by Shelley Barineau, Managing Owner of Missionary Village Apartments
When my husband and I took over managing ownership of Missionary Village Apartments, we aspired to create a new sense of community. We wanted to improve the physical plant and facilities, and also reinvent the community as a place our residents would feel proud to live. Often residents in low-income housing view these complexes as a place to stay - rather than a home. We really desire to change that mindset. In our opinion, the best way to reach the hearts of those in our community is through the children. Most people at Missionary Village Apartments are motivated to help make a difference for the children who live there.
Literacy is a critical issue for the children, as most are either reading well below grade level or fighting functional illiteracy. So, we started looking for literacy programs. After throwing a bunch of hooks in the water, and evaluating many programs, we were thrilled to learn about the Harris County Library’s Mobile Curiosity Cruiser. It was perfect for an apartment community. The Curiosity Cruiser is self-sustaining, and has a solid infrastructure including staff, supplies and a very cheerfully painted bus! It is incredibly inviting, and the minute the bus drives onto the property it lifts spirits and escalates the expectations of our community.
We were overwhelmed by the response to the first visit of the Curiosity Cruiser. So many children wanted to participate and the first day was quite overwhelming. We realized that we had recognized a need, but we had a lot to learn. The first few weeks were pretty fluid with over 40 children of all ages pouring into our community room. The interest was terrific – but needed to be contained.
That’s when we learned of the professionalism of the Curiosity Cruiser staff. They pulled in the resources they needed to make our program a success. They brought volunteers from an affiliated organization that wanted to serve the community. They increased their consistency and raised the expectation of the children. Now, we have an established routine. The children come in, sit down, enjoy the lesson and gain a hands-on substantive STEM learning activity. We have built electric circuits, aluminum robots and engineered cool contraptions.
After the lesson, the group goes out to the Curiosity Cruiser bus to read and check out a book. I love that old-fashioned library experience of physically browsing, selecting and checking out books. Personally, that is a warm and fuzzy moment thinking back to my own childhood library experience. It is a big deal for these children to have an opportunity to choose a book, and the responsibility to bring it back. For our population, it’s a bigger deal for them be able to have something of their own and keep it at home. The change in the feeling around the property when the Curiosity Cruiser comes is tangible and happy – simply extraordinary.
One boy comes to mind when I think of the Curiosity Cruiser’s impact. He always walks around the property in a sweatshirt with the hood pulled up. One of the first weeks he came to the community center and just watched – never taking off his hoodie. Several weeks after that, he participated but did not take off his hoodie. Last week I saw his face for the first time, hoodie off, smiling and talking to a younger child while they were working on the lesson. It was magical!
What we have learned is that the value of this program is not just about reading. The Curiosity Cruiser is consistent and stable. The same people show up each week and truly invest in the children, modeling proper behaviors and school room etiquette. It provides the kids an opportunity to connect with another person who cares about them learning. However, probably most importantly, the Curiosity Cruiser’s greatest value is that they have committed to our community for 12 weeks. The children rely on the Curiosity Cruiser. They ask about it. They are excited for the activities and engagement. They are enthusiastic and eager to participate. The Curiosity Cruiser has developed a serious following!
The entire community depends on the programming. It’s building and elevating our expectations for the community, young and old. In fact, a woman who has lived in the complex for over 30 years stopped by the other day to donate books. That’s terrific!
What the Curiosity Cruiser is doing is truly important! We are so grateful for the professionalism, structure and consistency. It is something special!