Building bridges to connect the community is what binds family ties when striving for equity and inclusion at OpenDoors.
OpenDoors is a nonprofit organization based in Asheville, North Carolina, that addresses family needs and barriers that set diverse student populations back. The organization was established in 2009. Since then, OpenDoors has offered enrichment opportunities, tutoring, equity-based coaching, and assistance to struggling families.
“Diversity means different things to everybody,” said Jasmine Middleton, head of sustainability at OpenDoors. “It happens organically here by just sharing our culture and world with each other.”
Middleton began at OpenDoors in 2011 as a student that was struggling and seeking help. Middleton’s neighbors at the time were one of the first families at OpenDoors and introduced her family to their program. Through OpenDoors, Middleton was able to get her high school diploma and went on to seek more education. She now works as the head of sustainability at OpenDoors, which helps connect families to housing, transportation, food and nutrition.
“As Jasmine became older, she became a role model for the younger students,” said Nancy Abernethy, communications director at OpenDoors. “We recruited her to come and work for OpenDoors because she had created her own success story.”
Abernethy has worked with OpenDoors since it started in 2009. As the communications director, she does mailings, development events, social media and printed materials. To communicate their mission with the public of Asheville, they do a monthly e-blasts newsletter, make posts for Instagram and Facebook, and release an annual report of their finances and programs.
Abernethy describes her experience as one that has been fueled by the various relationships she has made while working for OpenDoors. She speaks on how these relationships with the students and tutors allow diverse conversations that lead to a feeling of wholeness in Asheville’s community.
“The relationships are the number one reason any of us are involved in OpenDoors,” said Abernethy. “It really is my big family. I love getting to know the children and parents, and I like the idea that it brings the larger community of Asheville together. It is a bridge between the different populations in Asheville.”
AVL Rise is OpenDoor’s peer-to-peer literacy and tutoring program that allows high school students to teach local elementary students. AVL Rise hires and trains high school students to tutor for a living wage. Training for high school students occurs twice a week as well as tutoring for elementary students. The students involved with this specific program are often given opportunities to participate in creative enrichment activities.
David Kennedy is the AVL Rise Education and Arts Director at OpenDoors. Kennedy’s background in education has allowed him to teach elementary, junior and high school students.
“I learn a lot from the students,” said Kennedy. “You may have an idea that there is one way to do it, but there are many other ways to approach the curriculum we cover. The way that we set the program up--it is not one-sided. We work on everything together. I continue to learn from them, more than they learn from me.”
AVL Rise coordinates with Asheville High School and goes by recommendations from the school or works with students that are already a part of the organization. The students that are a part of AVL Rise have explained how beneficial the program has been for their motivation and overall education.
“I actually want to be in child or human services, anything helping those in need,” said Aniya Griffin, a junior at Asheville High School. “It has showed me how to look at life from a younger perspective--I have to understand how they feel and what they think about. It gives me different outlooks on life.”
One of the creative enrichment activities that the tutors participated in was the week-long Songs for Peace camp at Leaf Global Arts where they were able to work with a professional songwriter. Griffin was able to create a motivational song for the children she is tutoring this year.
“We made a song giving advice to the kids we work with,” said Griffin. “Some of the lyrics are ‘I’m gonna give you some advice about your life, don’t you ever give up, hold your head up high.’”
Enrichment activities such as this allow the tutors to connect with the elementary students they are working with. This connection creates a dynamic between them that allows both parties to learn and grow as individuals.
According to the OpenDoors 2022 Annual Report, 95 percent of their students reported that tutoring increased their academic confidence, and 99 percent felt supported by their tutor. OpenDoors utilizes a whole-child methodology, which honors the humanity of each student and creates environments of student connections.
“AVL Rise is definitely building on to literacy skills,” said Middleton. “They are reading more and spending more time in front of books. They are becoming leaders and mentors. The younger students have that peer-to-peer relationship, and they feel really supported by the high school students. It is really nice to see it in action.”
According to a study done by Connie Juel, a graduate of Stanford with a doctorate in Educational Psychology, tutoring for 30 first graders at risk for literacy failure demonstrated that the relationship between a tutor and a student strongly reinforces progress. Once these relationships are established, the student goes on to independently read and write in a progressive manner.
The AVL Rise tutors describe their relationships with the elementary students as something that is beneficial for both parties. The tutors are learning leadership skills and financial skills while also learning literacy skills through the teaching process. The elementary students are gaining confidence and trust in the tutor while also learning literacy skills.
“They see us as their friend, someone they can talk to,” said Lisbeth Vigil, a junior at Asheville High School. “They see us as someone they can have a fun time with--it’s pretty cool.”
OpenDoors also offers two scholarships a year for students interested in going to college after high school. Along with financial support, students wishing to pursue college are assisted with applications and crises. They offer enrichment activities for all of the OpenDoors participants which includes sports, outdoors and art.
OpenDoors has fueled their programs with their own energy and passion. Programs such as AVL Rise allows children a chance to overcome economic and social boundaries that divide them from other students. This chance they are given provides them the confidence to further pursue education and career options.
“It helped me to really know who I am,” said Vigil. “I think it is a really big thing that impacted my life.”
For more information about OpenDoors, visit their website at https://opendoorsasheville.org/ or visit AVL Rises newsletter at https://drive.google.com/file/d/11bFeoLL_n2Mwr9NjJeKd8MLZAuh3iwBL/view