apply.’ If you get an acceptance letter you can say, ‘Look I was good enough to get into Harvard.’ We want them to get a higher education, no matter what,” Lora said.
Disappointments are inevitable, he added. There are high school dropouts and teen pregnancies, but the Sandy Springs Mission has started to see results with its after-school program. Last year, 100 percent of the students that attend the prorgam at the Church of Atonement passed the Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests, said Starr.
Since 2001, 52 students who have attended the entire Sandy Springs Mission program are high school graduates, Lora said. A student recently told Lora he was accepted to St. John’s University, and another student has her sights set on an Ivy League school.
The Mission Helps At-Risk Children
Lora says the Mission defines at-risk students in one of three ways:
- Their parents do not speak English.
- Parents speak English but do not have the education to help their children with schoolwork.
- Parents cannot afford extra-curricular help for their children.
A Deeper Emphasis Planned on Enrichment
The non-profit is working on funding for a full-time instructor to compliment Lora. “She would run one location and I would run the other, [at Mount Vernon Baptist Church or the Church of Atonement],” he said. “For so long we have been focused on the homework and worksheets. Hiring her will help us move into a after-school enrichment program.”
Someone recently donated a school smartboard, which helps Lora move towards that goal.
“One of our goals for next year is to have at least 10 advanced reading students,” he said.
Community Involvement Strengthens the Mission
The Sandy Springs Mission’s annual budget has had little increase in the last 10 years. The budget was $125,064 in 2002. In 2011, it increased to about $155,000, the non-profit reports. The value of program space donated by Mount Vernon Baptist Church and the Church of Atonement totals $42,000, Lora said.
About 50 volunteers assist Lora at both locations of the afterschool program, but he can use more help, especially on Wednesdays at the Church of Atonement. Many volunteers are senior citizens or folks who are in between jobs.
A Mission volunteer who likes to be called, Mr. Bob, started helping out at the mission in 2002, when it was located on Roswell Road. He lived across the street and now lives in a Buckhead retirement community. Bob helps prepare lunches for the children or helps out in the classrooms when a tutor is running late.
Individual donors mostly fund the Sandy Springs Mission, Lora said, along with a few organizations and private foundations.
Students Say Felix Lora Inspires
Several middle and high schoolers have been in the program since first grade. They flocked to Lora when Sandy Springs Patch visited the program. A highlight for elementary students is a 15-minute chapel service on Thursdays. The children say they enjoy learning about God.
Riverwood freshman Evelyn Ortiz has attended the program since elementary school. “He saw me grow up so he is someone that I can really count on. He’s there for us when we need advice. That is something that is really strong. He teaches us how to be closer to God,” she said.
Riverwood freshman Jassie Sanchez started with the Sandy Springs Mission’s summer program last year. “He teaches us to have nice manners and to be respectful of others. It’s great fun.”