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Founded in 2014, Diversity Nurtures Achievement Community Youth Center (DNA) provides after-school enrichment for students and also offers a structured daytime learning program for at-risk students and those struggling in traditional school settings. . Located in Warsaw, DNA acts as an indispensable resource for Duplin County.
“I’m here by choice because I could do it differently,” said Earlean Rivers, founder and director of DNA. “But I want to save my community, and if I don’t save them all – if I save just one – it’s worth it.”
Every week, 30 students visit the small, nearly 100-year-old building, located just outside Warsaw’s city limits. The students have a snack, finish their homework, then head outside. The large adjoining courtyard offers a variety of activities for students, including a garden, farm animals and a swing. In warm weather, Rivers and his team throw a kickball game.
Provide students with new experiences
For Rivers, DNA is about providing students with resources they might not otherwise have had access to. According to the North Carolina Department of Commerce, Duplin County is 86.5% rural. So Rivers has made it her mission to expose students to whatever she can.
“I really want to make a difference,” Rivers said. “Often children from other financially stable areas are exposed to much more than our children here. I really try to expose our children to experiences that they normally wouldn’t have had if they weren’t here in this setting.
Although she lives in a rural county, Rivers has found that many of her students haven’t been exposed to all that the area has to offer. Some of her students have never seen an animal up close, and others are surprised to learn that fruits and vegetables can be grown in their own backyards.
“We want to show kids that not everything comes from a grocery store,” Rivers said. “A kid said, ‘You know what? Even with a pandemic or a storm, we can still eat. This is the key.
With grants from UNC SNAP-Ed and A&T University in North Carolina, Rivers was able to start and maintain gardens at his institution. Representatives from UNC SNAP-Ed also visit Duplin County to help Rivers organize monthly community circles — a time when county residents can discuss community needs and determine how they can make changes.
Broadening student opportunities also includes working closely with the Duplin County Cooperative Extension to provide a 4H club. In 4H, students participate in hands-on projects that help them develop life and leadership skills, including the 4H Chicken Project each year. Rivers takes his 4H club to the Kinston Livestock Arena, where students participate in the display and sale of Jr. Livestock.
Expand academic opportunities
But, first on DNA’s list of priorities is improving academic opportunities for students, including partnering with teachers where necessary. For some students, this means DNA staff provide additional after-school support and tutoring. For others, it means DNA is a second chance to put their future on the right track.
“If they have a problem with a particular child, they’ll let us know,” Rivers said.
Teachers — usually in the Duplin County Schools District — often send home textbooks and extra homework so Rivers and his staff can provide extra help for students in need.
In Duplin County, only about 14% of residents over the age of 25 have a bachelor’s degree. Rivers is determined to do her part to uplift her county’s students through DNA.
Every day from 8:45 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., DNA offers a structured learning program. This day program is usually for at-risk students, suspended or expelled students, and even students on probation. Often, students in the foster care system who cannot immediately enroll in school will also participate in this program.
There are two other staff there during the days, including a certified teacher. Rivers said this small, individual environment allows students to thrive. She said students in the structured learning program see academic improvements but also changes in their attitudes and personalities.
She sees “troubled” students on probation or suspension soften as they get used to the welcoming environment.
“But these gangbangers and bad kids, I don’t see that kid here,” Rivers said.
Students are placed in this structured learning program by Duplin County schools, parents and the Juvenile Crime Prevention Council. From there, students work indefinitely in a small setting with DNA staff – usually until they are cleared to return to school. Rivers said it provides an environment of mutual respect that allows students to thrive.
Create meaningful partnerships
DNA charges families $40 per week. For Rivers, providing a safe place in her community is more important than the money she receives. Instead, it receives grants and funding through outside resources.
The Central and Eastern North Carolina Food Bank provides food for the program, eliminating a significant cost for Rivers. During the summer, food bank representatives visit DNA and give cooking classes.
Resourceful Communities, a branch of the Conservation Fund, funds DNA. Resourceful Communities has helped Rivers and his team develop their grant-writing and fundraising capacity, while also providing stipends to interns during the summer months. In the summer, Resourceful Communities also offers DNA students the opportunity to visit STEM-focused summer camps.
Local partners include the Vidant Duplin Foundation, which provides resources for education on the benefits of healthy eating and regular physical activity. Villari Food Group and Smithfield Foods support DNA students and facilities as needed.
For Rivers, partnerships allow him to expand the reach of DNA’s work and make a tangible difference in his community.
“I think you should take care of the house,” Rivers said.