St. Francis Community Services Emphasizes Reading with YEP Grant

St. Francis Community Services (SFCS), a ministry of Catholic Charities of St. Louis, received a YouthBridge YEP STL! grant the first time they applied. YEP STL! (Youth Engaged in Philanthropy) is a program led by high school students striving to make a substantial impact on the Greater St. Louis area by evaluating and providing grants to youth-focused nonprofit organizations. According to Karen Wallensak, Grants Coordinator, they were delighted with the process as well as the result. “We were intrigued with the idea of young people dedicated to helping other young people,” she explained. Then when they met with the YEP students they continued to be impressed. “The students’ enthusiasm was contagious and their thoughtfulness in asking relevant questions revealed a surprising depth of research and study to assess applicants’ fit for YEP,” she continued.

Wallensak advised that the YEP students’ application process gave SFCS the opportunity to challenge itself, looking for ways to identify growth and improvement. SFCS’ purpose is: “St. Francis Community Services walks with our vulnerable neighbors to create opportunities, to build resiliency, and to advocate for justice.” As SFCS reflected on how this mission comes alive in its after-school youth programming, it became apparent that the grant request should focus on its tutoring services, specifically in the area of reading.

The after-school program at SFCS, for immigrant children in kindergarten through 5th grade, is comprised of helping with homework, tutoring in reading, and play time and/or other activities such as art club. Staff and volunteers work with 65-plus children who speak, read, and write English but whose parents speak another language at home. Increasing these students’ reading comprehension and fluency in English is the goal. St. Francis utilizes a specific curriculum for immigrant children and before the COVID pandemic measured a 90% improvement rate. The improvement rate slipped during the pandemic, so like many other organizations, SFCS is pouring resources into helping students catch up.

During a meeting on the SFCS grant proposal, the exchange of ideas between SFCS staff and the YEP students grew. An extremely important aspect of the SFCS program is the youth library. Many of the children don’t have computers or connectivity at home, so books are an integral part of the program. Ms. Wallensak relayed that the grant discussion focused on what kind of books to purchase. Children in the program were asking for books that are more relevant to them today. The SFCS staff pointed out – and the YEP students affirmed – that the kids should have books they want to read, not just those that adults traditionally think they should read. The entire YEP grant is being used to purchase new books, and Wallensak is confident they will be well-read for quite some time.

Wallensak expressed gratitude to the YEP STL! Program and reiterated how impressed the SFCS staff was with the YEP students. She said the students were “brimming with a certain kind of joy and clearly felt empowered to do a thorough job.” Matt Roberts, who manages the SFCS youth program, hopes to work with YouthBridge to enable immigrant teenagers to join the YEP student group in the future.

Finally, Ms. Wallensak wanted to convey huge appreciation to First Bank, and other donors, for their commitment to the YEP STL! program. In her words, “Their contribution may help 60 to 70 kids grow, and thrive, in our community.” What could be more positive?