Asked to describe the relationship between his North Raleigh church group and students at a Southeast Raleigh alternative school, Joel Pawlak searched for words then settled on, “We’re kind of ... the PTA.”
But there’s a twist.
“It’s really amazing to see people go someplace to help somebody and find they’re the ones who are helped the most – just to see the people of Brier Creek go to Southeast Raleigh, experience those kids and begin to understand there’s a connection among us,” said Pawlak, a lay leader at All Saints United Methodist Church. “They have issues and they have problems, but in our community, kids and families have the same problems. They’re just much more raw in Southeast Raleigh.”
Nobody will be thinking about that, though, on Nov. 22, when Pawlak and his six-family church group, or Common Table, bring Thanksgiving to AMIkids Infinity Wake, an alternative school housed at Longview School. The program was created by Associated Marine Institute, a Florida-based national nonprofit.
Pawlak’s crew will join the students in the kitchen to prepare the meal, break bread with them and their families, and send each student home with a meal to cook on Thanksgiving Day.
“The way it’s changed people’s perspective in our community means we’re the ones who are probably helped more than anybody out of this,” said Pawlak, a professor of engineering at N.C. State University. “You wouldn’t imagine that would happen, but it’s been a huge impact on our community.”
AMIkids Infinity Wake started in 2011, the same year the parent organization established AMIkids North Carolina Family Services in Greenville, Wilmington and Winston-Salem.
Here, the AMIkids alternative school is open to Wake County students who have experienced trauma or other life challenges and are struggling in school, displaying learning disabilities or behavioral issues.
Following the AMIkids Infinity Model – there are four – the program serves as a safety net for students suspended from school for 10 or more days. In partnership with Wake County schools, youth agencies, local communities and families, AMIkids Infinity Wake provides more support, from maintaining academic credits and experiential learning to vocations and internships.
“We act as an advocate for kids to return back to their base schools,” said Antwaun Arnold, executive director of AMIkids Infinity Wake. “We give them more tools, either improving their academic confidence and performance or, if their issue is behavior, by setting and targeting behavior goals.
“We’re addressing whatever caused the students to become suspended.”
Hopefully, the program helps clog the flow of the school-to-prison pipeline.
On average each year in the United States, AMIkids reports, about 3 million students drop out of high school. With 63 percent of all youth crimes committed by high school dropouts who subsequently fail to qualify for 91 percent of available jobs nationwide, an estimated one-third end up in prison. They’re also more likely to otherwise end up in the legal system or use welfare or food stamps, which adds trillions to the country’s budget.
Student rolls at AMIkids Infinity Wake mirror statistics that show black students, particularly black males, are disproportionately suspended and expelled. As disproportionate is the rate of subsequent jail time.
Currently at Wake’s AMIkids: Of the program’s 22 students, two are girls and 20 are boys. Two are white, two are Hispanic, and 18 are black, Arnold said.
The partnership with Pawlak and his church buttresses the program’s focus on building relationships in a “family atmosphere where all students and staff are comfortable being themselves, bringing something special to the table,” Arnold said.
That has worked for Cameron Stephenson, a senior who said he was kicked out of Green Hope High School in Cary.
“It’s helped with my grades a lot,” said Stephenson, 18. “I like the one-on-one interaction with teachers. Everybody tries to make a connection, so it feels better coming to school than regular school.”
Student Nihemah Reed, 16, believes AMIkids Infinity Wake has made her a better person and a better student. She’s looking forward to the Thanksgiving feast.
“I’ve never done anything like it before,” said Reed, who said she was expelled from Fuquay-Varina High School. “It will be great. Everybody will get to know each other better, spend time with their family and just talk about the good times.”