Oasis Center supports work of schools by helping children

By Camilla Benbow

(Originally printed in The Tennessean on June 27, 2013)

I recently had a conversation with Tom Ward, president and CEO of Nashville’s Oasis Center, about how local nonprofit organizations support the work of schools.

For far too many children, classroom success remains elusive as they struggle to meet basic needs for shelter, safety, supportive parents, balanced nutrition, health care, freedom from addiction and psychological health.

Poverty and the culture of poverty undermine schooling. One cannot ignore poverty’s pervasive effects and believe that schools alone can be the leveler. Thankfully, Nashville is blessed by having a number of private nonprofits — organizations like Oasis, Martha O’Bryan Center, the Boys and Girls Clubs, and others — working to meet the needs of children both inside and outside of school.

Oasis Center supports the work of schools by offering youths emergency shelter, psychological counseling, family healing, academic support, mentoring and college access. The organization provides residential services in two locations to youths, depending on their ages, and it serves thousands of others in schools or at the Youth Opportunity Center on Charlotte Avenue. Much of Oasis’ work happens on the streets, where its services touch about 500 teens every three months.

In education, Oasis counselors work one-on-one with students in half a dozen of Nashville’s high-need high schools and middle schools to provide social supports and elevate students’ academic success. Oasis volunteers help students write admissions essays and complete college applications. Local college students tutor disadvantaged teens in preparing for college entrance exams. Volunteers from Nashville’s business community also help students (many of whom are first-time college-goers) and their families complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

Oasis sticks with these students to help them navigate the challenges of obtaining financial aid, enrolling, and developing the study habits to persist and graduate. For instance, the organization is consulting with Belmont University, which has offered 25 scholarships to students of Stratford and Maplewood high schools, in creating supports for those students as they progress through college.

Tom Ward describes this kind of direct, ongoing assistance as the difference between providing opportunity and providing “true access.” He tells of one young college-bound woman who received a letter from her university that seemed to indicate she would have to pay more than she could afford. For many, the dream of going to college would have died right there. In this case, two Oasis staff members drove with their client to visit the university’s financial aid office, where they helped her investigate the situation and find a solution. She will start her college studies this fall.

As Tom says, “It’s true that opportunity can help some children beat the odds. But we want to change the odds. We don’t want to be having the same conversation 10 years from now. True access is the only thing that can change the odds.”

For children from poverty to learn, succeed or even excel, the additional resources nonprofits provide are critical. Not all children have families who can support them and their learning. We can be grateful for the community organizations that supplement the role of parents when parents have gone as far as they can.

Camilla P. Benbow is Patricia and Rodes Hart Dean of Education and Human Development at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College. Her column on education appears every other Thursday in The Tennessean Local section.

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