By Erika Webb
Sandy Rakes is equal parts kind, witty and authoritative. That combination may be the reason 15 students from McInnis Elementary School in DeLeon Springs were happily focused on learning at 4:30 on a rainy Wednesday afternoon after school let out.
Ms. Rakes is the executive director for Great Kids Explorer Club, which she said started with "$200 and a prayer."
Serving Ormond Beach, Daytona Beach, Port Orange and DeLeon Springs, the group's purpose is to partner with schools and churches to enhance learning opportunities for "at-risk children." The goal is being accomplished by bringing families, educators and volunteers together with the adage, "it takes a village ..." in mind and in deed.
According to the presentation Ms. Rakes utilizes to educate prospective partners and families, risk factors include poverty, welfare dependence, one or both parents absent, unwed mothers and parents who have not graduated from high school.
Ms. Rakes' findings include 30 percent of Volusia County children enter school without skills needed to learn to read.
She, 60 volunteers, guidance counselors from five Volusia County Schools, participating churches and some very benevolent "funders" are working to change what she calls a cycle of dysfunction threatening the futures of elementary school students.
Roberta Johnson has been a volunteer for the group in DeLeon Springs since September.
"I've wanted to do this for a long time but had never heard of any group (like this one)," Ms. Johnson said. "The improvement I've seen in the children already is outstanding."
Ms. Rakes' background is in sales and management. She stumbled into her current position when she began attending an Ormond Beach church.
"I joined a church. I was kind of a late bloomer, and got talked into being a youth director," she said.
Working with teenagers turned out to be more of a challenge than Ms. Rakes was ready for. She found herself leaning more toward molding younger minds.
"I heard about a program, an outreach for low-income children but it wasn't academic," she said. "There was a value lesson. Then they'd have a snack and do crafts."
With early intervention in mind, Ms. Rakes sought to improve upon the original outreach program, adding academics -- reading, language arts, dictionary skills and mathematics -- and teaming with local schools that oversee the enrollment process for Great Kids.
"The only requirement for enrollment is that the schools and Great Kids must be allowed to share information. That allows us to get report cards and FCAT scores, and to e-mail and talk back and forth with school counselors," she said.
The program expanded to DeLeon Springs five years ago when Dr. Amy Hall, the district counseling specialist for Volusia County Schools, invited Ms. Rakes to address a group of guidance counselors.
"At the end of my power point Barb Reddish (a guidance counselor) from McInnis asked me how to get this program in her school," Ms. Rakes said.
Ms. Rakes told Ms. Reddish the only thing needed to implement the program at McInnis Elementary was a church partner. Ms. Reddish called upon DeLeon Springs Methodist Church and that was that.
"This came from her passion for helping children," Ms. Rakes said of Ms. Reddish. "She supports this program way beyond the call of duty of her job."
Recently, Ms. Rakes said, First Baptist Church of DeLeon Springs became the new church partner for Great Kids.
She said the partnering churches provide facilities, additional funding and transportation for Great Kids. In DeLeon Springs; the Lions Club allows Great Kids use of their clubhouse on Wednesdays. On Tuesdays the group meets at DeLeon Springs Baptist Church.
The curriculum used in the Great Kids program is benchmarked with Volusia County's curriculum map, and complements it, Ms. Rakes said.
"We can only be as good as the support we get from the schools. That's key," Ms. Rakes said. "Some children need a little extra help and the school bell goes off at 2:05. Not everyone can learn on the same schedule."
Great Kids' school partners in Ormond Beach and Port Orange are Ortona Elementary, Osceola Elementary, Port Orange Elementary and Horizon Elementary.
During the time they are in the after-school classroom children move around the room from one-on-one tutoring to the computers -- where they spend 45 minutes, then on to another area for homework and language arts lessons and activities.
A little girl raised her hand and said, "Ms. Sandy, I need help."
The girl's workbook task was to create a sentence using the word "will."
Ms. Rakes stopped and patiently walked her through the process, gently urging her to think it through.
"What do you ask me for?" Ms. Rakes said.
"For help?" the girl asked tentatively.
"Right. And how do you ask me?" Ms. Rakes said.
"Will you help?" the girl replied with a little more confidence.
"Who?" Ms. Rakes asked.
"Me!" the little girl said.
"Okay, now say the sentence," Ms. Rakes said.
"Will you help me?" the little girl said, with no hesitation.
Sage Pierce, an eighth-grade student at Southwestern Middle School in DeLand, is one of only a few student volunteers for the organization. She helps out in DeLeon Springs on Wednesdays along with her grandmother, Celia Jones.
"It's fun," Sage said. "I can connect with the kids and play around with them sometimes."
Ms. Jones said it was particularly exciting to her when a five-year-old, who'd just been given instruction on nouns, verbs and adjectives, immediately created a sentence correctly using all three.
"She did it!" Ms. Jones said. "She created a whole sentence with just that instruction!"
Jeannie Harvey, another volunteer, said she loves it when the kids recognize her in the grocery store and excitedly tell their parents she's their teacher.
And Ms. Rakes has very high praise for the communities and volunteers. Without them, she said, there would be no program.
"It's a total community outreach," Ms. Rakes said. "Without these wonderful people, this unpaid staff of tutors, there is no program."
And when it comes to funding, Ms. Rakes is almost speechless.
"For a small organization that nobody's ever heard of, it's pretty amazing, the support we get," she said.
Great Kids is funded through Volusia County, the City of Ormond Beach, various foundations, local businesses and private citizens.
For information about Great Kids Explorer Club call 386-676-0276 or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.