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A New Direction for CityYouth Ministries
By Audrey Hanes, Photography by Amy Long

When a group of pastors and community business leaders joined forces more than 20 years ago to create CityYouth Ministries, their desire was to develop an organization that provided an after school program to aid underserved children and youth in the Jonesboro area. Today, CityYouth is still committed to nurturing children spiritually and academically while providing them with life-changing opportunities that will transform their lives and, ultimately, the Jonesboro community, all under the leadership of new Executive Director Denise Snider, who brings almost 20 years of teaching experience and an inspiring love for God and His children to the table.

Snider grew up in Kennett, Mo., and says she always wanted to go to Arkansas State University and be a majorette. She started her time at A-State as a music major before changing to education. After graduating with an early childhood education degree, Snider spent nearly two decades teaching every grade from kindergarten through 12th in some capacity during her extensive career in the public school system. In 2015, she became a certified dyslexia therapist, becoming the first teacher in the state to teach whole group curriculum to children with dyslexia.

“I’m very passionate about teaching children to read and meeting the needs of children with different learning styles,” said Snider. “I fell in love with CityYouth as a teacher in the public school system, then they contacted me in the early fall of 2015 and asked if I would be interested in the position of executive director. I was very interested but didn’t want to leave my class, so I served as a consultant while finishing out the school year with my students. I was able to use that time to make plans, observe and learn.”

In June 2016, Snider took up her role with CityYouth full time, and the God-centered nonprofit organization hasn’t been the same since. She is passionate about what the ministry can do for as many children as it can possibly reach.

“I knew before I came on board as executive director that what CityYouth Ministries provided for the community was important,” said Snider. “Now that I’m in it full-on, I realize the magnitude of the need for it is staggering. If the children aren’t here, they’re going to potentially be in a very negative situation due to our culture today. Our culture has driven us to a place where we have to provide for quality after-school experiences for every child. If CityYouth can do that for 115 kids out of a huge community, the trickle down into our public schools, businesses and community is just huge. That’s what I’ve seen.

“If a child’s spirit is broken, they could care less that one plus one equals two. If a child doesn’t feel loved, they could care less that we need them to have good manners and comply with cultural expectations. They have to know that they’re loved and that God has a purpose for their life. When they’re in the building, that’s what they get. That’s what they hear every time they’re here.”

The new executive director’s vision for the ministry was a better version of what it was previously; although tutoring and homework are still important aspects of what students do during their afternoons at the facility, she shifted the focus to what she refers to as a very intense literacy intervention, coupled with enriching activities like visiting art shows and violin lessons.

“We changed our logo and had a grand reopening back in the fall that was very well attended. We were thrilled,” said Snider. “CityYouth is not what it used to be. I want the community to know that our entire routine and our programming are nowhere near the same as they were before I came here. Now, our programming is designed to where these students are better people. They come here and have an enriching experience they can think about and talk about before they go to sleep. We give them life experiences that encourage them to be better.”

Snider says that when she started with CityYouth, she quickly realized that tutoring consisted entirely too much of feeding kids the answer, which wouldn’t cut it when they got back to the classroom.

“I quit the focus on tutoring here and found the children with the biggest deficits,” she said. “We found the children with the biggest need to learn to read and provided Connections for them. I work for The Apple Group, and I use Connections – I teach teachers how to implement whole group instruction for those who want to implement this program in their classrooms. It’s a science-based curriculum that works for everyone, and it’s working for us here. It’s very intense literacy intervention. We’re still doing the after-school tutoring with kids who need it as part of the after-school program, but no more feeding them the answers.

“What I love about CityYouth is what sets us apart. The ladies teaching these classes are certified teachers who are trained in Connections. We have more than 40 years of teaching experience among the three of us, and to my knowledge, we are the only after-school program in town with that kind of experience. … The quality and expertise of the people we have providing this tutoring is unmatched.”

Joining Snider are Ashley Snider, a first grade teacher at VPA who just completed her master’s degree, and Tracy Shoemaker, a longtime teacher in the Jonesboro School District with a master’s degree in reading. All three are trained in Connections, which Snider says has been such a key factor in overhauling the programming of CityYouth. Cherry Frierson, who co-wrote the Connections curriculum with Mary Margaret Scholtens, even comes in twice a week to work with the children using the program.

Other additions to CityYouth’s programming include a wide variety of activities and culturally enriching opportunities. Every Monday and Wednesday, students get free athletic training through Elite Training, which is a business that was set up by Jay Harris, who attended CityYouth as a child. He teaches them agility and other athletic skills free of charge. Songa Wheeler of SongaYoga provides yoga instruction; Shannon Smithe from the Fowler Center gives free art lessons and allows CityYouth to take its students to art exhibits at the university free of charge; Adam Shelburne, the children’s minister at Highland Drive Baptist Church, comes to CityYouth once a week; a group goes to the Earl Bell Community Center for tennis lessons through NEATennis every Monday; and Annalise and Amelia Collins come in once a week and teach dance lessons using Christian music with hip-hop moves.

Snider says that CityYouth also has an amazing grant through United Way and the university that allows for Dr. Chi Young Song to come once a week to give the kids violin lessons, free of charge. The nonprofit was even able to acquire new violins for the 20 participants to use for the lessons.

“We also have a Bible story with a game or song to go with it every single day; it’s just wonderful,” said Snider. “On top of that, we give the kids snacks right when they get here, and before they leave, we feed them supper. The community has been so great to help us with food.

“It’s just so exciting, because these children are getting to experience stuff that is so above and beyond going home and watching TV and playing video games. … I love knowing that we’ve got a really enriching program for children to engage and participate in after school. The neatest piece of that is that every day, I get to see children hear a Bible story and be told that they’re loved and that God has a plan for their life. That’s ultimately the biggest reward and privilege with what we do here.”

Currently, 115 students participate in CityYouth’s programming, although the number fluctuates; an average of 60 to 65 students are in attendance each day. The ministry is open to children in first through 12th grades on a first-come, first-served basis. Children in in first through sixth grades attend daily, and junior high and high school students attend on Wednesdays. 

“Money constraints allow us to only take a certain amount of children,” said Snider. “We only have four buses, and we have a significant waiting list. But we do have a highly mobile population, so kids are able to move into the program throughout the year. We pick up and take home at all the Jonesboro School District schools for those who need it, which is the majority. We do have some who come in from Nettleton, but it’s just kids whose parents drive them in. It’s a dream of mine to be able to provide them with transportation eventually as more businesses in Jonesboro come alongside us and help with funding.”

When it comes to businesses and individuals coming to the aid of CityYouth Ministries, Snider says it wouldn’t be able to run successfully without all those in Jonesboro who have stepped up to the plate to help.

“We have great volunteers who run a gamut of programs here, and we have individuals and businesses who just show up,” said the executive director. “We have volunteers from different churches in the community who will bring dinner and provide games and crafts and things like that. Most of the banks in town are really good to us, too. Today, Iberia is here teaching the kids about money on a very fundamental level. We have volunteers who just come in and help us clean and prepare for the next day. So many Downtown Jonesboro businesses support us in all sorts of ways, from bringing us food to volunteering here in their own backyard. We have been so blessed to have had great involvement from the sororities and fraternities and other A-State students, as well; they are such a huge help here.

“… We were off the radar a bit when I came on. By the grace of the Jonesboro community, they have come alongside us again. They have answered our call and significantly stepped up to help us. We have seen miracles happen in this building just due to the kindness of the general public, and I’m just so thankful.”

Pat Carlisle, a longtime volunteer, even had her goldendoodle, Luke, go through pet therapy classes and comes twice a week to let the kids interact with the dog. Snider says it’s helping the kids with their anxiety, because initially, some were afraid to even look at a dog. She hopes to extend those visits into a situation that goes a bit deeper where the students will learn about responsibility and how to take care of a pet.

As for what the future holds for CityYouth, Snider says that by the grace of God, she has a clear vision for growing the ministry and impacting as many people as possible in the Jonesboro area.

“God showed me very early on that this was not about me,” she said. “It was all about Him and what he wants to do at CityYouth Ministries. I feel very strongly that God has shown us as a community that our families need Christ. Our families need CityYouth Ministries. I’m hoping that it’s part of the divine plan for us to get the funding so that we can expand and see more children and just grow. In my heart, I’m praying and hoping that churches and the community itself will come alongside and help us find ways to help the families in our community that are reaching out for specific spiritual and physical needs.

“We have got to stop putting Band-Aids on things, and we need to reach out to any family in Jonesboro that is in need of a relationship with Christ. A lot of kids are having a great time here, but they’ll go home and the bottom will fall out. Kids here aren’t bad kids or unruly kids, they’re just children. Children are children.”

For those who wish to help or volunteer in any way, donations are always needed. Snider also says that anything from walking through the door and asking what needs to be done to dropping off things like paper towels, toilet paper, office supplies or gently worn shoes or clothes would be so appreciated.

For more information about CityYouth Ministries, located at 118 Burke Ave., go to cityyouthmin.com, call 932-9398 or find City Youth Ministries on Facebook. To reach the executive director, email Denise Snider at denisecym21@gmail.com.