By Mike McClure

When Joyce Sessoms retired as a guidance counselor at Laurel High School, she wanted to do something to help local kids. She saw students were struggling in school and were dropping out. 

“I couldn’t retire and not do anything to help reduce some of those issues,” said Sessoms.

She retired in 2012 and in October 2013 she moved into the ARK Educational Center’s first and only location, at 208 East Front Street in Laurel. Sessoms serves as the organization’s executive director.

Visitors at the ARK Educational Center’s Jamboree check out the Children and Families First table. Submitted photo

The primary focus of ARK is to help students in K-12 master reading and math. Once Sessoms opened her doors 10 years ago she was inundated with students looking for help. At first she charged a fee for her services, but she doesn’t turn down local kids.

“God has provided for us,” said Sessoms, who added that the community has helped with donations. “It’s been a beautiful experience to be able to help so many students.”

Sessoms’ first student went on to become a peer tutor and is now an attorney.

Volunteers are essential to ARK’s operation. They serve as mentors and tutors to the students. Sessoms hand picks tutors to match students. They meet twice a week for an hour of tutoring.

“Without the tutors and volunteers there would be no ARK. They are the heroes,” Sessoms said. “There is no greater satisfaction than helping your fellow man. You go away and say ‘I helped somebody.’ No money can buy that. I get such satisfaction coming to work each day.”

At this year’s ARK banquet a second grader gave the welcome. He worked with his tutor and said it without looking at a paper. This experience built his self esteem. “This is what we do,” said Sessoms.

Once students enter the program they receive tutoring and mentorship for as long as they need, often staying with ARK until they graduate.

The tutors and students form a relationship with the tutors almost adopting the students and their families, sometimes giving them Christmas gifts or having them over for dinner.

“None of that was planned when we started,” said Sessoms.

The non-profit, like many other organizations, has needs. It has grown so much that it now needs a bigger space. Sessoms said more sponsors and volunteers are needed as well. Volunteers do not have to be tutors, they can also help with the organization’s events.

ARK has two fundraisers a year: a bake sale the week of Thanksgiving and a soup sale in January/February. Anyone interesting in volunteering or to see what items are needed for donations can call the ARK, go to their website or Facebook page.

The focus of ARK is to educate children. “We want them to be lifelong learners,” Sessoms said.

That focus also extends to parents. ARK works to help parents understand what their student needs, such as checking their homework or reading to them, through its parent connect class.

“When you empower that parent you have a greater chance of success,” said Sessoms.

Some parents work two jobs, some didn’t graduate from high school. Sessoms also knows what it’s like to be a single parent. She wants parents to know: “We’re here to assist you in any way that we can.”

ARK also offers teen groups for girls (Emerald Princesses) and boys (Boys to Men). The groups meet every other Saturday at ARK with around four men meeting with the boys and four women meeting with the girls.

The teens are able to talk about subjects such as sex, drugs, and gangs in the group. The men and women tell the students about the mistakes they made. Sometimes the two groups meet together.

Part of Sessoms’ original plan for ARK was to get transportation to take them places. Many area kids do not experience things outside of Laurel such as visiting museums, college campuses, or the opera.

“Until you experience it, then it becomes real for you,” Sessoms said. “Once you expose children to something it helps them make better decisions.”

Sessoms is looking for funds and transportation to take the students places. This summer they went to a drum show at Freeman Stage in Selbyville as part of the Summer Voyager Club, a six week-program at ARK.

Through the Summer Voyager Club, students were taught finances, personal esteem and hygiene, the Bible, journaling and writing. They also went swimming, skating, and visited a ranch with animals. 

Sessoms is also looking to start an ESL class at ARK.

Editor’s note- This is the second in a series of four stories on local organizations that the Star is collecting donations for during the month of September. Bring school supplies, new toys, personal hygiene items, and non perishable food items to the Star’s office at 951 Norman Highway in Seaford (Monday-Thursday, 8:30 a.m.-5 p.m.).

Next week- Cornerstone Community Center