OKOLONA • June is usually a big month for Excel, Inc., but this year, the organization is working with smaller numbers in order to continue serving the community during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Director Sister Liz Brown said they look forward to starting their regular programs when they are able. Excel, Inc. began its adjusted summer learning program June 8. Students meet four weeks from 9 a.m. to noon Monday through Friday. The program helps students continue making learning gains over the summer and in some ways is an extension of the after school learning program, where they typically see 50 students in four sessions.

“We’re always full. We have a long waiting list on that program, so we know that’s a critical need in our community, to give families support in helping their children,” said Sister Nancy Scheck of Excel, Inc.

For safety, Brown and Scheck felt it was not possible to host large groups of people this year.

Scheck said they previously considered cancelling the program, but decided it was important to prevent summer slide and adapted the program.

They offered small groups of two to four at a time for private tutoring with Marcus Gladney, a middle school ELA and intervention instructor with the Okolona School District. This is his second year doing the program. Students range from third to sixth grade and practice foundational math and reading skills.

“I think the program is very good because it gives children the opportunity to be educated in a neutral setting without it being associated with grades, which a lot of time can deter or frighten them from taking education risks,” Gladney said. “This right here is just learning.”

Gladney said the program also allows kids to have the opportunity to meet their teacher face-to-face, which can be beneficial for students after doing distance learning during the school year.

Excel, Inc. previously opened its summer sewing program for Hispanic youth June 3, ending the program on June 17. The class, taught by Sister Reyna Helen Badillo, allowed students to sew, make birdhouses, play games and exercise. Badillo said it was her first time teaching the summer sewing class, but she has previously taught adult classes and beginning English classes. She was scheduled to teach Spanish to English speakers, but the class was postponed due to COVID-19.

Over the course of the class, youth baked, built birdhouses with Brown, and made their own face masks, pillow cases, headbands, and other crafts according to the student’s interest.

“We try to teach them skills that will help them in life,” Badillo said.

One student, 14-year-old Teresita Amador, said the program was a good way to spend time doing something productive during a time when she was becoming unproductive. She liked painting birdhouses and was also able to make face masks and pillows.

“I really like this program because ... I never thought that sewing could be a fun project, but it actually is and it’s really soothing. I just like how it feels to sew and also like seeing my friends,” Amador said.

Excel, Inc. opened its resale store June 3 and reopened its adult education program June 8. They are preparing for their Certified Nursing Assistants Program in partnership with Tenn-Tom Moving Youth Agency. Some of the classes occur at Excel, Inc., where students learn initial skills. The program has a 100 percent success rate.

The program was initially for ages 18 to 24, but due to the popularity, they began a program for 19 people ages 25 and up with funding received last year from the Appalachian Regional Commission. That program had a waiting list of 40 people, and they will open two more classes this summer starting June 27. Students will come for six Saturdays before graduating. For those who get in, a grant covers the costs of tuition to obtain a CNA certification at Itawamba Community College.

The organization is preparing to be part of the COVID-19 response efforts for those impacted in the area. Brown said they previously received a small grant to distribute food to those without resources, and they received a $25,000 grant to help with utilities and rent as part of United Way of Northeast Mississippi and Create’s COVID-19 Support Fund.

“We are so known in the community, and trusted, really, that we have access to a lot of people that might not otherwise (be reached),” Brown said.

Applicants from Chickasaw County can apply either online at unitedwaynems.org/covid19app or by calling 662-447-2030 if needed. Funds for applicants outside Chickasaw will be administered by S.A.F.E., Inc. Applicants must have a qualified need related to COVID-19 and live in the 17-county coverage area for United Way and the CREATE Foundation, according to United Way of Northeast Mississippi’s Facebook page.

Excel, Inc. connected with local electric companies to see if they have people to refer, and Brown said they have relied on their board, which is deliberately composed of members from different racial and economic backgrounds, to help see the need.

“Our board has been instrumental in pushing and developing all our programs according to the needs that they see in the community,” Brown said. “That’s the reason for our success for 35 years because some people know the needs and some people know the ways and means ... to pick up the gaps.”

danny.mcarthur@journalinc.com

Twitter: @Danny_McArthur_

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