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Marian Wright Edelman
Published: 14 June 2006

I recently returned from the Children's Defense Fund's Haley Farm in Clinton, Tenn., and a visit to the annual National Training for Servant-Leader Interns for the fund's Freedom Schools program.

The Freedom Schools program is a partnership between the Children's Defense Fund and local community organizations, churches, universities and schools to provide literacy-rich summer and after-school programs. The fund's Freedom Schools summer program serves children 5 to 18 years old for five to eight weeks and integrates reading, conflict resolution and social action in an activity-based curriculum that promotes social, cultural and historical awareness. In summer 2006, there are Children's Defense Fund Freedom Schools programs in 49 cities and 25 states serving approximately 7,000 children.

The Freedom Schools programs are staffed primarily by college-age adults who are committed to making life better for children. These are our servant-leaders, and this year 900 young adults are serving children this way. Their week-long intensive training session at Haley Farm prepares these young leaders to provide an enriching experience for the children they serve and to be part of a future generation of servant-leaders.

Their incredible energy, enthusiasm and dedication make them powerful role models for the students in their programs. And the strong ethic of service is always evident across generations at Freedom School sites, as community leaders support these young servant-leaders while they teach and mentor the younger children.

Our Freedom Schools program is proudly rooted in the American civil rights movement. Reborn in 1993 by the Children's Defense Fund's Black Community Crusade for Children program, today's Freedom Schools model draws on the vision, philosophy and experience of those who conducted Freedom Schools as part of the "Mississippi Freedom Summer Project" of 1964. In the spirit of sankofa, a West African word that translates to mean "We must go back and reclaim our past so we can move forward," we affirm our history as we move forward in sustaining, enhancing, and expanding the Children's Defense Fund Freedom Schools program.

At Freedom Schools sites, children are engaged in activities that nurture their minds, bodies and spirits. In the classroom, they read books that celebrate a wide variety of cultures and experiences. Children, parents and staff members are introduced to a superb collection of books that reflect their own images and focus on the theme "I Can and Must Make a Difference!"

This collection of books is part of an integrated reading curriculum where books, activities, field trips and games all relate to and reinforce one another. Servant-leaders use the curriculum to teach children conflict resolution and critical thinking skills, engage children in community service and social action projects, encourage children to participate in art and athletic activities and help children to develop a program finale where every child is given the chance to shine. Any visitor to a Freedom Schools site will see children reading and being read to, singing, dancing, laughing and learning in a safe, supportive and loving setting.

This year, the Children's Defense Fund's Freedom Schools program has played an especially important role in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Soon after the storm, thanks to private funders and partnerships with two historically Black colleges and universities, the YMCA and several mayors, the fund was able to begin operating Emergency Freedom Schools after-school sites in Mississippi for 500 evacuee children with evacuee college-age teacher-mentors, providing homework help, reading enrichment, art and music and coordinated tax and benefits help to their families.

This summer, 13 additional sites will open in Louisiana to serve more of Katrina's storm-battered children. These Children Defense Fund Freedom Schools sites will be secure, nurturing havens for children traumatized by multiple losses and continuing uncertainty about their futures.

For children enrolled in the Freedom Schools program, it's going to be a terrific Freedom Summer. To learn more about the CDF Freedom Schools program, visit www.childrensdefense.org.

Marian Wright Edelman is founder and president of the Children's Defense Fund.

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