Story by Ellen Phillips
Photos by Ashley Yeaman
Khadijah Lindsey doesn’t want to be homecoming queen. Sitting in the Community Training Center like she does every Tuesday and Thursday, she shares her woes: She was nominated by her Waco High classmates against her will and dreads the prospect of winning, contrary to the common dreams of high school senior girls.
Rather, Khadijah is working toward her future, placing her dreams beyond the next popularity contest. Since her freshman year, she has been in bridge program called Upward Bound at McLennan Community College, taking summer classes and earning scholarships. After graduation, she will conclude the program by attending a year at MCC before continuing college. One day, she hopes to be an accountant.
Khadijah is also in a work program at her school. She needed another job to complete the required hours, so it seemed natural to turn to a place that has been a part of her life since her childhood.
Khadijah is a student worker at the Community Training Center, a nonprofit Christian organization in Waco that offers free after-school tutoring to students. She has attended the program since kindergarten.
Then her job was to complete her homework and learn from the teachers. Now her job is to tutor the older elementary students and help the same teachers that once helped her with her homework.
“I was struggling during my elementary school days with my speech,” Khadijah said. “The teachers helped me with my speech, with my writing. That’s how I made it to the 12th grade. Without them, I don’t know where I’d be right now.”
Though it has had many teachers and volunteers through the years, one man has molded the center since its beginning – its founder, the Rev. Gladstone Knight.
In 1981, Knight said a prayer. And this prayer was important. Through it, Knight felt called to Waco. At the time, he had already made his way from the U.S. Virgin Islands, his home, to Kansas to finish his bachelor’s degree. But now Knight felt God’s call to Baylor University.
“After completing my prayer, I picked up the phone and called Baylor,” Knight said. “That’s how it got started, through prayer.”
During college, he worked toward his master’s degree in religion. He also volunteered in the community with other students.
“As Baylor students still do, we became involved in the community, and certain afternoons we would go to the school campuses – public school campuses – and meet with the students,” Knight said. “Kids would come, and we would play with them and serve them snacks. We’d have a good time doing it.”
After graduating in August 1987, Knight continued to work with children in the community. This is when the miracles began, Knight said. He needed somewhere to meet, and he found a house on Chestnut Steet in East Waco. He needed the money to buy it, and the bank approved his loan despite Knight’s lack of collateral.
“The bank was exercising faith with me, you know,” Knight said. “That’s how it got started. That’s why I want to be sure that what I’m saying is not misunderstood or misconstrued. It’s not Gladstone Knight doing it. It is God doing it. God knows how to work things out if you’re willing.”
After establishing the program in the house on Chestnut, more students began to come. As word spread, teachers and members of nearby churches began volunteering. Knight fondly recalls the conclusion of one summer Vacation Bible School to which nearly 250 children came.
“We had to put them inside sitting everywhere, outside on the porch, outside in the backyard, between the houses,” Knight said. “Oh, dear. They were getting restless. We had outgrown the house now.”
In 1990, the program moved to a church building on Elm Avenue. When a neighboring building became available, the Community Training Center finally settled into its current location and the church building now houses the Waco Community Baptist Church. Independent from the Community Training Center, Knight is now the pastor of the church.
On Oct.31, 1991, the Center was incorporated as a nonprofit organization. It has continued since, existing on grants and private donations.
During the school year, the Center offers tutorials from 5 to 8 p.m every Tuesday and Thursday. Students arrive from the surrounding schools, including Kate Ross Elementary, Cesar Chavez Middle School and Waco High School. Some children arrive in the center’s van, picked up from school by Knight, while others are dropped off.
Once inside, students separate by grades and bring out their homework, do provided assignments or read a book. The teachers sit with students, explaining lessons to them and answering questions.
The center also runs its program in the summer, beginning in July. In addition to tutorials that prepare students for the next grade, the teachers bring in professionals from the community to speak to the kids, including a policewoman, a comedian and employees from H-E-B and Community Bank.
Over the last 24 years, the many volunteers and teachers who have come and gone have been the lifeblood of the program. Currently, there are four certified teachers who also work in schools in the community in addition to their work at the center.
“We needed teachers and here we have four teachers who are Christians – each one is a Christian,” Knight said. “They’re committed. They realize that this is the work of the Lord.”
In 2004, Wanda Burnhart’s interest in the program was sparked by an advertisement in the paper. When she came by the center to inquire about the position, she began working the same day.
One thing Burnhart has learned through 30 years of teaching experience is the importance of students’ pride in their accomplishments.
“We’ve had fewer kids fail this past year than we’ve had before,” Burnhart said. “We get them to bring their scores for their grades, and we record that. Sometimes where they come from, it’s not cool to be smart. We want them to feel proud of their grades because that’s important.”
Lillie Freeman has been with the program for the past four years. She sees the benefit of developing problem-solving skills in the students and ensuring that they thoroughly understand new concepts.
“My philosophy toward working with these students is empowerment,” Freeman said, with clear conviction. “I want them to be able to navigate independently. I try to build upon what they have, using it as a foundation to take them further and broaden their horizons. I try to empower with different strategies, a toolbox of strategies. With that, they can move toward independence.”
Since she began working at the program three years ago, Sheree Goodman has tried to give students the support she did not have in grade school. Goodman uses her experiences as motivation to see students in the program as individuals with different strengths and weaknesses.
“What I love about teaching is being there for them and providing them with instructions that I wish I had when I was growing up,” Goodman said.
“I have a learning disability – I’m dyslexic. I remember being in elementary school and not being tested, but labeled. I know there are various ways of learning. As a teacher, I give them those strategies that I’ve learned, as far as being dyslexic, to break things down when things are flying over their heads. All kids are kids, but they learn differently.”
Regina Cotton works for Waco ISD Parents as Teachers, a program that equips and teaches parents how to build a home that helps children develop until they start school. Cotton brings many of her social work skills and gifts that she uses in her daily job into the center.
“I like to work with kids because there’s a need,” Cotton said. “I like to go over prekindergarten skills with them because a lot of time they don’t already have them. I teach them basic things that Mom should have taught them. If they hold the pencil correctly, sit up correctly, it makes a difference when they’re reading and writing.’”
While the center has developed much since 1987, maintaining regular attendance continues to be its biggest problem. As students get older, they face many other after-school options – sports, band, organizations or just hanging out with friends.
Knight gives older students, like Khadijah, responsibilities and jobs to encourage their involvement in the program until their graduation.
Knight still sees students around town who have graduated from the program.
“We run into each other,” Knight said. “People come up to me and call me by name. They remember me, but when I’m teaching them at that age and that size, it’s one thing. They say, ‘Do you remember me?’ I say, ‘Help me now…’” Knight recalled the conversations with a laugh.
Much time has passed since the Community Training Center’s founding, but many things about the program have stayed the same, including an unwavering commitment to the children and to the Lord.
“As you teach the students, you look in their eyes. You never know who you’re teaching,” Knight said. “So we just give them our best as though this is our last chance to communicate with them. And it’s all for the Lord.”
With a Christian focus, the teachers at the Center welcome all students and try to empower them to overcome barriers in this world.
The mission of the center is summed up by a mural painted on the north side of the church. It depicts Jesus, arms wide, encompassed by the words of Matthew 9:14: “Let the children come to me and do not stop them.”