June 23, 2022 by HCDE Communications
For Mars Burren, a 21-year-old volunteer coordinator for HYPE Freedom School, spending the summer working with underserved youth is more than a job or a way to pad the resume—it’s a way to give back to the community that makes them feel seen.
“I went to an integrated school. As a student in advanced classes, I was the only Black student in my classes. I did not feel very seen, especially being a Black trans person. It felt especially isolating,” said Burren. “HYPE made me feel very normal. It was the place that I felt very much like just another scholar.”
From ages four to 15, Burren spent summers reading, playing games, developing a socially conscious mind, and building lasting relationships through HYPE. However, aging out of the program was not the end of the road.
“I proceeded to work at HYPE starting the summer between my sophomore and junior year when I was about 16 years old,” said Burren. “I’ve worked here pretty much every summer since.”
HYPE Freedom School, formerly Waymaker Life Strategies, Inc., has served the Sunnyside, South Park, and southeast Houston communities for over 20 years. HYPE provides an integrated reading curriculum that includes conflict resolution, problem-solving, and social action through the Freedom Schools model offered by the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF), a nonprofit child advocacy organization. The model is designed to help scholars build self-efficacy and confidence in their learning abilities.
CDF Freedom Schools programs support children and families through high-quality academic enrichment, parent and family involvement, civic engagement and social action, intergenerational leadership development, nutrition, health, and mental health. Currently, there are more than 150 program sites across the country.
HYPE, the first CDF Freedom Schools program in Houston, offers a six-week cultural literacy enrichment program every summer. From 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., Monday through Friday, “scholars”—as children are referred to in the program—enjoy “drop everything and read” time, playing games, asking and answering thought-provoking questions, and discussing events that develop their awareness social of issues.
A fundamental element of HYPE’s vision is to provide books to K-12 scholars that reflect their own images of Black and other underrepresented people’s experiences, accomplishments, and perspectives.
“We talk about how young people go to school every day and see books with characters that they may or may not be able to relate to,” said Brown. “During summer, we have an opportunity to expose our scholars to literature where maybe a mom and grandmother are raising a child as opposed to a mom and a dad. Maybe it’s a father who works from home or works overnight. They have an opportunity to see family structures and culturally relevant issues and ways of life that help them realize they are seen, heard, and valued.”
Burren shares a personal sentiment on culturally relevant literature.
“I think HYPE is critically important to scholars feeling, seeing, and understanding that literacy is not just something where they are side characters, background people, and accessories. It helps them understand that they can be the main characters in their own stories and that they matter,” said Burren.
To keep its scholars engaged in reading, HYPE sends a book home with every child weekly to add to their home libraries. These books, along with the CDF Freedom Schools curriculum and training, are purchased with the help of the County Connections Youth Summer Initiative, a grant offered through a partnership between Harris County Department of Education’s Center for Afterschool, Summer and Enrichment and Harris County. County Connections infuses funding to nonprofits for programming that will take place from June 6 to Aug. 26.
Through the 2022 County Connections grant, HYPE received $20,000 from Harris County Precinct 1.
Brown says the initiative holds far more value than the dollar amounts awarded to organizations like hers.
“When you think of having an opportunity to have your elected officials invest in the lives of our scholars, it allows us to help our scholars realize that there are people who care about them,” she said. “It highlights that there are advocates out there that they might not ever meet but who are pushing for and wanting to see them shine.”
To learn more about the Center for Afterschool, Summer and Enrichment and resources like County Connections, visit www.hcde-texas.org/afterschool-zone.