SHINE: A Beacon in MillvilleLast Edited:
On a cool afternoon the day after Valentine’s Day, a group of 30 kids orbit around a meeting hall in center city Millville. A few of the smaller ones run around with heart-shaped pops in their mouths while others stream in and out.
All of them are waiting for homework time to begin at the First United Methodist Church.
Earlier in the day, several of the children had been involved in “bus drama.” Shaun Connors, director of the afterschool program “SHINE,” holds them at the front of the room while others go upstairs to do homework.
Connors begins her lecture by asking a dozen kids some simple questions.
“Have any of you ever been bullied?”
“How did that feel?”
“Did it make you sad?”
“Have any of you ever been a bully...?”
A few hands go up from time to time, but they stay up for the last question. This is Connors’ way of rooting out the drama; even when someone admits to potentially being a bully, most of the children have been at the receiving end themselves.
SHINE, which operates through the church, is a ministry focused on helping center city Millville kids with homework, and even relationship building. SHINE stands for “Sharing Christ and Helping to Increase Neighborhood Excellence,” and has operated within the United Methodist Church (UMC) for the last 14 years.
Many of the children and teens in the program come from broken homes, with a number of their parents incarcerated or absent. Connors and her volunteers are pseudo-guardians in a way, acting as providers in more ways than one.
What started out as a small homework group has expanded into a full-blown program with 87 kids currently registered. In the summer, the number expands when children come to the church for summer camp.
Before the next meeting, Connors prepares to head to City Hall for a Community Development Block Grant presentation. For an organization that relies heavily on community facets like the food bank, advocating for the kids is an important part of the job, especially when many of them live below the poverty line.
“A large percentage of our kids have either a father or a close family member who is incarcerated,” said Connors.
“Single-parent homes, single mothers, poverty, I mean it’s all of it. If you drive around these streets, you see it. … We have more kids in honest-to-God poverty and the majority of our kids are considered low income or living on public assistance.”
In a state of almost nine million people, roughly 10 percent of New Jersey’s population is living in poverty, leaving the state ranked ninth out of 50 according to TalkPoverty.org. Of that percentage, 14.3 percent are children under 18.
Compared to the state of New Jersey levels, Millville sits above average when it comes to poverty, children living below the line, and single-mother homes. On average, 24.5 percent of families in Millville receive an income lower than the poverty line. This is compared to a 14-percent statewide average, according to City-Data.com in 2016.
The averages for children living under the poverty line locally is similarly disappointing, with 26.7 percent of children in Millville living on or below the line compared to the state average of 14.3 percent. Of the families below the line, 64 percent of those are single-mother homes.
SHINE attempts to act as a barrier for Millville kids living on or below that line, with its staffers hoping at least to give them one meal every day. The question for Connors has always been “How do these kids live in this world, and how do we help?”
According to the National Center for Children in Poverty, 21 percent of children in low-income families do not have a parent employed full or part-time, compared to two percent of kids in average-income homes.
The cycle of unemployment, incarceration, and open cases with the Division of Child Protection and Permanency yanks families in and makes it even harder for them to get out. What this does to children, according to Connors, is drown them.
“I picture them drowning and flailing for their life, arms flying everywhere trying to stay afloat and that’s what they’re doing,” she said. For the most part, the kids in SHINE act as mirrors for their parents, who had similar lives as children.
“Then I talk to some of the moms and they were sexually abused, there was drug addiction in the home, their mothers would have a revolving door of boyfriends—you’d be kicked out one minute, you’d be back in the next, and you were used as child care for the younger siblings that would come along,” she said.
All of those things are present in this generation of younger kids coming up through the SHINE program. Turbulent home lives lead to evident anger in some, and questionable behavior in others.
Stealing, for example, has become a behavior resulting from a shaky home. A number of the children in the program have been caught stealing food, and, in response, SHINE has partnered with the Community Food Bank of New Jersey.
In 2015, it was estimated by Feeding America’s Map of the Meal Gap study, 15 percent of New Jersey’s children were “food insecure,” or lacked access to quality, nutritious food.
According to New Jersey’s Department of Human Services, there were 390,972 households receiving NJ SNAP (Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program) benefits in August 2017. Roughly 13,550 children in Cumberland County live in households using SNAP, or food stamps.
When Connors took over SHINE as director, she often prepared meals and snacks for the kids in her own kitchen. However, with the food bank assisting the organization every day, combating hunger in the group is a bit easier.
Now, with volunteers like Wilma Guzman and Jacquel Bowser, performing the everyday routines associated with SHINE have become a little bit easier for Connors. While several volunteers come in each afternoon to help with homework and dinner, the hope is that the guidance shown to the kids will help them grow. However, with upwards of 90 children coming in at times, the need for volunteers is growing.
“It’s kind of hard when you can’t focus on just one group because you have 20 kids in one group and two adults per room,” said Guzman.
More volunteers mean more parents brought into the organization and that means more of an opportunity to get them to church. While SHINE is geared toward helping kids, parents can find a connection to their community through the group as well.
“I like coming here with the kids; it’s something to do every day,” said Jacquel Bowser regarding parents hesitant to come. “If you would like to come to church, come to church, and explain what’s going on every day. You can come volunteer every day. I volunteer every day and I love it. It’s fun.”
At the end of the day, all Connors and her group are asking for is a chance—to take care of the kids, to show them love, and to help their families.
The home lives for many is a battle fought behind closed doors. The volunteers at SHINE strive to give the kids something that may be hard to find elsewhere.
“I try to just talk to them and see what’s going on,” said Guzman. “Some kids do talk to you, some of them don’t want to talk to you. “You just have to try to give them some love. Try. As much as you can.”
Photos and infographic by Nicole Mingo
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