The Judy Coslett Learning Center: Giving children a leg up in school – News from Chester Eastside, Inc.

CoslettOver a 25-year period, the late Judy Coslett had a very special love affair with the children of Chester. At the After School and Summer Enrichment Camp Programs of Chester Eastside, Inc., where she was a volunteer, she was always coming up with surprises like a holiday party or a trip to the zoo. And when the gym needed a new floor or a stairway needed repairs, Judy saw to it that it happened.

Now a state-of-the-art computer facility and library bearing her name – the Judy Coslett Learning Center – will help to carry on the work she devoted her life to. At 2:00 P.M., Sunday, February 7, people will come together at Chester Eastside, 301 East 9th Street, Chester, to honor Judy and the many persons who put in many hours helping to build the center. The public is cordially invited.

Computer generated learning

Computers – a necessity in today’s educational environment – provide new ways of letting children learn at their own pace; if, and it’s a big if, the child is fortunate enough to have access to a computer outside of the classroom. It’s all part of something called “computer generated learning.”

Let us say a classroom teacher gives students an assignment in a computer program such as “Study Island” or “First in Math.” In theory, the student will take the work home and continue it on a computer there.

But many Chester families lack that necessary learning tool. There’s an added advantage in using the computers at Chester Eastside: Staff and volunteers are there to help students develop their study skills.

“Whether a child is in need of extra help to stay on course, or can move ahead beyond what is coming out of the classroom, we can individualize the process,” said Kathryn Redd, Director of the Chester Eastside After School Program. For children with energy that can sometimes outpace attention span, accessibility is key. And having a library on premises, along with the computers, makes for easy access to a wide range of

A lifelong commitment to making a difference

Growing up in Appalachia in the depths of the Great Depression, Judy Coslett knew economic adversity firsthand. Instilled in her from the beginning was an appreciation of the importance of education in freeing people to reach beyond their roots. Of her grandmother’s 13 children, 12 went to college. One family member, who lost his eyesight in a hunting accident. nevertheless became an attorney. And that tradition of commitment to education continues in subsequent generations. Among the volunteers who are the backbone of the After School Program at Chester Eastside is Judy’s granddaughter.

How did Judy, a resident of Media and formerly of Swarthmore, become involved in Chester Eastside 
Ministries in the first place? As so often happens, it was Rev. Bernice Warren who set the wheels in motion.  From that point forward, says Judy’s son, Dr . Branch Coslett, “she was hooked.” The rest, as they say, is history – one that will continue to unfold for years to come.

By timmreardon

Parents First: Learning how to have an impact on your child’s education – News from Chester Eastside, Inc.

Parents First Pic2Parents of pupils at Chester Upland’s Main Street School have an honest dialogue with Principal April Brown.

How does my child’s school deal with bullying? Why isn’t my child getting homework? How does a child get picked to go on a school-sponsored trip to the circus while others are left behind? These are some of the questions that Main Street Elementary School Principal April Brown fielded in a recent session of Parents First, the workshop series for parents of children in grades pre-kindergarten to three, co-sponsored by Chester Eastside, Inc., and the Chester Upland School District.

Brown clearly knew her stuff, but also knew that the dialogue would be something ongoing. Among her attentive listeners was Amirah Ahmad, President of the Main Street PTO. How to get results in engaging the school system, from teachers on up, was only one of the topics covered in the workshop series.

The session with Principal Brown followed another with Climate Manager Lamonte Popley. With him, the parents focused specifically on the issue of bullying. He made it clear that Main Street School seeks, not only to deal with the bully firmly, but to try to head off that kind of behavior in the first place.

Over a period of ten weeks, the workshops focus on four major areas:

  • mindset – parents’ assumptions about their children’s ability to succeed in school and about their own ability to affect that, which in turn affects a child’s confidence level and willingness to stay with a task even when things aren’t going well;
  • setting and maintaining standards of behavior – not only at home but in school as well;
  • reading to and with their children – not just to expand the children’s vocabulary and familiarity with the written word, but to use that to develop a child’s ability to think about the content covered;
  • engaging the school system – working with the child’s teacher, dealing constructively with conflict when that arises, and taking thing to another level when necessary.

It starts at home

It’s not just teachers and the resources the school system provides for them that determine how strong an educational foundation a child will start out with. The first and in many ways most important teacher is the person raising that child, usually that means the parent. That’s why we say Parents First.

So it’s not surprising that we spend considerable time on things the parent can do at home – like reading to and with their child and molding the kind of behavior the child will take into the classroom. Even more basic is a “can do” attitude that parents infuse in their children. It starts with the parent’s own ability to maintain a “can do” attitude: Yes, my child can do it – and I can help to make it happen.

Parents First Pic1

A positive rather than negative approach to discipline and being consistent, so a child knows what to expect, are core lessons in Parents First. And these are two areas where participants reported gains in before/after assessment. Another was not letting the inevitable frustrations in child-rearing cloud one’s judgment.   Participants also became more active in contacting teachers and taking part in school activities, despite awesome responsibilities at home and at work. Parental involvement in the business of education is something the Main Street PTO will be following up on in the coming months.

Meanwhile, the children

While the parents engaged in the serious business of learning, their children were nearby, participating in a multi-faceted program of play, story time, and things like solving math puzzles. It’s called “child care,” but it clearly is much more than that. In the Parents First series just ended, a group of volunteers from Media brought story books and stuffed animals for the younger children and did one-on-one reading that their parents can build on.


By timmreardon

The Chester Eastside Food Center: Lifeline for hundreds of people – News from Chester Eastside, Inc.

Food picFood is so central to our daily lives that it’s easy to take it for granted. Not so the over 700 people, more than 300 of them children, who are helped, month in and month out, by Chester Eastside, Inc.’s Food Center. It’s one of the biggest such operations in Delaware County. The figures are mind-boggling: In 2015 alone, the equivalent of over 120,000 meals. But it’s when you bring it down to human terms that you see what this can mean in people’s lives. Listen to Kim, mother of four children: “I visit the food center monthly. The food center helps me make the food last. I can stretch things for a week and make sure my children have food to eat.” And John: “The Food Center helps me at the end of the month. I don’t know what I would do without this food. I combine it with odds and ends so that I have enough to eat. I have used other cupboards in the past. This one has meat and I love that I can get a hot meal here at the same time.” Meat and a hot meal. Basics for most of us. An urgent matter if you happen to be down and out.

Because of Chester Eastside’s Food Center, 189 families were able to enjoy a Thanksgiving dinner together this year. It’s not just the food. There’s a climate of acceptance, respect, and caring that’s not always present at food cupboards, unfortunately. One woman put it this way: “Sometimes they can be downright nasty, but here they are always pleasant and kind.”

That spirit of acceptance can come from once having been in the same position as those who now come for food. As one man put it, “I was in a dark place when I finally realized that I needed help with food and clothing. I would let my struggles affect how I acted. For a long time I was too proud to ask for help. It hurt too much. Then I overheard my friends who work with Chester Eastside talking about how much they wanted to give to someone who was truly in need, and finally I forced myself to say, ‘That person is me.’ I do not know where I would be today without the Food Center. Chester Eastside helped me and my family hold on when my situation was desperate. Everyone was so kind. Now I volunteer with Chester Eastside and it has changed me. Everyone has their own trouble and hurt that they are going through. When I am here, I put all that aside, and I speak to all our visitors with a kind word and a smile. Whatever their struggle is, I want to show them that they are welcome and there is help for them.”  Mary is another volunteer who is doing some give-back. She first became involved with the Food Center when it was still at the old location. There she enrolled in cooking classes, where she got to take home ingredients to use her new cooking skills there. When Chester Eastside moved up the street to St.Paul’s, she moved with it.
Chris, another volunteer, says is it all: “Thank God for Chester Eastside!”

By timmreardon

Public-private partnerships extend our reach in two vital areas – News from Chester Eastside, Inc.

The collaboration of private nonprofit agencies and government-sponsored services has a long and rich history in the United States. It has allowed a kind of flexibility not found in public bureaucracies. At the same time, by supporting services through their tax dollars, the people living in a service area have a special stake in the quality of services provided.

CE Pub-Pvt Partners

        Chester Eastside, Inc., is currently partnering with the City of Chester and the Chester Upland School District to provide two important services: GED preparation for people seeking to complete their high school education and Parents First, workshops for parents to help their children succeed in school.

Relationships born out of necessity.

When Chester Eastside was forced to leave its former home in the old Third Presbyterian Church building, it was fortunate to be invited to use space on the basement level of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. Other nonprofit agencies, including the Boys and Girls Club of Chester and the Chester Student Center – helped out. But it soon became evident that we needed extra space and facilities for some of our programs. That’s when we reached out to two entities of local government: The City of Chester and the Chester Upland School District.

Not only were these institutions able to accommodate two of our programs, but they would provide additional resources and help to extend our reach to more people in the community. For their part, our partnering institutions benefited from the program expertise and experience that Chester Eastside brought to the bargain: A win-win all around.

GED: making up for lost time.

A high school education is a virtual necessity these days, nowhere more so than in Chester, where those seeking jobs or advanced education already face huge challenges in a competitive world. High school dropouts have a much higher unemployment rate than those with a diploma, and the jobs that are available for them tend to be low-paying and dead-end.

Enter the GED (General Education Development) testing service: a way for those who dropped out of school to complete their high school education. Not only do school dropouts lack the final year or more of high school, but typically they were already facing major challenges with schoolwork. So for starters, it’s no easy task to get back into academe, sometimes years after they left school. Add to this the fact that the payoff is at least a year away, usually a good bit more than that; and then not guaranteed. As against a job of any kind, where the pay starts flowing within the first few weeks, GED is a sacrifice only the most determined are able or willing to make. On top of all this is the student’s own doubts about his or her ability to do it. The remarkable thing is that there are those who take on the challenge and stick with it.

Our GED program meets four mornings a week. When forced to leave the old building, we needed two things in particular: computers (all GED testing is done by computer) and a quiet space away from the noise of the Food Center and other Chester Eastside activities. City Hall had just what we needed: a room with computers and plenty of space. They were delighted to have the computers put to good use. Plus they are slated to become a GED testing center, the nearest alternative being at the main campus of Delaware County Community College, many miles away.

So because of the public-private collaboration, several adults are currently working on their GED who might otherwise not be.

Parents First: helping parents help their children succeed in school.

        The Parents First program is based on three well-documented premises: (1) school is the major pathway by which people move up in the world; (2) the earliest years in school are the most important, and (3) the parent is the child’s first and in many ways most important teacher. The program consists of ten weekly workshops for parents of children in pre-kindergarten through third grade. We also provide a hot meal and child care. There are bonus items as an inducement to parents to participate. With professional  workshop leaders and child care personnel, the program tends to be expensive.

When Chester Eastside was forced to leave its original home, finding suitable space for Parents First became a major challenge. We found a willing partner in the Chester Upland School District, since it fit in with their goal of involving parents in their children’s education, one for which they received federal funds.

So was born a new partnership between Chester Eastside and the School District, which provides space in one of its  school buildings, underwriting the cost of security and custodial personnel; the hot meal;  and some  bonus items.

Once again, partnering with the public sector has made it possible for Chester Eastside to offer a vital service to the community.

By timmreardon

Then the script changed…. News from Chester Eastside, Inc.

It looked like the fine old church building
with its distinctive tile roof was due to be demolished.
 Then the script changed….

Third Prebyteri

The Third Presbyterian Church at the corner of 9th and Potter Streets, Chester, was spared at the last minute when it was purchased recently by the Chester Historical Preservation Committee for the grand sum of $1. Now the plan is to restore and, once again, use it to enrich the lives of people of Chester.

Not the first time this Chester landmark was rescued from oblivion. Back in the 1980s, the congregation left, and the sprawling edifice sat abandoned, its stained glass windows serving as targets for kids’ missiles.

Then the Presbytery of Philadelphia asked Rev. Joan Salmon-Campbell, who would later go on to become Moderator of the Presbyterian Church (USA), to turn the venerable building into something useful. Thus was born Chester Eastside Ministries (CEM). For Rev. Salmon-Campbell, it was a matter of first things first. People needed food to survive. So CEM began as a food cupboard. People would line up at the door in all kinds of weather to receive a little something for the family larder. But, as the Bible reminds us, “Man does not live by bread alone.” Little by little, CEM began to add other activities to its agenda.

Over time, an amazing array of programs evolved. An after-school reading program that gave young people a lot more than the ability to comprehend words on a page. That program would expand in time to include a diversity of enrichment activities and healthy play opportunities, horseback riding and skiing, things a Chester child could only dream of. A Saturday Arts program included everything from painting to dance, dramatics and music lessons. A Summer Enrichment Camp  evolved from basic recreational activities to a variety of new experiences including swimming, golf, and visits to museums, opening up a world beyond what children had ever experienced.

CEM was always a welcoming place, a refuge that went way beyond specific services, a source of stability in an often unstable environment. Central to its mission was helping people become all that they can be. A woman who first came for a food handout moved on to serve as a volunteer and ended up in a key staff position. Children in the After School Program have gone on to college, one studying for her doctorate. A young man who participated in a CEM drama program got a starring role in a production by People’s Light & Theater of Philadelphia.

In 1995, the Rev. Bernice Warren took the helm. Having grown up in a Chester public housing project, she knew the community, its struggles and its strengths, first-hand. For her, it was not just a homecoming but an opportunity to give something back to her community.

The activities have touched the lives of people of all ages and all conditions: a GED program for adults needing to complete their high school education; TAP, a program to help teenagers prepare for college; a pre-school program to provide an educational foundation at a crucial time in children’s development; Parents First, workshops for parents of children in the early grades; counseling for prisoners and ex-offenders; a Mothers’ Club to help parents grapple with the practical problems of daily living. Sometimes the agency has launched a new program and then spun it off as an independent organization and then continued to support it; an example is the Peace Leadership & Arts Camp that helps teenagers learn constructive ways to deal with conflict, develop their creative potential, and gain a new appreciation of the rich heritage they are part of.

Tackling the big issues head on.

From the beginning, CEM was home to much more than a range of social services. Early on, it became identified with efforts to make a difference regarding the larger issues that impinge on the lives of Chesterites. Jobs With Peace was an action organization which called for more of our tax dollars being used for putting people to work and less for making war. A voter registration campaign that was based at CEM succeeded in changing party control of City Hall for the first time in 104 years. The FAIR Deal Coalition, confronting the issue of casino gambling in Chester, used the agency as its home base. In more recent years, the agency  has joined efforts to prevent gun violence and muster support for quality education for all Chester children.

Refusing to give up in the face of setbacks.

In 2013, the church was found to have deteriorated to the point that it was unsafe for occupancy by anyone. This devastating setback followed close on the heels of the loss of a major part of CEM’s funding from the Presbytery of Philadelphia. The response to the two-headed crisis was characteristic of the way so many Chester people and institutions deal with potential disaster: They rise to the challenge and find a way to go on, often stronger for the experience. Chester Eastside Ministries became Chester Eastside, Inc. (CEI), an independent 501.c.3 organization. Through the generous support of the nearby St. Paul’s Episcopal Church,  CEI found a new home a block away from the old site. CEI’s headquarters are now located on the basement level of St. Paul’s. Faith communities have always been an important resource for CEI, ranging from suburban churches to a Friends meeting and a Jewish synagogue. But support has also come from neighboring social agencies, from government, and from philanthropic foundations; And at the other end of spectrum, college students and many other individuals simply wanting to make a difference. One of the most touching sources of support has been donations by inmates in a nearby prison. So after ending two years in the red, CEI more than broke even in 2014.

Now, as another dedicated group seeks to breathe new life into the old church edifice, Chester Eastside, Inc., carries on the mission that began in an abandoned church at the corner 9th and Potter Streets more than a quarter century ago.

By timmreardon

Peace Leadership & Arts Camp gives Chester teens a chance to connect with their roots and see the possibilities in their lives – News from Chester Eastside, Inc.

Peace Camp 15 -1

For some campers, it was the thrill of meeting a real live movie star, Michael Ealy. His message to the teens: See what you can become. For some, it was the trip to Washington, DC.; visiting the Martin Luther King Memorial and hearing from an administrator at the Smithsonian Institute about opportunities for high school and college students as interns.

For some, it was getting connected with their roots and seeing possibilities they didn’t know existed. But first-timer Taliah Rooks saw it more in personal terms: being able to stand up in front of a lot of adults, overcome the stage fright, and make a presentation like a pro. “I also liked it when we partnered on the obstacle course and helped each other through it.” It was another new experience for Taliah.

That combination of fun and serious business is what makes the Peace Leadership & Arts Camp (PL&A) such a unique experience for the 22 teenagers who participate in it this summer.  It was founded a number of years ago by Chester Eastside, Inc., which still supports its work

At the final celebration on the grounds of the Chester Friends Meetinghouse in late August, all those threads came together in a series of presentations that included original songs and poems. The remarkable thing to PL&A Assistant Director Nate Thompson was the fact that the young people were able to pulled it off after only a few weeks’ preparation.

The dramatized scenes by writer/director Kareem Rogers linked together such disparate images as slave traders of old making their “merchandise” hop and run to make them more salable, and the NBA draft; in both cases, human beings reduced to their value in purely physical terms. But running throughout was a sense of pride among the young performers in who they were despite awesome challenges. “We’re tall as trees. Try to cut us down; we’re still standing tall,” went the words of one selection created by campers. For Camp Director Foluke Bennett, this year’s camp was different from previous ones, because it took place against a backdrop of the many new challenges facing today’s youth. In one memorable episode, a young poet told about having to learn how to behave in the presence of police, and campers darted back and forth across the stage, having to keep a wary eye. And campers put together a book based on the theme of this years camp, “Raising Our Voice.”

Copies can be purchased by clicking on or on Create Space at

By timmreardon

Chester Eastside’s Summer Enrichment Camp: A time for fun – but for learning, too – News from Chester Eastside, Inc.

CE Camp 2015

The Summer Enrichment Camp offers everything from swimming to visiting places like the Franklin
Institute, a world these children never knew existed. The underlying theme of this year’s camp, “My
city needs something – and it starts with you and me,” resonated with the campers, as shown in the
original poems and songs they presented to their parents at the closing session. One mother, Janie Lee,
was particularly touched by her daughter Deniseesh’s poem entitled “A Mother Like Mine.” It was
quite by chance that Janie learned about the camp this year. Three of her children took part. “We live
amid the constant threat of guns and violence in our neighborhood,” says Janie. “This summer for the
first time, the children not only felt safe but had the chance to talk about their fear.” A few years ago,
one of her son’s close friends was killed.


View Summer Camp photos here:

By timmreardon

Peace campers show their stuff at rousing fundraiser – News from Chester Eastside, Inc.

Peace Camp 15

CHESTER: It was a jubilant expression of young Chester talent that greeted those fortunate enough to attend the fundraiser for the Peace, Leadership, & The Arts Camp (PLAC) at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in June.

Serious business: The camp, a partnership between Chester Eastside, Inc., and 4 Circles Beyond, Inc., has to generate its own primary funding. That it did, to the tune of $1,200 on that particular occasion. Students who have benefited from the multi-sided program were in the spotlight that evening: reciting poetry and rap, singing beautiful renditions of original compositions — most from memory, without a note or prompt in front of them. It was an outpouring of remarkable talent. Also on the program was a set of dazzling selections by Tribe 1, a Philadelphia-based performing group that numbers among its members Foluke Bennett, Director of PLAC.

There were searing messages about what young folks face these days in many of the campers’ renditions, but also a strong sense of pride in who they are and hope for the future. As if to underscore the challenges for young people of African descent, the group observed a period of silent prayer for the victims of the mass shooting at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC, and their families.

A beacon of light for Chester youth.
The Peace Leadership and the Arts Camp (PLAC) has provided a creative space for youth within Chester City and throughout Delaware County since 2009.

The camp has served as a beacon of light for young people who have witnessed the city struggle to bring down gun violence over the years. PLAC opened its doors in the summer of 2009 when gun violence began increasing.

“It was evident that the young people really needed a place to go and learn how to deal in a more peaceful way with the conflicts going on in the community and to take some of those skills back to the community,” said Foluke Bennett, Director of PLAC. Bennett said she has witnessed campers become more confident in being their “authentic selves” due to the camp’s focus on conflict resolution and leadership skills.

“Seeing how young people have been able to grow… now they are taking more of a leadership role in the camp as well, designing the activities, leading the activities, and leading their peers,” said Bennett. “I’m constantly inspired by them. Just seeing them be their authentic selves, which is why I’m coming back for a fourth year.”

She recalled how a young camper named David Collins came to PLAC unaware of how dynamic his poetry was. He is now returning to the camp for his third year but this time as an intern counselor. Collins said if it had not been for the camp he would not have known just how creative he could be as a writer. “Throughout the camp, through the exercises and the group activities it helped me open up and express myself more than I usually did,” said Collins. “It even helped me find out talents, features and qualities that really I didn’t see in myself but others did. It helped me acknowledge it better.”

Collins graduated from Cardinal O’Hara this year and is heading to Lincoln University to start his college career, majoring in technical and mechanical engineering… and of course minoring in music. At the fundraiser, he presented an original poem titled “The Power of Words.” He says he is looking forward to being a counselor so that he can give to new campers what was given to him. “It’s a great place to feel safe, express yourself and find your talent; to become a better you,” promised Collins.

Persons wishing to contribute to the Peace, Leadership, & The Arts Camp should send checks to 4 Circles Beyond, Inc., Princeton, NJ 08540.

By timmreardon

Chester Eastside board member honored by Widener University

Jim Ley - 2

Rev. James Ley, Vice-chairperson of the Chester Eastside, Inc., Board, received the Honorary Degree of Doctor of Public Service in ceremonies as part of Widener University’s 2015 commencement, in recognition of his many years of service to the Chester community and the University.

In his remarks, Dr. Ley paid special tribute to Rev. Bernice Warren, Executive Director of Chester Eastside, Inc., among others, who “are my continuing mentors and teachers…. I must also thank Widener for inviting me to participate in the life and essence of this great university for these past 13 years. It is here in Chester and at Widener that I have literally found my passion and reason for being.”

In addition to his Chester Eastside Board responsibilities, which include serving on a number of key committees, Dr. Ley has given lectures and participated actively in “service learning” for Widener students, in which they provide volunteer services for the people of Chester at Chester Eastside and elsewhere in the community.

Dr. Ley is Archdeacon of the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania, in which capacity he has played a key role in the developing relationship between Chester Eastside and St. Paul’s, other churches in the area, and Episcopal Community Services of Philadelphia.

By timmreardon