Published in Central Florida Lifestyle, By Sarah Sekula
They make the most unlikely of friends. One: a jubilant, silver-haired Irish man, who has long been a fixture in the Central Florida community. The other, a 23-year-old raised in Parramore, the son of a career criminal.
Don Madden, Executive Director of Outreach Love, plays the part of omniscient sensei and Danny the role of young grasshopper. They met 13 years ago thanks to Outreach Love, a volunteer program which aids impoverished children in the Parramore neighborhood, many of whom are lagging behind in school.
When he was younger, most Saturdays Danny would wait for transportation outside the Callahan Center along with a slew of other kids. Outreach Love begins at 9 a.m., but many kids are so eager they show up at 8 a.m.
From there the children are shuttled over to First United Methodist Church of Orlando where the day begins with egg sandwiches, cereal and fresh fruit before a three-hour tutoring session.
“On weekends, most of these kids do not have three meals a day,” Madden explains. “They are living under challenging circumstances.”
Face to Face
Back at Outreach Love, after the morning tutoring sessions, community speakers often visit the kids to expand their horizons and expose them to new ways of thinking. Some Saturdays include field trips to museums or UCF.
Every Saturday each kid must give a quick oral presentation of what they learned. “The theory is that if a child can get up to speak in front of 80 people every week, he will not be intimidated in the classroom,” Madden explains.
The effort goes way beyond kick starting social skills, however. The children also learn respect and dignity. Many have excelled under the tutelage of the gung-ho outreach team and relationships are formed that extend beyond Saturday mornings as the volunteers become integral parts of their student’s lives.
Take High School Junior Natalie for example. Two years after aging out of the program, with the help of her tutor Nadine Mentor, she prepped for the SAT exam in the 7th grade at the invitation of Duke University. Or Queona, who maintains close ties with several of her former tutors as she navigates her way through high school.
Danny, on the other hand, learned things the hard way. Even though he had the Outreach Love support, he still gave into peer pressure. While a freshmen at Evans High School, Danny went out with some friends and held up a man at gun point. He was caught within an hour and a half and spent the next five years in jail.
For those 1,825 days Madden and Danny’s grandmother were the only visitors. “Every time I visited him in jail I’d said, Danny you can never come back here,” Madden explains. “And he’d say: ‘Trust me, I am never coming back here.’ I keep drilling into his head that you’ve got to play by the rules because the penalties are too severe.”
Today Danny, one of Madden’s all time favorite kids, is a free man and a productive citizen, carving out a life for himself and his wife. His up-and-down track record now seems on the perpetual upswing.
The moral of the story: a child left to navigate school without a home support system sooner or later may become lost. But with Outreach Love, “for a couple hours every week the child has the undivided attention of a caring adult,” says Madden.
The main hurdle this school year will be finding a permanent home for Outreach Love. Last year’s meeting space was turned over to the city for the performing arts center, and the group had to move the week before tutoring started. With 95-plus volunteers, 45 kids and a room full of donated supplies and materials, they could really use a place to spread out.
To get involved in Outreach Love, visit their Facebook page at Outreach Love, Inc. The group meets each Saturday morning throughout the school year. There is a waiting list of children anxious to be part of the program.
Contact Don Madden at email@example.com or 407-619-0693 for more info.