September 1, 1999

Sisters give back to
afterschool ministry that cared

___By Russ Dilday
___Buckner News Service
___HOUSTON--Catalina and Maria Ortega's lives have become meshed with the ministry and mission of a cooperative effort between a Baptist church and a social care ministry because the sisters started "hanging out" at an innovative after-school ministry.
CATALINA AND MARIA ORTEGA talk to teens participating in an innovative after-school program offered by South Main Baptist Church in Houston in conjunction with Buckner Children and Family Services. (Photos by Russ Dilday)
___Last year, the pair began attending the after-school program offered by South Main Baptist Church in Houston in conjunction with Buckner Children and Family Services. The program provides inner-city children and young adults a safe alternative to afternoons on the street. Since then, they have found a mission to help those around them as volunteer workers and tutors for other clients.
___Catalina, 20, a sophomore at the University of Houston, and her sister Maria, 22, had grown up in the area surrounding the church. Catalina said she heard about the after-school program through a friend. "I liked it and I started hanging out with my friends there," she said.
___Brian Pilgreen, who serves as program director for Buckner Children and Family Services in Houston, said that "hanging out" is one of the activities the ministry offers to attract youth from the neighboring streets.
___"Basically, we're built on a recreation model," he explained. "We have what we call casual empowerment at the after-school program. They can come in and choose what they want to do-- playing pool, one of our Nintendo games, doing arts and crafts, playing basketball, doing their homework, soccer or just talking with the other kids."
___He described the program, located in the church's recreation center, as a "visionary partnership set up between South Main and Buckner Children and Family services as an outreach ministry to this neighborhood. All the schools they're coming from are serving at-risk kids. That describes our kids, too."
___The program has "a nice balance of some structure but a lot of free time with plenty of things to do," he said. "We encourage the kids to bring in their homework, and we have someone to help them with that. It is absolutely a latchkey alternative."
___Pilgreen said the program is an attempt by South Main and Buckner to keep kids safe after they leave school. "Many of the kids in the area will hang out down at the schoolyard or the park, playing a lot of pickup gambling basketball games or shooting dice. Some are involved in drug deals or as drug lookouts or just bumming around looking for something to do. None of those are great alternatives."
___He recalled Catalina "was coming in originally because her friends were here. As she was participating as a client, she noticed the volunteers that were working here and inquired about the possibility of her being a volunteer."
___Maggie Pilgreen, Brian's wife, a volunteer, asked her about working as a volunteer.
___"I said, Why not? I'm already helping. So I thought I might as well do it formally. I
BRIAN PILGREEN (right), program director for Buckner's Houston operation, listens as sisters Catalina and Maria Ortega chat with two participants.
like to help people out-- whoever needs me. That's the way I feel."
___Catalina, who Pilgreen said is one of the ministry's "best volunteers," dove into the work at the recreation center, tutoring the younger children with homework, serving snacks, helping meet any needs they had--even closing the center at night.
___But Pilgreen noticed Catalina needed help financially as a university student. Born in Guererro, Mexico, she immigrated to the United States while in grade school with her parents and two sisters.
___Her mother works for a uniform service, and her father is a custodian at Texas Children's Hospital.
___Pilgreen helped her apply for a student scholarship available for qualifying Buckner clients through the ministry's Compass initiative. The scholarship helped pay for Catalina's tuition, fees and books.
___Her work at the program soon attracted the attention of her older sister, a senior at the University of Houston, who recalled, "I kept hearing about this program where she was volunteering. She told me to check it out. It was relaxed, with everyone playing games."
___Pilgreen said that Maria, struggling to meet school expenses in a part-time job, soon began volunteering at the center. He also helped her apply for a Compass scholarship as an intern. He said the sisters have brought a new dynamic to the program's outreach as role models.
___"A lot of the kids who grew up with these girls are thinking about college, where they were not before," he said. "Through the scholarship program, they know they can become Buckner volunteers. "We're showing these kids some alternatives to what they see out there, what the neighborhood and the world say can and cannot be done."
___Maria and Catalina also are aware of their role in the program as models.
___"A lot of these children that come to the program don't have that kind of encouragement or a role model, said Maria, who is in her final year of preparing to be an educator and begins as a student teacher in the fall.
___"I feel that a lot of the teenagers come here to have a good time, but also to get away from violence, crime and gangs," Maria noted. "For them to see me almost graduating from college, they go 'Wow!' They ask me, 'What are you going to do after you graduate?' When I tell them I'm going to be a teacher, it surprises them.
___"It's an encouragement for them to do something in their lives," she said. "Some of them are as old as I am. Most of these kids need just a little push. Having a tutor with them helps."
___Pilgreen said the Buckner scholarship's value also will reach far beyond the after-school program.
___ "We are going to be sending a teacher out. Buckner is going to be touching kids' lives through another person's life. Talk about giving back."


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