BY COURTNEY ENLOW HALL
Molly Berendt was 23 years old when she started the program that would change both her life and the lives of Springfield’s homeless children. Beginning as a ministry at Douglas Avenue Methodist Church, the Compass program – now Compass for Kids – sought to support homeless children at Dubois Middle School. Within a year, this volunteer project became her career. Five years later, it has expanded into an entire nonprofit organization.
Compass was an after-school program held at churches in several neighborhoods when it became part of Family Service Center in 2011. The after-school program provides transportation to the students, as well as an evening meal, mentorship and classes. Compass works with around 200 kids who are in low-income, at-risk situations, including homelessness, foster care and substandard housing.
The program has since expanded to include a summer camp, Camp Compass. The camp provides more than fun summer days; its purpose is to ensure children maintain the education provided during the school year.
“Low-income kids – especially homeless kids – lose a lot of ground over the summer months that they’re not in school,” Berendt says. “This program helps provide necessary tools and enrichment so they don’t fall behind.”
In addition to education, the summer camp program provides much-needed consistency for children whose home situations are less stable. The program is set up like a typical school day, with breakfast and lunch in between reading, math and life skills classes, as well as field trips and swimming.
In 2016, Compass for Kids went out on its own. The parting of ways was the best decision for both groups: Family Service Center’s focus is fostering and adoption, whereas Compass is wholly dedicated to homeless and at-risk youth, requiring a great deal of community engagement and fundraising. As an independent and distinct entity, Compass now has its own board of directors.
“You can only imagine the paperwork and filing that went into this, and there’s no way I could do it myself,” Berendt says. “Our board worked tirelessly to make sure we had our ducks in a row to make this happen. I’m just so grateful for our board of directors and volunteers and all the local organizations we partner with. This has become a community-wide effort.”
Those efforts have opened the door for expanded programs. Camp Compass, formerly a four- to five-week program, is now six weeks long, thanks to funding from the United Way.
“Six weeks is the most effective amount of time for a program like this,” Berendt says.
Compass is seeking additional funding to add 40 children to the usual 80 summer spots available. The after-school program has expanded to five elementary schools: Blackhawk, DuBois, Harvard Park, Graham and McClernand. With the exception of Graham, which is a year-round school, all of the 125 after-school program participants are invited to Camp Compass.
Along with the summer camp’s usual theme weeks – focusing on art, health and STEM education – Camp Compass has added new ones such as Abraham Lincoln week and a cultural appreciation week. This is thanks, in part, to the interests and needs of the kids themselves.
“They were interested in the election and racism this past year, so we brought in people to discuss those issues,” Berendt says. “They love camp. They talk about it all school year. They love sharing with other kids, and they thrive in the program.”
Further expansion is in the pipeline for Compass. Thanks to a grant from the Young Philanthropists, next year, Compass will begin piloting a home visit program at Blackhawk Elementary to better engage parents of Compass children with their teachers and school administration.
“Those are the families who are harder to reach and connect with school,” Berendt says.
Compass will work with the parents and teachers, including providing transportation to parent-teacher conferences and events, to help make parents feel they can walk into the school and not be intimidated.
While Berendt is the executive director and developed the program, she is quick to share any accolades.
“I’m not the one who should be getting recognized; it’s Compass and the hundreds of people who make it happen. If you look back to 2011, probably thousands,” she said. “I’m constantly grateful to this community; that’s why my husband and I decided to buy a house and stay here.”
Berendt points out that Compass is only able to exist because there is a need for it.
“But there’s also such a response,” she said, “and it’s such a genuine, heartfelt response.”
Photo By Terry Farmer