Improving the lives of Beaufort’s County’s children, one child at a time
Pristine beaches, meandering bike paths and manicured golf courses create a pretty picture of island living. For most tourists and residents of Hilton Head Island, this epitomizes their way of life; a life that is aesthetically pure and surrounded by beauty and relaxation. There are, however, island residents who live more in the shadows than in the sunshine.
On Hilton Head, there exist distinct communities living parallel lives and lifestyles. Although many people live in comfort, even wealth, there also those who struggle with poverty, even homelessness. This image is not consistent with the five-star image of Hilton Head that attracts thousands of tourists annually. However, instead of merely ignoring these issues, there are robust efforts on the part of a number of nonprofit organizations to improve the lives of all of Hilton Head’s citizens, and this is having a positive impact on the lives of hundreds of people.
One such organization is the Neighborhood Outreach Connection. Its mission and vision is: ‘To help all individuals in the community achieve the ‘American Dream’ — economic independence and personal fulfillment; to establish a level playing field for all members of our community, so that all may enjoy a better quality of life.”
The organization has established itself as a positive and active force in Beaufort County, where there is a significant need as reflected in Beaufort County statistics: educationally, the county has a high number of underperforming students. More than 20 percent of children younger than 18 live in poverty, which also affects over 40 percent of minority children who fall into the “achievement gap.” Statistics like these prove that there is a need for an organization specifically structured to target the Lowcountry’s underserved children.
The Neighborhood Outreach Connection began nine years ago with only five children. Today, the group has six locations throughout Beaufort County. The organization serves more than 500 children by giving them access to medical screenings through Volunteers in Medicine, as well as mentors, certified Beaufort County teachers and technology directly in their neighborhoods, which provides them greater access to needed services.
The organization’s success is the result of identifying the needs of the community and creating effective programs to address those needs. The group’s various programs offer proven options that serve the neediest children. A major focus is early intervention, and the group has strong programming that includes pre-kindergarten, after-school and summer programs. This demonstrates the importance of starting early to lay a strong foundation for strong literacy skills.
The organization serves children up to eighth grade, but older students are invited to participate as volunteers throughout high school. This is a constructive way to keep them both engaged and focused, and it offers them community service hours to meet high school requirements.
One of the keys to the group’s success is that it gives each child specialized, individual attention and support. Each day, the children spend about an hour and a half working on their homework and sharpening the skills they learned at school. Once a child completes a year in the program, he or she will have added the equivalent of 28 additional educational school days.
Free to any child who wants to participate, the organization is fully funded by donations and fundraisers. Operationally, the group works from a business model that begins with being a caring neighbor. It is trying to break the generational cycle of poverty by being a community resource that provides education, technology, health screenings, workforce development, resources and connections directly to the people who need it most. The program is set up to operate directly out of apartments that the group has acquired, which makes it truly an integral part of the community.
“We immerse ourselves into the neighborhood so that the children can come directly from the bus. This sets us apart from other programs. It creates a feeling of trust,” said Liz Merrill, office manager for Neighborhood Outreach Connection. Part of the advantage of submerging the group locally is that it increases the chances of families being able to participate; it eliminates the transportation problem, because the children are already in their own neighborhoods. Called Learning Centers, the apartment locations are spread out from Hilton Head to Beaufort. On Hilton Head and in Bluffton, they can be found at The Oaks; at three locations in Cordillo; at Bluffton House and at Simmons Cay. In Beaufort, they are in the Parkview and Marsh Pointe communities.
Strengthening the community from the inside also includes creating growth and development opportunities for adults. The group believes in strengthening families, and if they improve the lives of adults, families will be strengthened as a whole. One way that the group does this is to invite parents to volunteer in support of the various programs. For example, when a location needs a repair or assistance, often the work is completed by parent volunteers at no charge. Allowing the parents to be responsible for the upkeep and maintenance of the facilities gives them a vested interest in the program and a way to support the interests of their own children. Another way that the program serves parents is to offer them assistance with financial needs, financial planning and English classes to improve their employability.
The founder of the program, Dr. Narendra P. Sharma, was not only touched by the economic disparities that existed among some of the area’s children, but he saw the incredible needs in the community that cause some to have limited options for financial security and academic success. Sharma is making a life-changing difference in in the lives of Lowcountry children and families. His leadership is uniting communities, and he has become a role model and is inspiring others to become future leaders.
Children who have participated in Neighborhood Outreach Connection programs have shown a 95 percent improvement in math scores, and the neighborhoods that they are a part of have seen a reduction in crime.
“You can really see the impact that the program has when you see the kids; in what they are doing and how excited they are to be here,” Merrill said. Eventually, the organization plans to expand its locations to develop franchise opportunities.
Volunteers are always needed, as are donations of both cash and snacks and cleaning supplies. For more information, go to www.noc-sc.org.