Liya Zenebe and Timothy Bledsoe, both fifth-graders attending Centennial Academy have been attending Big Bethel’s Saturday School since the program was founded in February 2012. Zenebe and Bledsoe say the Saturday School has impacted their young lives, especially academically for Zenebe, who aspires to be a chemist, and Bledsoe, who wants to be an astronomer.
“I started coming to the Saturday School when it first started. I like that they teach us a lot, and they don’t only teach us academics, but they also teach us life lessons that we need to learn. So we usually do arts and crafts, go outside. There was this one time where this guy came in, and he showed us how to do photography. It’s always something different, and it’s exciting,” says Zenebe.
Zenebe also says that Big Bethel’s Saturday School help pushes her to become a better person.
“If I didn’t come to Big Bethel on Saturdays, I probably would not have been as creative as I am now. Because they usually want to push us beyond limits,” says Zenebe.
Big Bethel is important to many young children in the community because it allows them to have extra help beyond school and at home.
“Big Bethel is important to me because when I needed a little bit of help with math, they gave me help so that I can be better in school. At school I get tutoring, so that helps me out. And then I get extra help over here,” says Bledsoe.
According to Benefits for Youth, Families, & Communities, afterschool programs bring benefits to children, their parents, and the communities they live in. These benefits include better academic performance in the classroom, staying out of trouble, and providing a more structured and safe environment especially for children who come from single-parent homes.
Benefits for Youth, Families, & Communities also mentioned that 40 percent of students that attend afterschool programs improve their reading and math grades, reduce the chances of them wanting to drop out, create more aspirations, encourage physical activity, reduce drug use and “parents usually concerned about their children’s afterschool care miss an average of eight days of work per year has decreased worker productivity costs businesses up to $300 billion annually.”
Bessie Donaldson, one of the ministers on staff at Big Bethel AME Church is responsible for the Saturday School Academy. The Saturday School Academy was birthed out of a ministry she started when she retired from Fulton County Juvenile Court.
“The ministry itself, the overall ministry, is a juvenile justice ministry and that’s a ministry designed to reach out to children who are at risk of getting into the system. The Saturday School serves as an intervention program to the children getting in the system and messing up their lives,” says Donaldson.
“If there were no Big Bethel Saturday School, I believe some of the children would be in a juvenile court. I truly believe that was the path they were on because just from my experience in working in the juvenile court and tracing the path of those who entered that system, they started from falling behind in school in their classroom,” says Donaldson.
Zenebe feels as though the Saturday School program keeps her out of trouble as Donaldson said and on the right track.
“The Saturday School has tried keeping me away from trouble with other peers. When some people just agitate me, they tell me what to do. In academics, they’ve helped me with my struggles, with things I don’t understand, and they’ve just taught me to be more creative. They added an upgrade to who I am,” says Zenebe.
Donaldson describes the growth in Zenebe and Bledsoe since they started coming to the Saturday School.
“Liya started out a very quiet little girl. But eventually, we saw this gradual person coming out and over the years since 2012 we’ve seen Liya just grow by leaps and bounds. And so Liya stretched. In fact, she’s in the older group. I think the Saturday School has impacted her in a great way because she’s even now entering different competitions, reading, and speaking,” says Donaldson.
“Timothy is the same because Timothy, you couldn’t get Timothy to do nothing. He would never hold his head up. It took him a long time to start talking, but he’s smart as a whip. He gained his confidence, and he started talking. And Timothy was talking more to my husband than me, and I felt that it was like he doesn’t have a father image at home, so I think he felt comfortable talking to this male,” says Donaldson.
The children at the Saturday School are even working on a gardening project in the Big Bethel Amphitheater.
“We’re planning to make it nice looking, and it’s just to revitalize Auburn Avenue. Just like a project, we had at school,” says Zenebe.
Bledsoe is also a part of the project.
“We sometimes rake the leaves over there from here. When I look out the window, I always see that. First I see there’s this parking lot, and then I turn my head a little bit to the right. And then there I see the tires. It has a lot of beautiful tires,” says Bledsoe.
Donaldson hopes the students at Big Bethel will learn something valuable from the gardening project. She sees it as a valuable life lesson rather than just fun outside.
“My hopes is to use it as a teaching tool, a vehicle to teach them one about food, where they get food from. The other thing is discipline because we’re going to have to go up and care for that, so it’s going to take some discipline. It’s going to take some hands-on kind of thing, getting involved and working together with somebody else. So I’m hoping that team spirit, the development where team mentality, and working with others realizing that you’re not going to be able to do everything on your own comes into play,” says Donaldson.
Both Bledsoe and Zenebe would like to have more science related curriculums from the Saturday School.
“I want to be a chemist. We don’t often learn science. They try to cover the spots where we have the most trouble in, and it’s usually students from Georgia State University that come and do the math and reading, one-on-one with us. But we still have social studies and science, and if we’re struggling with that, some people depend on Saturday School,” says Zenebe.
“Whenever a child expresses an interest in something like that like Liya and Timothy did, we try to find some place, some person to connect them with to help them get there. Now the science piece, thank God. We have a new partner who has a STEM program that’s coming in. We follow them and make sure they are connected with something that’s going to be productive for them to reach their goal,” says Donaldson.
Without Big Bethel, some of the students may have been headed down the wrong path, but because of Donaldson ’s vision, students have a chance of being successful and experience valuable life lessons like Zenebe and Bledsoe. The future is bright for the students at Big Bethel’s Saturday School.
“In the future, I want this school to become an accredited school and not only Big Bethel but other congregations. With the way, the school systems are going, and with the state trying to take control of the school system, it’s going to take the faith community starting schools to rescue our children and to help them to get to where they need to go, ” says Donaldson.
To get a glimpse of what the students do at Saturday School, check out the video below.