Children in one of Buffalo's most impoverished neighborhoods will celebrate graduation from the Seneca Street Summer Reading Camp. A ceremony will be held Thursday for kindergarteners through 8th graders who attended. They will receive certificates and new backpacks filled with school supplies from the two-week camp. WBFO’s senior reporter Eileen Buckley visited the program sponsored by the Seneca Street Community Development Corporation (SSCDC) at no cost to families.
The smell of fresh cucumbers filled a classroom inside the Seneca Street United Methodist Church. Children were learning how to make sweet pickles by reading the recipe. The camp incorporates reading with a fuunique activity.
“It's just an awesome community and everybody loves each other - it's like a big family and everybody here cares for everybody” declared Andrea Crandall.
The 16-year-old is a South Park High School student and has been coming to the reading camp since she was in kindergarten. Now she's with the Mayor's Summer Youth Program working at the reading camp to help other children.
“It strengthens everybody’s vocabulary that come here. It just makes everybody a lot smarter, so it’s an awesome place to come to further everything,” Crandall explained.
60-volunteers work with about 80-children in the summer camp teaching reading, writing and other activities. The Seneca Street Community Development Corporation conducts a number of year-round programs for children and families operating out of the church building.
The Seneca-Babcock neighborhood is one the poorest in the city. 68-percent of the children enrolled in the programs come from low-income families earning less than $25,000 annually.
“It's hard when you see kids that come in the morning and you know they are not clean and their hungry and we take them in the bathroom and wash them off,” said Cheryl Jordan.
Jordan said the church is like a family. She's been attending programs for 18-years.
“Feel the love when you come in the door. They’re not just saying it – they mean it and they help you whenever you have a problem or you have a difficulty,” Jordan remarked.
“And it’s not just milk and the cereal that they want – they come in her because we give them hugs and when no one’s looking I sneak 'em cookies and I get in trouble for it all day long, but it’s okay,” declared Connie Cuddihy.
Cuddihy has also been attending programs at the church for 18-years. Her family has been in neighborhood since it was formed when generations before her arrived from Ireland. She calls the church a “sanctuary” and says poverty is "normal" to her.
“Moms give up everything around here – they don’t wear fancy clothes or nails done because the babies have to have wonderful things and the moms are just the best around here – you know they don’t have the money, but they’ve got the hearts and that’s what we worry about,” Cuddihy declared.
The theme of the summer camp was ‘Christmas in July’. Inside the kitchen area of the church, where meals are served, children lined to sing "Jingle Bells". That’s where we found retired pastor Brian Rotach. He was fixing a ceiling fan. He’s been with the church for 24-years.
“We keep going because it’s fun. We’re now seeing the children of our first kids and it’s just so empowering to us to feel like we can make a difference,” Rotach described.
Rotach discussed the depth of poverty, noting that "none" of his church members have a full-time job. We asked if he fears programs enable the 'cycle of poverty'.
"That’s what’s called ‘toxic charity’ – when you do anything for anybody that they can do for themselves – you’re making the mistake and your enabling the continuing of that poverty, so what we do is every time – everyway we possible can we make people responsible,” Rotach replied.
“Our children have so little that everything we can do for them is going to benefit them,” said Cheryl Bird.
Bird is Rotach's wife and serves as executive director of the Seneca Street non-profit.
"Growing up in this neighborhood – they don’t have a lot of role models – they don’t have a lot of hope. If you look at the street signs, every street sign says ‘dead end’ – our mission here – our goal here, through the church and through the not-for-profit, is to give them hope that they can move on out of this generational poverty that they’ve been brought up in,” Bird explained.
But despite the high-rate of poverty, children attending these programs are gaining in their schooling and Bird said they’re seeing new results.
“And for the first eight years that we were here we never saw anyone graduate from high school and this year we had four children and three of those are actually going on to a two-year school or into some kind of a trade school,” Bird stated.
The Buffalo School District provides free breakfast and lunch for the children, but other Methodist churches help with donations to supporting the ministry at the church. 20 volunteers come from the Duluth United Methodist Church in Duluth, Georgia. They pay for their own airfare, hotel and meals and work with the children.
Charlie and Cindy Doerlich have been traveling to Buffalo for about 14-years to teach reading, sewing and cooking.
“It’s about the kids and the families here. I just love loving on them. That’s what we do. We come here and do some education and be there for them,” said Cindy Doerlich.
“We’re glad we can come up and put a little something into their life for two-weeks and give them the experience of reading,” Charlie Doerlick remarked.
Books were handed out each day during the summer camp to children encouraging them to read. The Doelick's are impressed with results.
“First couple of years I came up – we read the books to them and we started them reading more and now they all read and no matter how good or bad they read – they want to read. There may be poverty in the area, but in their heart – there’s not,” Doelick described.