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Village of Hope goes extra mile in helping at-risk students

Extended education and support is the difference that can make a student successful throughout his education.

At Whitney Elementary School, principal Sherrie Gahn knows from personal experience what type of challenges some students face at school.

Those experiences led her to create Village of Hope Las Vegas in 2011. Since starting the after-school program, aimed at helping at-risk youths, Gahn claims she has had a 100 percent success rate.

“Success is measured in different rates for every child,” said Tammi Servinski, case manager at Village of Hope. “One thing I’ve noticed is that the kids here behave in a more positive way than what is being reported at school or at home.”

The program takes place at the school, 5005 Keenan Ave., and provides a safe learning environment for students from 3:30 to 6:30 p.m. Monday through Friday.

Gahn enrolls 20 students per session and has three to four sessions every year. Enrollees set personal goals, receive tutoring, create crafts and become involved in other activities.

Activities include basketball, watching movies, reading, recycling, composting and learning circus acts, guided meditation and yoga. Activities change every session. The program is also open on the holidays and in the summer with limited hours.

Although the program focuses mainly on after-school tutoring, it also teaches children responsibly by giving them chores in exchange for treasure boxes and other fun experiences.

“Most of them were, are or could become homeless,” Gahn said. “A lot of kids struggle with severe poverty. The kids that are sent to Village of Hope are usually those that are falling through the cracks.”

Since being on the “Ellen DeGeneres Show” and receiving nationwide media coverage in 2011, Gahn said people have financially helped the school.

“We have wonderful donors that have been consistent with us, and we still get checks from all over the world,” Gahn said. “We’ve received a lot of donations. I think it’s a testimony to human nature.”

When the program started, Gahn received help from Nevada first lady Kathleen Sandoval, program director for Children’s Cabinet, a nonprofit based in Reno that helps youths and families.

Sandoval and Gahn created the program and incorporated it under Children’s Cabinet. Last month, Village of Hope received nonprofit status.

“While we were getting nonprofit status, we were always sitting on eggshells,” Gahn said. “It felt like we were coasting along. The status opened the doors of opportunities for donors. It’s given us the ability for more donations and potentially for more funding.”

Since Gahn took over as principal in 2004, the school has morphed beyond a learning environment. It also provides a food pantry, clothing, supplies, GED classes and other types of extra help.

“It’s an amazing program,” said Milagros Flores, mother of a student enrolled in the program. “They have so many resources, and they’ve helped me so much. I’m a single mom. My son has a lot of behavioral problems and mental illnesses. The program keeps him active.”

Flores added that the program has helped her with transportation to get her son’s medicine and it has also helped her pay and get testing done for her GED.

“When I got here, most of the kids weren’t graduating high school,” Gahn said. “Our success rate of kids getting into junior high and high school was slim at best. I realized that at third grade, you could predict what will happen to these kids.”

That is why Gahn geared Village at Hope toward children in third through fifth grades.

The program receives help from UNLV and Nevada State College interns in the psychology department.

“The staff is kind and friendly,” said Aiyden Babb, 10, student with the program. “I feel like I learn better here because they take their time to work with you. In the classroom, there are too many kids, and the teacher has to go with the other kids.”

The National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth stated in a recent study that in the 2011-12 school year, 1,166,339 homeless youths were enrolled in public schools. The study added that since the 2006-07 school year, homelessness increased 71 percent.

Being homeless can cause health problems, fatigue, hunger, emotional crises and mental health issues for children, resulting in lack of school stability and educational continuity, according to the association.

In order to alleviate financial hardships, the Village of Hope Las Vegas also offers free haircuts, dental care, glasses and meals.

“The food here is really good,” said Jewbrea Walker, 8, a student with the program. “Plus, I get to learn more and do my homework while having fun.”

Another student added that the staff goes beyond tutoring and provides emotional support.

“I like the kind people who work here,” said Joshua Lewis, 11. “The staff understands if you’re going through something. They really care about us.”

The nonprofit is scheduled to sponsor a holiday gift drive from Nov. 25 to Dec. 18 to benefit needy children at elementary schools along Boulder Highway.

Items should be new and unwrapped toys and games that are age-appropriate for children 6 to 11. None of the items should exceed $20. Items can be dropped off at Whitney Elementary or may be scheduled for pickup.

“This program gives students a place where they can be a kid in a world of chaos and violence,” Gahn said. “We give them the hope that they will be better than their environment predicts.”

For more information about the holiday gift drive or Village of Hope, visit villageofhopelv.org.

Contact Sunrise/Whitney View reporter Sandy Lopez at slopez@viewnews.com or 702-383-4686.

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