The mission of the Cambridge Empowerment Center is to “work in partnership with the diverse community of Cambridge, Maryland, to provide underserved youth and adults in the city with education, health and wellness, work skills, and cultural enrichment programs.” Through that they hope to “ensure that everyone in the city of Cambridge has the skills and education necessary to contribute to the health and well being of the entire community.” This is a big goal for the organization known as the Pine Street Enrichment Program, but they are currently taking steps in the right direction.
The nonprofit, multi-use building opened in 2000 on the site of the former Pine Street Elementary School, which famously burned down in July 1967. It was intended to be a community center and did have some summer programming for children. Then, in 2014, a small after-school program was begun. This was around the time that retired school teacher Julia Barker got involved as a volunteer and tried to help get some funding for the center.
“I mean, they had nothing,” said Barker.
“Everything’s organized,” said Barker, “and we’re in good shape, and the board gets along very well.”
The board, known as The Pine Street Committee, Inc., has seven members, including Barker. But they are always looking for new additions.
Every year, they have a summer program, and this year’s ran from June 20 to August 17. For four days a week from 8:30am to 4:30pm, kids came to the center for various activities. There was a learning component, part of which was conducted online using the platform IXL.
“We had started the program with 20 computers, and that wasn’t enough for 45 kids,” said Barker. “So, luckily we got some donations.”
They were able to acquire 15 more computers, and, with iPads for the youngest children, there was a sufficient number of units for everyone. The kids worked on their reading and math skills electronically, but they also benefited from volunteer tutors who came in once a week to give individual instruction.
“If they have that one-on-one attention, then they’re willing to do the work,” said Barker.
Some of the kids worked on their math skills, and there was reading time for everyone. The younger children would be read to while the others read independently. But the summer program was more than just academics.
Leslie Bishop, who is secretary of the board, would lead arts and crafts once a week. Someone conducted a weekly Tai Chi session. And, on Thursdays, the kids would have a field trip, sometimes to the public pool, but there were also excursions to an Air Force base and the Caroline County Fair. Overall, the summer was a success for this group of children.
“Personally I think it’s definitely a well-needed program for this community,” said Programming Director Sharon Chester, who added that she felt good knowing the kids were going back to school “with just a little bit of help,” which would put them at ease in the formal learning environment.
“So, we’re looking forward to our school year,” she said.
Because the Empowerment Center was licensed by the state of Maryland for childcare in March of this year, they can now have a full after-school program for 45 children, beginning the second week of September. The kids will be bussed in from Choptank, Maple, and Sandy Hill Elementary Schools and arrive between 3:30 and 4pm. They’ll have a meal provided by their school, and then they’ll go online for 15-20 minutes of math and language arts instruction and review. The rest of the time will be used for socialization, including games.
Then, parents get their kids at 5:30. The staff is currently trying to find a way to take children home if the parents are unable to pick them up.
“There’s a lot of kids whose parents are either working or have no transportation,” said Barker, “so, we’d like them to be able to come.”
The Center has always had a focus on the city’s youth, but the staff hopes to get community events going there, as well. They would like to be using the building during the day, when kids are in school, with a goal of being in operation seven days a week. Already they have monthly soup days for senior citizens and people with disabilities, and they’re brainstorming some other events for those demographics. Additionally, they are considering a preschool program.
But, before they can do any of those things, they need an executive director. In fact, they’ve been looking for one for a while. While Sharon Chester had been doing a great job in her position, she is only part time. So, the board has decided the new hire could be part time, too.
“Once we have an executive director, we can expand, because that person would be here working and doing marketing and trying to get more grants,” said Barker. “We’re really dependent on donations and grants right now.”
And they’re always looking for more volunteers.