Pathways to Success prepares at-risk students for life

At left, Faye Blake, founder and executive director of Pathways to Success, and Sarah Gilmour, community outreach coordinator for the program. (Delaware State News/Glenn Rolfe)

SUSSEX COUNTY — In the coming weeks, approximately 100 graduating high school seniors will have an extra special place in the hearts of Faye Blake, Sarah Gilmour and a handful of others.

The students, most of them at-risk from impoverished or challenging home settings, are the products of the public education system and Pathways to Success, a nonprofit organization founded by Ms. Blake in 2006.

Its mission is to prepare youth, adults as well as their families for successful lives.

Pathways utilizes innovative and creative approaches in mentoring education and community outreach to inform, educate and empower. Student candidates are referred to Pathways by school counselors and/or principals “who think that they are on the bubble and maybe they may not graduate.”

The program boasts an incredible success rate.

“We have a 98 percent on-time graduation rate,” said Ms. Blake, Pathways’ executive director. “We start with the students who are at-risk or are having some problems. The counselors, principals actually, refer kids to our program.”

Pathways to Success does this with a small staff of seven: Ms. Blake, Ms. Gilmour (outreach coordinator), Valerie Onley (executive assistant) and four program administrators based in four high schools: Sussex Tech, Cape Henlopen, Seaford and most recently Milford.

“My goal,” Ms. Blake says, “is I would love to be in every high school in Sussex County.”

That takes financial resources. That is where community support comes in, through various donations and fundraisers by supporting businesses.

“Sarah does a really great job of connecting us to various businesses. Sarah is great at fundraising,” Ms. Blake said.

Grants are another revenue source.

“The Department of Labor is one of our biggest funders,” Ms. Blake said. “Because of the jobs, we’re very much in tune with skill sets that employers are looking for and obviously what colleges are looking for. We do our best to make sure that we infuse that in curricula that we work with each of our students on.”

Pathways helps students prepare students entering the working world, with expertise on applications as well as mock interviews.

Committed to ‘what we do’

“This is what we do. We are committed. And one of the things that Sarah kind of coined the phrase … it is pathways to success, but what we do is all about the kids. Everything we do is about the students that we serve,” said Ms. Blake.

“It is my pleasure every day when I get up, I feel so blessed and feel so grateful that I get to do the work that we do, because it really does affect people’s lives in meaningful way and a long-lasting way.”

Pathway’s passion to help students comes from seeds planted by her grandmother in her formative years, growing up in poverty.

Jacques Bowe, Pathways to Success program administrator for Sussex Tech, introduces Taeshawn Jackson of Woodbridge High School at the Young Men’s Summit.

“I grew up in very humble beginnings. I grew up in a small town, Selbyville, along the railroad tracks. If you know anything about Selbyville, I think they might have two traffic lights now, rather than just the one that I grew up with,” said Ms. Blake.

“I lived with my grandmother from birth until she passed away when I was 7 years old. One of the things that I talk about are the seeds that she actually planted in me. And from the time I can remember understanding her words, she told me that I was very, very smart, I was intelligent, and that I could do and be anything I wanted to.”

“She is the first person that kind of cultivated that your circumstances don’t really dictate really how far you can go or what you can do. But above all, your value to others and also the fact that you are a valuable individual,” said Ms. Blake.

“And as I grew up, I went through various hardships and things, but the things that stuck with me the most are really those things that I could do or be whatever I wanted to, and no matter whether we were from humble beginnings or not, that really didn’t matter, and that education really was the key.”

‘The great equalizer’

She often refers to the words of Horace Mann, a 19th century American education reformer who called education “the great equalizer.”

“I kind of gravitate to that statement because that is what she was saying to me; get as much knowledge as you possibly can, because knowledge is something that others, no matter what, they can’t take it away from you. You know basically what you know,” said Ms. Blake.

Utilizing those nuggets from her grandmother, she graduated from high school and won a full ride to the University of Delaware and furthered her education.

As a career woman, Ms. Blake achieved pioneering success in the banking business, breaking a racial barrier. After a start with a finance company, she went to work for Allfirst Financial, which was acquired by M&T Bank Corp. in 2003.

Lake Forest senior Joshua Kennedy finds himself in the spotlight with Pathways to Success administrator Jacques Bowe at the Young Men’s Summit.

“I started out in the collections department and actually became the very first African American senior vice president that had been appointed. At that time in the bank’s history, it was about 200 years of being in existence,” Ms. Blake said.

Passing on an opportunity to stay on with M&T, Ms. Blake said she really “felt the calling or the need to do something to give back. There is something in you that truly does want to give back. My kids had graduated from college. So, I was thinking, ‘OK, now here is a window where I can do something really wonderful and make an impact.’ Not that banking wasn’t great, because it was a wonderful career. And I met wonderful people like Sarah, and we worked together for years and years. But I really did want to give back.”

Longtime coworkers reunited

“Of course, the little story about Sarah is it was time for her to retire. I said to her, ‘No way! You can’t do that. You have to come work with me. We can do this thing with Pathways.’”

After leaving the banking business, Ms. Gilmour went to work for the American Red Cross of Delmarva as volunteer manager for the state of Delaware and six counties on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. “When we picked up two counties in Virginia, my husband said, ‘No way.’ I was on the road constantly,” said Ms. Gilmour. “So, I called Faye, ‘Guess what? I’m retired!’ She says, ‘Oh no, you’re not. Come help me. I just started this new nonprofit, and I need grant writing help.’”

“It’s kind of evolved into building awareness about the program, obtaining sponsorships for business and finding jobs for the kids,” said Ms. Gilmour. “With a 98 percent graduation rate, Pathways is definitely doing something right. And I can’t say enough about the program administrators in each one of the schools. They are there on the front line.”

Pathways’ founding seeds were planted in 2006. Work in the first school — Sussex Tech — began in 2008.

The premise or the platform that Pathways sits on is something called CARE: Consistence, Authentic, Respectful, Empowerment.

“One of the things my grandmother consistently did with me and what we do with our kids is pass on those nuggets, those positive seeds that they can do and they can make, no matter what the circumstances are. We do it in a number of ways, through mentoring, through helping with homework, seeing the light bulb go on when they get a particular process or understand how to do their homework,” said Ms. Blake.

Sussex Tech freshman Timothy Scott balances books in a strength demonstration. At right is William Waters, Pathways to Success administrator at Cape Henlopen High School.

“We start working with them, most of the time in ninth grade. We stayed with them for five years. We make that investment. And part of that investment is giving to them what I believe my grandmother gave to me.”

“We do it through after-school programs. We have program coordinators that are in the schools every single day. The other thing is that there is not a day or not a time of night that you can call anyone of our program coordinators or myself or Sarah and we won’t respond. We are 24/7,” Ms. Blake said.

“Most of the children that we work with don’t have any consistency about the people that they can call, the folks that will show up. We consistently do. So, they really have a hard time trying to find someone who is going to be that ‘rock’ for them. We try to be that ‘rock’ for our kids.”

Authenticity

Pathways is authentic, Ms. Blake says, in the fact if “you are not doing well, we tell you that you are not doing well. We’re not going to lie to the kids because most of them are very street-wise. They can spot a phony a mile away. We are very much authentic with them. I think that they appreciate that we are not trying to kind of run a game on them. That we really say what we mean, and we mean what we say.”

Pathways’ intent is not to take the place of parents.

“But many of our underserved youth, their parents are struggling to keep a roof over their heads, food on the table, and it is really hard sometimes for them to follow homework, and whether you did well on your test,” said Ms. Blake.

“That is what we do. We also figure out whether you’re in school. If you are not in school for three consecutive days, we consistently go into your neighborhood, and we will consistently knock on your door until somebody helps us with where you are, what you are doing and why you are not in school.”

“Behaviors don’t change overnight,” said Ms. Blake. “We bring in mental health counseling to make sure that they have everything they need. What we are finding is many of our kids are suffering obviously from PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) kinds of things. Just the trauma of what poverty brings. It is traumatic. One of health clinicians is one of our board members. We work with other agencies to also help our kids.”

From a respect standpoint, Pathways meets kids where they are.

“We know where we would like them to be. But more importantly we want to know where they’d like to be. Often, when you are locked in the grips of poverty, in the grips of unrest or unstableness at home, you don’t have time to set goals and have a vision for what your future is going be,” Ms. Blake said.

“I believe everybody was born with greatness in them. Some of us must look a little harder than others for that greatness. Empowering them to dig deep and figure out what it is you want to be but more importantly dig deep and figure out what you can give back,” Ms. Blake said.

“When you are on the other side of poverty and the only thing you see is poverty, even when you look at something that is beautiful, that’s for ‘other’ people. Where does that vision come from? That is part of where Pathways comes in. We’re trying to give all of our students an experiential experience that will help them look past their circumstance so that they can actually see something past today into tomorrow that is going to be good for them.”

To the future

Besides its 98 percent graduation rate, some 96 percent of Pathways students go on to college, military or immediately enter the work force. “We work with area businesses to get them full-time jobs, in the trades, in the restaurant business …,” Ms. Blake said.

Pathways stays in contact with current students and many graduates. The email list tops 1,000, and routinely Ms. Gilmour posts and shares a positive quote on Pathways’ Facebook page.

“Every day we are trying to get nuggets of positive information out to every one of the students, not only serving the ones now but ones we served in past as well. We stay connected,” Ms. Blake said.

Pathways’ future includes the possibility of a boarding house for students dealing with difficult home settings.

“It is a dream,” said Ms. Gilmour.

“Once you open up the wound you hate it that you are sending it back home into what I consider to be a war zone,” said Ms. Blake.

“Oftentimes we want to fault parents for their circumstances but having been in poverty myself, I know that my mom and I know that my grandmother did the very best that they could do with what they had. Many of the parents of our students didn’t graduate from high school themselves. Many of them, their parents didn’t have it. Many of the students that we work with are first-time graduates of high school and then go on to be first-time accepted from family into college — or even having a full-time job.”

You are encouraged to leave relevant comments but engaging in personal attacks, threats, online bullying or commercial spam will not be allowed. All comments should remain within the bounds of fair play and civility. (You can disagree with others courteously, without being disagreeable.) Feel free to express yourself but keep an open mind toward finding value in what others say. To report abuse or spam, click the X in the upper right corner of the comment box.

Facebook Comment