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Creative Learning Center In Stamford Grows As It Goes

Joanie Merrell, left, runs a creative learning after-school program at First Presbyterian Church in Stamford.
Joanie Merrell, left, runs a creative learning after-school program at First Presbyterian Church in Stamford. Photo Credit: Contributed

STAMFORD, Conn. -- Joanie Merrell started out with a small class when she launched the Creative Learning @ FPC program at First Presbyterian Church in Stamford eight years ago. There was nowhere to go but up.

“We had one student and our goal was to have 10 by the end of the year and we did,’’ said Merrell, whose program now includes 26 students in grades K-5.

Merrell says the program is “a safe place for children to build relationships, enrich themselves in the arts and support children with reading and homework.” Yet that is only a brief description of the after-school program.

The enrichment program immerses elementary school students in art-related activities such as singing, projects, and piano lessons. The mostly-volunteer staff helps students with those activities but also supports them with reading and homework.

Being able to offer these opportunities to the children challenged Merrell initially, but is an experience that has positively impacted the community.

It began with church members visiting the community and identifying its most prominent needs. The two needs that Creative Learning aimed to accommodate were the achievement gap of minorities and the need for afterschool help.

As a nursery school and art teacher and a passion for children, Merrell dove into the project head on with Wendy Lacey, someone who had worked from Creative Learning from the very beginning.

The program’s growth stemmed from identifying children in need of assistance in school. “We connected to the schools so it would provide the buses and students would be identified that would benefit in the program, especially Spanish speaking families who needed support learning English,’’ Merrell said. “We had started with Roxbury. Davenport, and then Northeast for buses to be arranged.”

Merrell and church members gathered resources and furnishings from generous community partners, “Everything in the facility was donated. Pitney-Bowes was closing its old office and offered their furniture,’’ Merrell said. “They put it into a truck to deliver it here.”

Merrell’s worked in helping children read at Julia A. Stark Elementary School for two years that ended at 5 p.m. She thus designed the program to run until 6:30 to accommodate children of working parents first and foremost.

Additionally, by targeting minority children, it brought together a diverse group of kids and enhanced them in unforeseen ways. Perhaps the most beneficial unintended consequence was it brought together children with different ethnic backgrounds.

Merrell feels exposing diversity to the young students is one of the greatest accomplishments of the program. “One boy had said to me that he was afraid of people of a different race and their parents said not to talk to anyone who looked different from them,’’ Merrell said. “Then he eventually became best friends with someone of a different race. This has changed children in seeing each other with different eyes.”

The opportunity to experience diversity firsthand has benefitted children of all races and genders. “They have learned to cooperate with all kinds of people to give them a better outlook of diversity around them,’’ Merrell said.

It’s because of her active role in helping children and help of compassionate volunteers that they are able to perform and display their creativity in learning in a multitude of ways. What is also enjoyable about Creative Learning according to Merrell is the overall support and commitment to the community and the kids.

“The kids are my family. It’s clear they need love and support and it’s fulfilling to give them support,’’ Merrell said. “It’s also fulfilling knowing I’m helping the church and my commitment to Stamford. Those are the things all of us ought to be doing.”

Tena-Lesly Reid is a high school student at Academy of Information, Technology and Engineering in Stamford.

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