Russell schoolhouse transformed into after-school activity center

By Lisa Burnett Originally Published September 15, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.
Updated September 13, 2013 at 2:52 p.m.
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PHOTO BY: Rusty Hubbard

Dana McKinney, from the left, Brenda Poole, Renee Garr, Davissa Brimer, Linda Jennings and Lois Blanton are volunteering for the after-school program at the old Russell school.

RUSSELL — When Renee Garr, a lifetime Russell resident, retired in May after 39 years of teaching, she wasn’t ready to give up working with children, so she has decided to start an after-school program for local students.

“I wasn’t ready to leave the kids just yet,” Garr said.

So, Garr, along with other teachers in the community, came together to find a way to help the students. She and Davissa Brimer, who is a teacher in Bald Knob, applied for a 21st Century Community Learning Center grant through the Arkansas Department of Education.

“We’ll get $60,000 over five years,” Garr said.

This money is being used to transform an old, vacant schoolhouse in the Russell community into a center for students in kindergarten through the 12th grade to participate in after-school activities and have a place to hang out after school.

Garr, along with Dana McKinney, Lois Blanton, Brenda Poole, Linda Jennings and Brimer, are the core volunteers who have devoted their time and efforts to make this program the best it can be.

The six women from White County are volunteering with the after-school program, called the After School Elites. Elites is an acronym that stands for “extended learning ignited through exciting studies.”

All of the women who are volunteers in the program are or were teachers and will help the students with homework or tutor them in subjects with which they need extra assistance.

From 3:15-4:15 p.m., kindergartners through 12th-graders will have tutoring and homework help available at their schools.

At 4:15, students will be transported by bus to the schoolhouse for snacks and extracurricular activities, such as dance, theater and gardening.

This restoration has given Garr’s sisters, Poole and Jennings, a way to reminisce because they attended school in the building.

“I went to school here from first to sixth grade; then [the students] were moved to Bald Knob,” Jennings said.

Aside from a few get-togethers held in the building occasionally, the old Russell Schoolhouse sat vacant from 1964 until about a month ago, when renovation began on the building.

Garr said she, along with her fellow volunteers and seven men on work release from the White County Jail, began working on the schoolhouse.

In just a month, the schoolhouse has been transformed into a welcoming learning environment for the students of White County.

“It’s unreal what [the schoolhouse] used to look like,” Garr said.

One room is specifically designed for recreation, with game tables and board games at the students’ disposal, surrounded by a paint job consisting of smiley faces, butterflies, peace signs and a painted sun that covers the floor.

“[The inmates] want to do this for the kids,” Garr said. “They have all talked about how this [project] has changed their lives.”

The group of men includes Bob Williams, Gary Saylors, Ross Kendrick, Jay Mefford, Coty Cook and Cody Salmon.

“[The volunteers] treat us like we’re family,” Williams said.

The restoration project has given the inmates a chance to connect with the community and the women who are in charge of the project.

Restoring the schoolhouse is helping them find a way to turn their lives around, Garr said of the inmates.

“[The volunteers] cook for us and encourage us,” Mefford said. “Words can’t describe how great they are.”

Garr has been in charge of the restoration project, and Poole said this has given her sister a way to come out of her shell. Poole explained that before starting work on the after-school program, her sister was shy, and this project has given her the opportunity to talk to others about her devotion to the program and ask others to help.

Garr has gone to stores across the state asking for donations of money and supplies for the program because the volunteers have to make the grant money stretch as far as it can.

“This project has changed her (Garr), and she has done an amazing job,” Poole said.

The After School Elites program will kick off on Wednesday and continue throughout the school year.

“I can’t wait for the kids to get here,” Garr said.

Online Reporter Lisa Burnett can be reached at 501-378-3887 or lburnett@arkansasonline.com.

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