Lessons in love
New Heights Tutoring and Mentoring Program serves the most vulnerable families in St. Charles County
By Brett Auten
For Reggie Cross, hope and faith came just when he needed it.
As a grade-school student growing up in the rough and storied Wentzville Heights area, there was little to hang on to and no one to help lift him up.
On a weekly basis, it seemed just stepping off the school bus meant exposure to the sights and sounds that many in St. Charles County believes only happen on the other side of the Missouri River.
“I can’t tell you how many times I would get off the bus and two or three houses are having their front doors kicked in by the police because of meth,” Cross, now 21, said. “And people walking around the street, high on crack, asking for money, whether when I was a kid or even now.”
Luckily for Cross and others like him, there was – and continues to be – the New Heights Tutoring and Mentoring Program offered by The Crossings Church, located at 115 May Road in Wentzville. For 13 years, the program has served children and families living in Wentzville Heights (located east of Highway 40 and north of Interstate 70 and near Pitman Avenue) and Hidden Valley Estates, a federally subsidized apartment complex at 1290 Evergreen Court. They are two areas with reputations of high crime and poverty.
With a median income of $80,524 annually and a booming school district and real estate market, crime and poverty aren’t the first things that come to mind when thinking of Wentzville, whose 2016 estimates have placed the city’s population at 37,395, making it the 17th largest city in Missouri.
“I have lived around St. Charles County all of my life and the people here don’t see the downside, whether it’s by choice or they are ignorant of the problems going on here,” Cross said. “I don’t know if it’s that they don’t want to acknowledge it, like ‘the Heights are the Heights and it’s not a bother to us.’ But it’s the kids who suffer, and they don’t have control over it, and that’s what’s sad. Neighborhoods like the Heights are just not great places to grow up.”
Cross has come full-circle. The Fort Zumwalt North graduate not only has served as a tutor for New Heights but the now third-year student at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville is a crucial member in the church’s expansion, which occurred in August, to Collinsville, Illinois.
“I had a pretty rough upbringing, and I know where (the students) are at mentally, physically, and emotionally,” Cross said. “I see myself within them. They are in the same position I was in.”
The New Heights Tutoring and Mentoring Program is the brainchild of Chandler D. Atkins and his wife, Laura.
During the school year, the church opens its doors Wednesday evenings. Two buses pick up children in grades kindergarten through eighth and take them to the church and then back. The program has swollen to 45 volunteers on a weekly basis who will provide the students with tutoring and Bible lessons, along with a home-cooked dinner. Field trips, like to Busch Stadium, and a camping trip are also part of the many experiences offered.
Last week, the program hosted a Heights Christmas event in which – among other things – a huge Christmas store was onsite where the kids “bought” a sack full of gifts with stars that they earned throughout the year for attendance and good behavior for their families. Also, each child received a personalized present provided by members of the church and the local Boy Scouts.
“I remembered I about cried every year at the Christmas party knowing that there were those who cared and did this for me,” Cross said.
The Atkins’ were motivated after helping at vacation bible school while still undergrads at Lindenwood University.
“The kids had sad stories going on at home with food and drugs and parents who weren’t in the picture,” Chandler Atkins said. “We didn’t know what we were doing, and we just wanted to help the kids.”
The church and the program have, “grown insanely,” with around 90 children in the program, a far cry from the first year when it barely cracked double digits.
“We’ve had kids who are the first in their family to go to college,” Atkins said. “Or they have a steady job, just really different lives than their families and how they grew up.”
Atkins is always looking for volunteers, donations and sponsors, for those who are interested, you can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The program has evolved and grown and not only expanded to Collinsville but also to University City.
“We just wanted to give hope and connect the children with the church,” Atkins said. “At the time, the church had 50 members, so both have grown. We would like to develop it into more than just one day after school and be able to hire tutors to be more involved with the kids and also get to know the families and help with all that goes on in the home life.”
CUTLINE: Photos by Ray Rockwell Volunteers and families participate in the New Heights Tutoring and Mentoring Program Christmas event in which – among other things – a huge Christmas store was onsite where the kids “bought” a sack full of gifts with stars that they earned throughout the year for attendance and good behavior for their families. Also, each child received a personalized present provided by members of the church and the local Boy Scouts.