Towson University

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Cherry Hill is a community with generational poverty. Attempting to break the cycle is the Partners in Academic and Life Success (PALS) Program, which has positively impacted parents as well as youth.

The Cherry Hill neighborhood in Baltimore, Maryland, is 97% Black non-Hispanic, with unemployment at 24%, and 68% of its households headed by single females. Home to the largest concentration of public housing east of Chicago, it is a community that remains largely poor, where the crime rate is high and youth struggle with health issues like asthma and childhood obesity.

“When you live in these types of surroundings,” says community organizer Cathy McClain, who works and volunteers for the PALS Program, “it’s hard to convince people that there’s hope, but that’s what this program brings … hope.”

PALS provides the opportunity to exercise creativity through positive expressions like journaling, while also presenting opportunities for physical activity. It is designed to increase self-confidence in a small segment of Cherry Hill youth and develop their social skills. As one of its main sources of hope, McClain extends positivity beyond the youth in the program to their parents — something that, in a community like Cherry Hill, is easier said than done.

“It’s not easy for parents to attend meetings,” says McClain. “But there’s not a week that goes by when I don’t talk to those families. I call them on the phone, I make home visits. There’s always an open line of communication. I make sure their basic needs are met so nothing can deter them from participating in the program.”

“Cathy is our major link to the community,” says principal investigator Dr. Marcie Weinstein. “Her presence and participation provide a comfort level that helps our families become more engaged.” McClain’s outreach has, indeed, worked wonders in keeping parents informed and involved. It also sets a great example for the children, who recognize McClain’s genuine concern for their well-being and their future — the sort of thing that leaves an indelible mark on youth.

“Having somebody outside the home take interest in their lives and in their successes makes parents feel valued,” says McClain, “and it increases self-esteem in the youth. The impact this program has had on these kids is indescribable. Their participation in school has improved, their involvement in the community has improved, and it’s even had a ripple effect on their families.”

“It’s inspiring to see these kids blossom,” McClain continues, “to see them go from being clearly headed in the wrong direction and performing poorly in school to excelling … that really makes this all worthwhile.”