scott miller

Jimmy McQuilkin | Urban Promise

scott miller
Jimmy McQuilkin | Urban Promise

Story: Shawn Bowers Buxton  Photos: Yash Mistry

Just before lunch time at UrbanPromise, children are walking through hallways laughing. Many high five Executive Director Jimmy McQuilkin, stop to give him a hug or report on their day.

As we peek in on summer camp sessions, it’s easy to witness leadership flourishing among the high school-aged mentors known as StreetLeaders who are key to the program’s success. Many of these students went through the program themselves as elementary and middle school students. Now they mentor as classroom tutors who create and adapt their own lesson plans on subjects such as engineering, arts and coding. They command their classrooms of 10-15 students with a sense of servant leadership and grace.

Begun in 2013, UrbanPromise Charlotte is the ninth location of its kind in the world, but each site operates autonomously. Even though the organization still in its early stages, it is growing quickly, with a new location on Freedom Drive slated to open in November. Its focus is to reach younger children through enriching programs and equip high school leaders with spiritual, academic, and social development tools to ultimately restore community. The program’s simple mission statement: reach a child, raise a leader, restore community.

UrbanPromise’s six-week summer camp at its South Boulevard campus is aimed at stopping “summer slide,” a term coined for the loss of learning that happens in summer. This is particularly devastating in reading and writing, where especially for low-income families, students often return to school knowing less than they did when they finished the previous year.

Summer camp helps close that achievement gap, but also helps improve performance in other academic areas. Campers form meaningful and positive relationships with caring mentors, experiment and learn in an environment where mistakes are okay, and connect to their faith through authentic experiences shared by the StreetLeaders. This model allows for genuine transformation, not just in the campers, but in the high school students employed to be counselors, tutors, and mentors to these children.

The bonds formed between StreetLeaders and students doesn’t end at summer camp. These relationships are sustained year-round through the afterschool program.

StreetLeaders go on to become invested in giving back as college interns and volunteers. Ginger Duchi is one such example. A rising sophomore at University of North Carolina Charlotte (UNCC), Duchi is a first generation student, double majoring in chemistry and theatre. As a college mentor for UrbanPromise, she is a sounding board for StreetLeaders’ ideas. She is also producing a play with the campers this summer. “I am eternally grateful to be given the chance to create something,” Duchi says. Working with these students, she says, is “giving back to a younger version of myself.”

Sara Hernandez is in her second year as a StreetLeader and aspires to major in education. Giving back to her community is part of her living her faith. Hernandez points out a crucial component of leadership – “if we don’t do it, nobody else will” and acknowledges that the program has helped her leadership development. “As I help them [students] grow, I’m growing myself,” she says. Her favorite part of the summer camp program are the spiritual development classes, where she’s able to share her personal experience and be vulnerable with her students and peers. The classes emphasize that “each child is loved and deeply valued,” Hernandez says. Each week campers focus on a core value, like patience, and study it both through Christian scripture and through “real talk” with their street leaders. The authenticity of experiences shared by StreetLeaders is invaluable, McQuilkin notes. “Faith is so much more caught than taught,” he says.

Davion Alexander, in his fourth year as a StreetLeader, says playing a part of his students’ growth and development is fundamentally important to him. “It has made me want to aspire to be more than just average,” he says. The measure of personal success for Alexander is the ability to give back to his community. He articulates one of UrbanPromise’s best outcomes in this statement. Through service to his community, Alexander is growing in his leadership potential and aspiring to greatness defined in terms of community. Better yet, Alexander sees his self-worth and models it for the program’s students. It’s a win all around.