Rev. Warren ready to move on, but her mission is far from over – News from Chester Eastside, Inc.

WarrenCome December, Rev. Bernice Warren will be retiring from the position she has held for more than 20 years, as Director of Chester Eastside, Inc., formerly Chester Eastside Ministries, with lots of fond memories and few regrets. “I see it as freeing me up to expand my ministry on behalf of social justice on a global scale,” she said recently. On her agenda is becoming more active locally, nationally, in Haiti, and in Africa. She also feels called to continue to help young people be all they can be, a necessary component of the mission of promoting social justice.       

         The impetus for this wider mission is the same sense of social responsibility that brought Rev. Warren back to her native Chester in 1995 to head up Chester Eastside Ministries. Growing up in the Bennett Homes public housing project, she knew first-hand both the joys and challenges facing Chesterites. “But I had to get reacquainted with my home town. It had changed over the years since I had left in 1977. Many people I had known were gone and there were new folks in their place.”

         In the interim, she served churches in Baltimore and Wilmington. “These were urban churches dealing with problems ranging from hunger and homelessness to drug abuse.” Looking back, she thinks of these pastorates as, in a way, preparation for  the central role she would play in an evolving Chester Eastside, Inc.

         Now, as Rev. Warren gets ready to move on, she views with satisfaction what she and Chester Eastside, Inc.,  have been able to accomplish in those twenty- plus years. In particular, bringing people from very different backgrounds together to create a welcoming place. Suburbanites have learned from urbanites and vice versa. The other accomplishment that gives her a sense of pride is the impact on young people

         If there is one thing she regrets, it is that Chester Eastside, Inc., has not been able to involve more Chester churches in the work that she has devoted her life to. But that has not deterred her from energetically pursuing the mission.   

         Clergy was not Rev. Warren’s first career choice. “I was thinking along the lines of social work or teaching,” she said. In fact, her first job after college was running a  GED program. But there was something missing. That something was a spiritual base. Meanwhile she was becoming increasingly fascinated with the way ministers were interpreting the Gospel, in many cases inspired by Liberation Theology, a movement in response to the plight of economically and politically oppressed with its roots in Latin America. It was a natural fit for someone who, from an early age, identified with the downtrodden  and those wanting to take up their cause.

         Chester Eastside, Inc., is currently in the process of doing a search for Rev. Warren’s successor. Anyone interested in applying for the position of Director should go to INDEED.com and job opening under executive director position.   

By timmreardon

Planting seeds: Sarah’s story – News from Chester Eastside, Inc.

Farmer2

Sarah Farmer started life under less than ideal circumstances. Her early years were spent in a section of Chester marked with high rates of poverty, abandoned houses, and weed-covered fields. Today, on the verge of earning her PhD from Emory University and about to begin her new duties as associate research scholar with the Adolescent Faith and Flourishing Project at Yale Divinity School, Sarah stands as an exemplar of the human capacity to succeed in life despite seemingly impossible odds.

Three things stand out in Sarah’s mind as critically important influences in her early years. One was a mother who was determined not to let her surroundings drag her children down. Another was grounding in a deep religious faith. And a third was Chester Eastside Ministries, now Chester Eastside, Inc. (CEI), just across the street from where Sarah lived.

From early on, she participated in after-school activities there.

It was at CEI that a remarkable gift for self-expression through the written word was first noted by staff and volunteers. From the beginning, Sarah was a self-starter. She once created and presented a puppet show featuring Annie, an African American doll from the American Girl series.

As for Chester Eastside, Inc., it “exposed me to relationships and opportunities that helped me see beyond my local context. They also allowed me to exercise agency. For instance, in middle school, I held my first job helping in the library at CEM. Secondly, they allowed me to help others with reading. These opportunities built confidence in me and planted the seeds for my passion to teach and for the arts. Lastly, CEM has continued to serve as a resource throughout my vocational journey. I am really proud of and believe in the mission of CEM, and feel like there is much to learn through their efforts.”

In time the family moved south, where Sarah finished high school. But she never lost her dedication to the people of Chester and her attachment to Chester Eastside, Inc. In the early 2000s, as a student at Berea College, where she would later graduate cum laude, Sarah returned to CEI to help initiate the Peace, Leadership & the Arts Camp, which continues to this day.

She is the author of several articles in scholarly books and journals and the recipient of numerous awards. Sarah’s deep commitment to people facing major challenges in their lives is exemplified in her doctoral dissertation: Hope in Confinement: Moving Toward a Pedagogy of Restorative Hope. It concerns the plight of Black women in prison.

Sarah Farmer is now married and the mother of two children.  Like her own mother, she is determined that they will have every opportunity to develop and use their gifts to the fullest. Under very different circumstances, it should be added.


 

Here is a letter Sarah penned to the Board of Chester Eastside, Inc.

I am writing this letter to express my sincere gratitude and appreciation of Chester Eastside Ministries and Rev. Bernice Warren.  Chester Eastside Ministries (CEM) represents a beacon of light in the city of Chester.

CEM has been an abiding presence throughout every stage of my life. As a young girl, I lived across the street from CEM. Its programs were a site of exposure for me. Through its cultural arts program, CEM introduced me to ballet, tap dancing, piano, drama, and visual arts. Volunteers worked with me to advance my reading daily. I held my first job at CEM as a librarian, and then was invited to serve as a tutor with the volunteers who came from outside of the city. People such as Rev. Warren, Ed Dunlap, Elizabeth Dunlap and Bunty Barus connected me with Upward Bound, People’s Light Improvisational Theatre and Growing Up Female stage play. They also gave their time to take my brother and me to museums. These experiences fed into my sense of knowing that we did not have to be a statistic. These formative experiences provided exposure and an outlet, creating a pipeline to college (as opposed to a pipeline to prison).

Throughout my college years at Berea College in KY, I continued to return to CEM to assist with their summer camp as an English teacher. On one of my return visits, Bunty Barus encouraged me to start a peace camp. During my junior year of college, I connected with Rev. Warren and Wanda Moore (director of Peace in the Streets at the time) to make this vision a reality. Youth Arts Peace Camp was a huge success in Chester. As a college student, it taught me significant skills of comprehensive collaborative community-building. In this sense, CEM became a site of learning. As a native of Chester, it provided an avenue for me to pour into the lives of other youth. In this sense, CEM became a site of ministry.

Perhaps it is the merging of learning and ministry at CEM that fed into my desire to pursue a Master of Divinity at Candler School of Theology in Atlanta. I tuned in to courses that uplifted the principles of religious education and community building.  In addition, new questions emerged from my work with the Youth Arts Peace Camp and drove me to pursue doctoral studies. Although under different leadership, the Youth Arts Peace Camp continues. It has expanded in amazing ways.

Currently, I am pursuing my Ph.D. in Religion. My research centers on the concept of hope in populations of confinement as well as the role of art in critical emancipatory pedagogies. I work with incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women. The foundation of this research has its roots in the transformative experiences I gained as a young girl in the City of Chester. From CEM, I learned that hope wells up in the most unsusceptible places.

In a world that is so unstable for Black and Latino boys and girls, CEM has remained consistent, committed, and concerned. Their concern for the needs of the City of Chester drives its programs. I have no doubt that CEM would not exist without the persistence of Rev. Bernice Warren. She serves as a living testament of the love of Christ. Her social witness is a critique of ministers who are distant from the tangible needs of the people they serve and an encouragement for ministers who seek to transform society. Despite the difficulty of raising financial support in this economy, Rev. Warren remains loyal to the vision of CEM. I have continued to grow as a wife, mother, minister, and academic because of her mentorship in my life. She is a manifestation of what faith and works can do. Her efforts are truly a source of life and hope in the City of Chester. For her hard work and compassion, Rev. Warren deserves any and every honor given her.

By timmreardon

Help them spend those summer days the way they were meant to be spent – an appeal from Chester Eastside, Inc.

Dear Friends.

CEM SummerSummer should be a happy time for children. But for many Chester parents, summer is a time to worry about their childen’s safety. In the words of one mother, “We live amid the constant threat of guns and violence in our neighborhood.” A few years ago, one of her son’s close friends was killed. Last summer was different for this mother. Her three children attended Chester Eastside’s Summer Enrichment Camp, and for the first time, “the children not only felt safe but had the chance to talk about their fear.”

The Summer Enrichment Camp is about a lot more than children’s fears. It opens new horizons – experiences like learning to swim and exploring museums. One can see children responding as their world opens up beyond their immediate surroundings.

It’s also a time for them to appreciate ways in which they can impact on that world. Last summer’s theme, “My city needs something – and it starts with you and me,” resonated with the young campers, as reflected in the original poems some wrote.

You can be part of that awakening experience. A small investment can pay rich dividends that go on for years. By contributing $220, you can pay the cost of giving one child that summer camp experience. $300.00 will cover the cost of one bus to take our children on local trips. $500.00 will allow us to pay a stipend to an art teacher to work one day a week for four (4) weeks.

So please consider making a donation (tax deductible) to ensure that our camp is fully funded and that our children receive the best enrichment and educational opportunities possible.

We look forward to your continued support.

Peace,

Rev. Bernice Warren Executive Director

By timmreardon

Chester children visit the White House – News from Chester Eastside, Inc.

WHVisit1
Trip of  lifetime: Chester children and their adult guides checking out the White House. Second row center are Professor Mark Wallace of Swarthmore College and Kathryn Redd, Director of the After-School Program at CEI, one of the trip’s sponsors

 

Thirty-five Chester children, including many from Chester Eastside, Inc.’s, After- School Program, and their adult chaperones, took a trip on April 2 that they will never forget. They got to see the inside of the place President Obama calls home.

No, they didn’t shake hands with the President, who was busy dealing with things like foreign policy and global warming. But they did get to see the elaborate security apparatus that constantly surrounds him and the rest of the First Family. Needless to say, they were impressed with what’s gotten to be a daily routine for the Obama children.

In a way this was a payback visit. During his 2008 campaign the President visited Chester.  Of course the young Chesterites who were even around then would have been too young to remember.

In the words of Kathryn Redd, director of the After-School Program at Chester Eastside, Inc., one of the sponsoring organizations,”This was a wonderful history lesson for these children, one they will never forget. As the first black President of the United States, President Obama is someone they can emulate.”

Swarthmore College and the Lang Center for Civic and Social Responsibility helped to arrange the Washington trip, which was sponsored by Chester Eastside, Inc., and other faith-based organizations.

The White House was not the only stop in the nation’s capital. The young people also visited the Smithsonian National Zoological Park. They seemed particularly impressed by the giant pandas. But what will stay with them for the rest of their lives was that brush with history at the site where major decisions are made every day.

By timmreardon

Working to end gun violence -News from Chester Eastside, Inc.

Gun ViolenceIt’s become almost routine to see the TV images and newspaper  headlines regarding the latest mass shooting in the U.S. Less spectacular but more common are daily incidents of gun violence in urban America. In Chester alone, eleven gun-related homicides since the beginning of 2016. Plus other shootings, such as the non-fatal incident involving two teenagers alighting from a school bus.

        Chester Eastside, Inc., already having committed itself to work on behalf of  sensible gun policy, is taking new steps in that direction, The CEI Board recently  voted unanimously to sign on to a Declaration of Principles sponsored by PA United for Background Checks. The statement speaks forthrightly about the need to keep guns out of the hands of people who pose a danger to the rest of us.

        Rev. Bernice Warren, Chester Eastside’s Executive Director, recently co-authored a letter to the editor of the Swarthmorean, on behalf of Heeding God’s Call, a faith-based organization which works to end gun violence in Chester and elsewhere. The letter talked about two crimes in that school bus incident mentioned above: that of the teen who pulled the trigger,  wounding another student, and the action of the “straw purchaser,” the one who supplied a weapon to someone too young to qualify to buy it.

        As a 501.c.3 tax-exempt organization, CEI is forbidden to engage in outright lobbying and other explicitly political activities. But, contrary to a common perception, the law allows organizations like CEI the opportunity to inform the public regarding a range of issues, including gun violence.

        It is an opportunity that CEI has seized, because to do otherwise would be irresponsible, considering the danger guns can pose, not just to urban communities like Chester, but to all of us, wherever we live. Aside from the terrible toll in terms of victims and their loved ones, there is the psychological trauma that a violent world can cause, especially among the young.

        One more example of where CEI sees its role, not just as helping to repair broken lives and meet basic needs,  but to address underlying causes as well.

By timmreardon

Building Bridges – News from Chester Eastside, Inc.

Bridges

As more than one observer has said recently, Chester Eastside, Inc., is all about building bridges. There are bridges between past and present, and there are those that link different sides of a common stream.

A bridge over troubled water

For those who came of age in the 1970s, Simon and Garfunkel’s rendition of Bridge Over Troubled Water was a kind of anthem for people committed to making a difference in the world.

In recent years, Chester Eastside has had its own ‘bridge over troubled water’ as it dealt with a major loss of financial support on top of loss of the church building it called home for so many years. But we are nothing if not builders. Thanks to the support of countless organizations and individuals, Chester Eastside is continuing to make that difference in so many lives. In the words of the song, “When you’re down and out…. I’ll take your part.”

Still on that journey into the future; still able to make good use of that dedicated support from our friends.

A bridge between different worlds

One of the most basic functions of Chester Eastside, Inc., is bringing together a number of diverse people and organizations. College students who may not even have been aware there was a Chester, PA, when they enrolled in school and local residents who may have wondered if anybody out there really cared. Religious community members who wanted to live out their faith in action and Chesterites who helped them do it.

The recent dedication ceremony for the Judy Coslett Learning Center, held in the sanctuary of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, epitomizes that bridging function. The center, funded by a $20,000 grant from Presbyterian Women, was named after the late Judy Coslett, who for 27 years devoted her life to serving Chester children through the After School and Summer Camp Programs of Chester Eastside, Inc.  Here were members of St. Paul’s; other faith communities in Delaware County; young children from Chester wanting to express their gratitude for the years of dedicated work by a woman they called “the party lady” and “the secret Santa;” Coslett family members; fraternity members from Widener who had given generously of their time to Chester folks – and gained so much in the process.

Bridges: Never more urgently needed than in a time when the shrill voices of anger and recrimination, fear and suspicion seem to dominate the news.

By timmreardon

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
resources.

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