Jones town

24th October 1997, 1:00am
Reva Klein


Jones town
Two years ago Calvin Jones gave up his secure teaching job and moved his family into a disused crack house in northern Florida. Reva Klein tells why.

Two years ago, an invisible cloud of despair and hopelessness hovered over the Busbee Quarters public housing project in Ocala, northern Florida. Many residents of the rows and rows of identical three-roomed wooden houses in the no-go area - most of them black single mothers - wouldn't let their kids venture beyond the postage stamp-sized front porches. Shootings and stabbings were common. So too was substance abuse among the mothers and violent crime among the older children. The police steered clear.

But one night, in a different part of Ocala, teacher Calvin Jones dreamed that the Lord came to him and told him to "go down to Busbee Quarters and save the children".

Jones, who looks more like an American football player than a teacher, took the dream seriously. He gave up his secure teaching job and moved himself, his wife Catherine and 15-year-old daughter Calvis from their comfortable home into a disused crack house in Busbee.

It was winter and there was "no heating, no hot water, no furniture, no nothing", recalls Catherine, who used to work for the Ocala Police Department emergency services. "We slept on pallets (stacks of blankets).But we knew that just our presence was having an impact on the neighbourhood. People saw that they weren't alone anymore, that someone from the outside world cared."

The Joneses only source of income is from their eldest daughter Cecilia. She jacked in her job as a radio presenter in Virginia when her father told her about the Busbee project, moved back in with her family and found herself a local job as a social worker. "I knew it was the right thing to do, to come back to help them."

The family worked tirelessly until, on July 15, 1995, the Skill Day Center was opened, as Catherine put it, "to rescue and salvage as many children as we can". Since then, as many as 50 kids of all ages cram into the tiny building every day after school to get help with their schoolwork and general literacy and numeracy skills. Their mothers come during the day for the help they need to acquire a General Equivalency Diploma - equal to a high school diploma. According to a survey that Calvin Jones carried out at the beginning of the project, not a single adult among the 46 families in Busbee had graduated from high school; all were functionally illiterate.

As well as daily sessions during the school year, the centre runs a summer enrichment programme, where older children learn basic social skills and things like how to write a CV. This past summer, volunteers from Indiana's Notre Dame University came to work alongside the Joneses. There are also special health education programmes on issues like avoiding pregnancy.

The centre is free. The only entrance requirement is that the children bring homework. Tuition is given by Calvin, Catherine and, when they get home from work and school, Cecilia and Calvis. A couple of times a week, volunteer tutors come from the local secondary school and the community.

The children depend on the Joneses in a way that they can't depend on their families or their schools for help. Calvin explains: "Some mothers are desperate to get their kids labelled mentally retarded so that they can get an extra $480 (Pounds 300) a month from the state."

Those who aren't branded with learning difficulties fare no better from the schools. "The kids from Busbee aren't allowed to take national tests (equivalent to British national tests) by their schools because their poor marks would reflect badly on the school. When teachers look at a child's address and see Busbee, they don't expect much."

But at the centre, the Joneses expect a lot. Each child is given the love and attention that the family feels he or she needs to realise his or her potential. They are also given a belief in themselves that insists that they succeed. "One of our philosophies," says Calvin, "is that if a child won't learn the way you teach, you have to teach the way the child learns. In the school system, it's the opposite. But when kids are growing up in this environment, when they're not being socialised and have been raised with no structure in their lives, learning a math concept may take four weeks when the school is only prepared to give them four hours."

The closest school, Evergreen Elementary, has seen many Busbee children come and go. Says principal Chris Mendola: "The community has really changed because of the work of the Joneses. We saw an almost immediate effect when it opened. The pupils demand homework from us so that they can go to the centre and their academic performance has improved. And for two years running, there has been a drop in offences committed by pupils."

Despite the school's positive view of the centre (which includes the donation of large quantities of teaching materials and stationery), the school board takes a different line. According to Catherine it "sees us as a sore point, a reminder that they're not doing their job".

What the Joneses have done with only $1,200 in public funding to date is to turn around a community by giving it back its dignity, its hope and the basic skills it needs to function in the real world. In recognition of its unique work, the Skill Day Center was one of 10 community projects given a $2, 000 award by USA Today Weekend newspaper. The Joneses collected the award from Hillary Clinton at the White House. A month after that, they were named Family of the Year by a local women's organisation, the first black family to have been given the title.

But they are hardly the types to rest on their laurels. For one thing, they're too busy drafting grant applications to federal and state bodies. For another, they are already planning the next problem area to turn their attention to. Despite the constant slog, Busbee Quarters has inspired them. "In this country, the richest country on Earth, there would be no need for a skills centre if funds were allocated properly," says Catherine. "When you see whole neighbourhoods of kids like Busbee's in special classes, you know there's something wrong. We're going to carry on with this work wherever we see the need. How else can you look these kids in the face unless you try to help them overcome the odds?"

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