The Herald, Sharon, Pa.

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February 23, 2014

At work to help at-risk children

New Light center offers activities, meals, structure

NORTHERN MERCER COUNTY — Striving to provide a safe place, in the heart of the community, where children can go to learn the values of respect and socialization is a need that keeps on growing and one that Dr. April Torrence hopes to expand on.

A volunteer director at New Light Christian Education Center, located on Cedar Avenue in Sharon, Torrence said the organization provides activities and 125 free meals every afternoon to at-risk children up to age 18 who have come to the center as either part of a prekindergarten program or an afterschool program.

Open since 2007, the center’s intent is to be a neighborhood hangout, complete with a full gymnasium and basketball leagues, along with karate lessons, a performing arts academy and self-esteem and self-empowerment programs that will hopefully encourage youth to take a positive approach with their free time and avoid poor decisions that lead to juvenile delinquency.

The hot meals, she said, are from the volunteer efforts of New Light Missionary Baptist Church, under the direction of the Rev. Brian K. Johnson Sr. The goal of the meals, she said, is to encourage socialization, along with making sure that the children don’t go home hungry. Last year, the church provided more than 33,000 meals, with the help of church members and college students from Penn State Shenango, Grove City College and Youngstown State University who came in to volunteer.

“My vision is for the efforts of this facility to reach the entire family, not just the children,” Torrence said.

“We are committed to developing the whole child, as well. Promise-based neighborhoods are the new buzzwords and it’s a concept I would like to see happen here,” she said.

Based on examples set by the Harlem Children’s Zone in Harlem, N.Y., Torrence wants to develop social service and community-building programs that will “allow children to be shaped today so that they can mold the community tomorrow.”

Torrence, a mother of four who is working on her doctoral degree in the expansion of prekindergarten learning to low-income families, said she completely understands the need that the programs provide, having once been a single mother struggling to raise a son.

“I struggled. I mean I really struggled. It was a way of life to me and I didn’t see anything else. I had moved to Pittsburgh and was trying to manage on having $25 in disposable income for two weeks with a 2-year-old to feed,” she said.

“I was making $13,000 a year, and I had subsidized daycare and after I paid the rent, car insurance, utilities, etc., that was all I had left,” she said, starting to cry as she recalled splitting an inexpensive meal at McDonalds with her son as the only food they could afford.

And though times were tough, she learned the value of seeing another side of life, besides what she was accustomed to in Farrell and Sharon.

“Once I got out of here, I saw a whole other world. I want the children here to see that there is an entire world out there,” she said.

Two local businesses have partnered with the state in allowing the education improvement tax credits to be used by the center. Lew Kachulis of Synergy Insurance in Sharon, Torrence said, has contributed both financially and also by donating computers and school supplies to the education center.

Quaker Steak and Lube, also in Sharon, has used the same tax credits to provide some financing for the center.

With those computers, Torrence hopes to start a Skype program allowing children to speak with other children in other countries. “We used to have pen pals back in the day, but now with technology we can go even further,” she said.

There are about 22 children in the prekindergarten program, which runs two times a day, but financial assistance that was there is no longer available for 2014, she said, and “the program’s future isn’t looking so good.”

She said she finds it remarkable that all of the center’s programs are supported financially by the community and volunteers.

“They have a calling, a passion and a commitment to see that the education piece, the nutrition piece and the physical health piece are all here for these kids,” she said.

Children who aren’t involved in the prekindergarten program usually find their way to the center immediately after school and rarely miss a day.

“I see them before their parents see them. They come for the free activities and they eat very well here,” she said.

Torrence is hoping to convince the United Way of Mercer County to take the center on as one of its funded agencies.

“From the perspective of the parents, they need this place as an outlet for their children. I believe there is a considerable population of single moms who are not happy and who don’t have the skills or the tools to change and make things better for their children. I think they would rather their children were here with us, instead of seeing what’s happening at home,” she said.

The center is open weekdays until 5 p.m., sometimes a bit later for special events, but with additional funding, the hours could be expanded, she said.

“We’re about showing love, laying down the rules and embracing these kids for who they are,” she said.

For anyone wanting to help, either financially or by volunteering, Torrence invites them to come in for a tour and see where they can contribute. The center is always in need of sports equipment for the gym, she said.

For more information about any of the free programs or to speak with Torrence, call 724-866-9292.

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