When Jari Tomlin and her family moved to Clarksdale, Mississippi, from Atlanta, Georgia, to support her ailing grandmother, she wondered if she’d ever fit in. The transitionwas difficult; she was teased at school for her Georgian accent and for being shorter than other students.
“I hated school. I cried every day, and I missed a lot of classes,” explained Jari.
Then she was introduced to Spring Initiative – an after-school and summer program for underserved students in the Mississippi Delta-region – that helped her academically, socially and emotionally.
Spring Initiative offers traditional academic programming and supports, but also attends to the socio-emotional needs of participating students within small, intensive cohorts. Summer provides more time for college exploration and tours, a hallmark of the program, as well as group trips.
The college tours have helped build Jari’s confidence. “Visiting colleges makes me believe in myself – that I can be anything if I put my mind to it.”
Jari is a member of the first Spring UP! Cohort that began when the participating students were in sixth through eighth grade. They are now rising high school seniors readying for college and matriculated freshmen and sophomores. The program currently has four cohorts and plans to expand further.
“Spring,” as the students affectionately call the program, became a safe haven and a second home for Jari, now a senior excited for her own future in college. It is the place where she found her inner confidence.
Today, Jari is the definition of gregarious – enthusiastic to meet new people and talk about her hopes of attending college to study business.
But when Jari first started at Spring, she was withdrawn and quick to lash out, she said.
Jari credits the Spring Initiative staff for helping her become the confident young woman she is today. She says they provided endless support and patience; most of all, they believed in her potential. She is also quick to credit them for helping her find her passions, embrace her education and feel safe among others.
“At Spring, we are a family. We’re not just a regular after-school program. We all grew up together; we grew strong together. If something in my family goes wrong, I have a second family to support me,” says Jari. “And best of all, I can be myself there.”
Anja Thiessen, co-founder of the Spring Initiative, says the program goes the extra mile every day to ensure that “every child has the opportunities that he or she deserves.”
Summer at Spring Initiative: The Happiest Time of the Year
Anja says that summer is the “happiest time of year” at the Spring Initiative.
In the mornings, cohorts have intense, individualized, academic programming to combat summer slide – the loss of academic gains over summer break – but the afternoons are reserved for enrichments, college tours, and day trips to places like the skating rink, museums and the movies, or longer explorations outside of the state.
For the oldest cohort that includes Jari, this summer meant a 10-day trip traversing national parks and visiting the University of New Mexico. Jari and her peers toured the Painted Desert at the Petrified Forest National Park, Monument Valley, the Rocky Mountains and the Grand Canyon. They even spotted a moose.
Their visit to the University of New Mexico was just one of many college tours the group has experienced through Spring Initiative over the years. College exploration and preparation is a significant part of the program, as well as placing students in summer internships.
Summer trips often represent the first time that students have traveled outside of the Mississippi Delta region, or are able to spend extended time enjoying nature. Those opportunities have meant a great deal to Jari.
“Because of Spring, I have been able to see so much more of the world, like Washington, D.C., and New York City and visit colleges like Emory University, where I would love to go,” she says.
“This most recent trip was amazing. I love nature. The sky, the sand, the rocks, the waters – it’s like a big release from your worries. Your eyes open and you see all the positive things in the world. I never felt so free in my life.”