When school lets out for the day, Operation Shoestring students are excited to get to Project Rise for reading circles, playtime, and homework help in addition to STEM clubs and arts-centered experiences. Based on his experiences in the Project Rise afterschool program, third-grader Tylen now can say that “doing math is fun for me. I love rounding numbers and seeing the patterns.” But  Project Rise isn’t just a fun place for kids to work on academic essentials. It’s also a pathway to address the education gaps and emotional trauma caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has disproportionately impacted low-income children of color from communities like the ones Operation Shoestring serves. 

Founded in 1968 in response to the struggles of the civil rights era, Operation Shoestring was born out of a desire by faith-based leaders to put their faith into action by uplifting children and families in the central Jackson community, especially in the areas of education, health, and economic self-sufficiency. Ever since then, they’ve provided year-round academic, social, and emotional support to children and families in these neighborhoods with the goal of empowering families to live self-determined, healthy, hopeful lives. Part of that work is Shoestring’s annual Conversation about Community event which will take place this year as a short series exploring what it will take to create a community that really values its children, and what we are all willing to do, individually and collectively, to make that happen.

The Conversation about Community’s purpose is to encourage Metro-Jackson residents to commit and recommit to creating an equitable community. Through a compelling and sometimes challenging conversation series, Operation Shoestring hopes to open up the dialogue about the state of children in the Metro-Jackson area. “All of Jackson’s children need supportive, nurturing, and joy-filled experiences from birth to adulthood in order to reach their full potential and for our community to thrive. The question is what are we willing to do individually and as a community to make that happen,” asks Robert Langford, Shoestring’s executive director. 

By improving the lives of kids in their community, Operation Shoestring aims to improve all of Jacksonians’ lives and thus build a better city. The premiere of the new Conversation about Community web series on November 3rd features a roundtable discussion moderated by Mississippi Today managing editor Kayleigh Skinner and with panelists Attorney Letita Johnson (JPS parent and board trustee), Dr. Michelle Owens (OB/GYN and faculty member, UMMC) and the Rev. Chuck Poole (senior pastor, Northminster Baptist Church).

In the series, community leaders will share their own ideas and experiences surrounding what a community that truly values children looks like and the barriers preventing our own city from reaching that goal. Operation Shoestring hopes that viewers will come away from the series with a clearer understanding of what it means to affirm and empower all children within their city and to also have tangible action steps to make this idea a reality. For example, panel participant Dr. Michelle Owens believes that “taking intentional steps like offering encouragement to a young person, talking to our friends about offering encouragement to young people, and challenging ourselves to reach out to people who may be different than us and letting them know they have value too” is a way to create a Jackson where all kids can thrive. Operation Shoestring and so many of our community members agree: it will take all of us to reach a day where all children are affirmed and supported. 

Operation Shoestring knows that supporting all of Jackson’s children means uplifting their families too. Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, most of Shoestring’s families have reported experiencing higher levels of stress and increased feelings of isolation. That was also the case with Shoestring parent Shalonda Hannah. She and her son both felt increasingly alone as the months dragged on. For Hannah, the parent programs Operation Shoestring offered were a lifesaver. She said at the time that “being able to come out and be around other women, different age groups, different home styles, different lifestyles, this is a piece of heaven for me. It honestly is my safe space.” 

If every parent in Jackson can access safe spaces like Hannah can, Jackson can become what its many citizens believe it could one day be: a place where all families can thrive. As another Shoestring parent, Melishia Grayson-Brooks, says of our program: “For the most part, Jackson is a working-class city. School hours are not conducive to hours for working-class folks. If your kid is able to go to a program where they are being cared for, given snacks, and provided homework help, then it allows you to not struggle with having your kid at home by themselves.” Afterschool helps families, which helps their workplaces, employers, and employees, and which then helps everyone in our city have their afternoons and evenings run a little more smoothly. “I think afterschool is something that’s needed in our city. It’s something that should be accessible for everybody. It’s a natural response to the needs of the community,” observes Melishia. Operation Shoestring, and many others, believe that honest conversations focused on what it will take to meet the needs of our community’s children are the first step to achieving that goal. 

Find out more about what participants on the 2021 Conversation about Community panel think about children and their potential for success in our city by going to operationshoestring.org/cac and visiting our Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram pages.

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