ANDERSON — When the final bell rings at Erskine Elementary School each Monday and Wednesday, the learning doesn’t end for about 40 students.
Instead, they gather up their books and supplies and troop across West 60th Street to Whetstone Christian Church, where Val Petry and a host of volunteers are waiting to provide help with homework and extra tutoring, as well as engage them in a variety of songs, games and other activities.
The program, known as A Heart For Kids, is the creation of Petry, a lifelong Pendleton resident who spent several years as a hospice nurse before her three children were born. Petry and her husband, Jeff, attended church in Anderson and, with three young boys, becoming involved in the church’s children’s ministry was a natural step to take.
“One thing led to another, I just kind of started helping out as a volunteer, and that led into being more involved in an outreach Wednesday night program,” Petry said. “From there it led into directing and overseeing a children’s ministry.”
Logic seemed to dictate to Petry that when her youngest son started kindergarten, she would resume her nursing career. But she also saw a little of herself and her family background in the children she was helping.
“I just began to get exposed to what happens when you get invested in the life of a kid that really needs your help,” she said. “So when it came time for me to think about going back to being a nurse, I just really felt like God was saying, ‘That’s not what I have for you. I’ve got something different for you.’”
Petry began to explore what it would take to bring academic and spiritual support to neighborhoods near several elementary schools around the city. Last year, she spent three months raising funds and signing up volunteers to launch A Heart for Kids. The first session happened last September with about 20 students; their current roster at Erskine Elementary includes about 40 kids, with 35 to 40 volunteers preparing snacks, leading game times and providing tutoring.
Erskine Elementary Principal Scott Merkel said teachers recommend students for the program, emphasizing those who would benefit from extra tutoring and interaction with adults after school.
"It’s been a wonderful program this year. Val and her volunteers have done a tremendous job of making sure kids are safe and valued," Merkel said.
Petry says she would like to see the program expand to other elementary schools, connecting them with nearby churches to offer similar programming and further a sense of community in neighborhoods throughout Anderson.
The Herald Bulletin met recently with Petry to find out more about her vision for A Heart for Kids.
THB: How does someone with a nursing degree end up tutoring elementary school students?
VP: “My full intention was to go back and be a nurse when the kids got in school, but what ended up happening is I had a wonderful opportunity along with a bunch of people in the church to work together. A lot of the kids that were coming to the church just needed that extra support — kind of like me when I was growing up, I came from a broken home, so I kind of have a tender heart toward kids who might come from a single-family home or where parents might be struggling to pay the bills, things like that."
THB: Why are the hours after school and before dinner so important?
VP: “When I met with Mr. Merkel, one of the things that he shared with me was that a very large percentage of the students that attend there are on free or reduced lunches. With that in mind, it kind of gives you an idea of maybe that, you know, the parents might be struggling at home — not all of them, but some of them might be struggling at home trying to just pay the bills and buy food and those kinds of things. One of the things that he really confirmed in my heart was that these kids would really benefit from extra support, especially if it was right after school. So it just really made sense to be able to do that right after school.”
THB: What is the most gratifying thing about what you do?
VP: “There’s a couple things. Probably the most gratifying in regards to the children is really just building those relationships with the kids. The very first day we pick them up, they’re all nervous, they’re not very motivated to do their homework, they’re not really much engaging, but now, seven or eight months down the road, to just see how they’ve grown and matured, that’s really gratifying, and I think just knowing at the end of the day that you have really tried to make a difference in the lives of so many kids. The other thing that’s super gratifying for me is just having the privilege to be able to work alongside — it’s never just about one person — in order to serve the kids that we’re serving, it’s taking close to 40 volunteers, and it’s very gratifying to be able to serve alongside so many people who care just as deeply about the kids.”