By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger
Upstairs and downstairs in a cheery older home in Davenport’s inner city, several children and young adults, wearing masks, sit at laptop computers for game time with other children they can see on their Zoom video conference. Welcome to Project Renewal, a second family — even during a pandemic — for many children in grades K-12 who live in the inner city.
Longtime Project Renewal volunteer Amy Kersten leads the games from the Zoom square of her own home in Davenport. She starts with a question about something nice each person has done for someone else in 2020.
“Me and my sister bought food for a homeless person,” says a boy named Evan. “I cleaned,” a girl says. “I’ve given money to people,” adds Vince Shaw, a 21-year-old senior at St. Ambrose University in Davenport who works part-time at Project Renewal.
Ann Schwickerath, Project Renewal’s longtime director, recalls that siblings Santa and Diego colored pictures of flamingos for Kersten after her dad died Dec. 10. Other children and their families sent cards and text messages of sympathy. Kersten gets emotional reflecting on the thoughtfulness of her second family that has been a part of her life for eight years. “Other than helping to raise my own kids, this is the most important work I’ve done.”
That sense of family resonates with Schwickerath, the program’s leader for 26 years. “I’ve been growing up right along with everyone else,” she says. “I have a place to work and live where I can be my authentic self.” Her commitment is to ensure that kids have a place to come after school, including a Zoom room. The pandemic, which surfaced in Iowa in mid-March last year, demanded creativity in meeting the needs of Project Renewal’s 56 kids. “We went to Plan A and then Plan B. I think we’re on Plan J, K and L,” Schwickerath quipped.
Project Renewal, with a budget of $143,000, depends largely on private donations but also receives crucial financial support from the City of Davenport’s Community Development Block Grant. This year, Project Renewal also received valuable assistance through the United Way’s COVID-19 relief fund to help pay for part-time staff. The Diocese of Davenport’s CRS Rice Bowl program provided $1,000 in funds in 2020 “to cope with pandemic-related changes.” Schwickerath is grateful to each funder.
Altogether, eight part-time employees and one full-time employee assist Schwickerath and Kersten. Funders recognize the uniqueness of the family-like program that provides treats, educational, recreational and social activities as well as mentoring.
Part-time staffer Shaw, completing a double major in psychology and sociology and a minor in philosophy, has worked with Project Renewal’s kids for a year. His friend and St. Ambrose University football teammate Bernard Buhake, a senior majoring in sociology and biology, told him about the program.
“I’ve always liked working with kids,” Shaw says. “This is the next generation coming up…. As a kid, I used to go to an afterschool program like this.” He sees his work at Project Renewal as a way to pay back. He gains much, in return. “I like listening to their stories,” he says. “Their imagination is wild. They teach me things sometimes. That’s also a plus.” Shaw envisions working with kids as a profession, particularly disadvantaged kids, providing them with resources and opportunities to play sports and engage in other enriching activities.
Buhake, 22, hopes someday to be an infectious disease specialist. He began working at Project Renewal two summers ago. “I’ve always liked being around kids, being a role model in kids’ lives. It’s a way to give back to the community.” Working with the kids during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic has been challenging. “It’s a new adventure every single day.” It is a little harder to connect with the kids when they are off site, he admits. Last summer, Buhake and other Project Renewal staff filled activity bags with books, materials to make crafts, do science experiments and other activities and delivered the bags to the kids’ homes curbside until programming resumed on-site.
Jasmine Bowman, 21, a junior majoring in elementary education at St. Ambrose University, said she needed experience working with kids. A friend who volunteered at Project Renewal spoke so enthusiastically about the program that Bowman had to get involved. She appreciates making friendships and connecting with the kids. Some “come here looking for a friend, someone to be a mentor,” she says. “It’s something that brightens my day.” She has discovered a mutual benefit as she and the kids she works with get to know each other.
Kathyrn Smith, a 20-year-old psychology major at St. Ambrose University, also learned about Project Renewal through word of mouth — her roommate. “I like the environment, getting to know the kids one on one,” she says. “I like to talk with them about their day. When they open up, it’s nice.”
How to help Project Renewal
Donations help Project Renewal in its mission to “be a positive presence for children and families in our fragile neighborhood of Davenport.” The program serves children through treats, educational, recreational and social activities throughout the year in its afterschool and summer programs.
Send donations by mail to Project Renewal, 906 W. 5th St., Davenport, Iowa, 52802 or go to the website at projectrenewal.net to make your donation electronically.