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Living Democracy Citizenship Award: Juanita 'Lady' Wright

The idea for New Life Worship Center’s Summer Educational Empowerment Program began last summer as Juanita ‘Lady’ Wright was dropping off USDA-provided lunches to Roanoke children during her lunch break. Wright, a member of New Life and recently retired social worker, enjoyed spending her break dropping off lunches to schoolchildren who weren’t able to make it to one of the designated drop sites like New Life, but she felt the church could do more.

 She imagined building programming in the hours before and after lunch deliveries that would address more than just the children’s physical needs. Over the next year, that dream grew as she was joined in her efforts to get SEEP off the ground by collaborators like Marilyn Whitlow, a fellow former social worker, and Gwyn Adamson, a local accountant.

On June 1, the Summer Educational Empowerment Program opened its doors at New Life Worship Center, and, thus far, it has been a tremendous success, with more than 46 children having attended the program in its first five weeks.

Both Wright and Whitlow said they believe that their backgrounds in social work were integral to the foundation of the program. “Once you’re a social worker, in some ways you’re always a social worker. It changes the way you view the world. You learn to observe situations, and you try to make decisions that make people’s lives better,” said Wright.

Both ladies say that this program is a natural extension of their time as social workers. “I’ve always worked with kids [as a social worker], and it’s just like I never stopped,” said Whitlow.

Just as integral was the notion that any program they created needed to address ‘the whole child’— physically, socially, educationally, and spiritually. A typical day at the SEEP reveals this holistic emphasis: the children play outside before participating in a Bible devotional. After more outside playing time, the children head back inside to take part in math, science, or reading lessons, depending on the day. After lunches arrive, the children eat and visit until the program ends for the day.

This comprehensive approach was crafted with the children’s futures in mind. Wright said that addressing the children’s character during the SEEP was a vital component of the program because it was their character that would help them to be successful in the future.

“I believe that in today’s culture character is so important. One of our assignments is to give the children words like respect, discipline, integrity, and maturity to look up, and they return with the definitions so that they can learn these words and how important the concepts are,” Wright said.

She added that they try to stress practicing The Golden Rule and respecting others and also discuss parts of school life like bullying. “Above all, we try to teach them about self-worth,” said Wright. Referencing Psalm 139:14, she said that the children are wonderfully and fearfully made, and she wants them to realize just how much they are loved by God, by their families, and by their communities.

Their efforts have already paid dividends with the children who regularly attend the Empowerment Program, held every Monday through Thursday morning.                 

Wright and Whitlow said that they see marked improvements in each of their four areas of interest— socializing, education, physicality, and spirituality. “We have a lot of kids really come out of their shells [at SEEP]. Kids who had trouble socializing are now sharing better and playing better than when they arrived,” said Whitlow.

Educationally, Wright said she also believes that the program is helping children retain the information they learned during the school year. “Educational programs during the summer are really important because they help the children stay focused and not lag behind when they come back to school,” she said.

Wright and Whitlow also recall how amazed they were that the children were thrilled to play with a rope and some swings. They take pride in the children being physically active rather than plugged into a computer or video games. They also mentioned how beneficial it is that the children are participating in regular Bible studies so that they can grow in their faith as well.

Considering their remarkable achievements so far, Wright and Whitlow said that they plan to hold the SEEP next summer as well. “We were almost a little surprised by how many children have come, especially considering that our only advertising was word-of-mouth,” said Wright.

Indeed, the program has been so successful so far that the only alterations that the ladies are planning are those that allow them to accommodate more children. “I don’t know of anything in the program that I’d change other than maybe more teachers,” said Whitlow. “We never imagined it would be anything like this. Now that we know how big it is, we also want to apply for some grants to help support the program,” Wright added. 

An incredibly humble person, Wright insists that her work is just part of her civic and religious duty. “I just saw something that seemed like it might need to be addressed and did it,” she said.

Perhaps she’s right, but I think there’s more to it than mere duty. I think the world needs more Lady Wrights— faithful civic agents who work diligently to make their communities a better place. Unfortunately, these agents often don’t get the praise or recognition they deserve, but they are vital to a community’s success.

By recognizing their efforts, perhaps we can encourage others to follow their example and to come alongside these servant-leaders. Even if Wright and the other leaders of SEEP are ‘just doing it’ because they are trying to fill a need, Roanoke and the children of the Summer Educational Empowerment Program are better for the work they’ve done, and, to me, that’s what community engagement is all about.