The role of the afterschool educational program at Willow Branch, and in all 3Star communities, is student advocacy. The afterschool program is operated by trained staff and volunteers who help the children develop study habits, provide homework help, engage in tutoring, and encourage success. Past participation has shown that such educational programming makes a positive difference in the students’ Georgia Milestones testing scores.
At Willow Branch, approximately 80 resident children participate in the afterschool educational program. The students are about evenly mixed between boys and girls, and are in kindergarten through fifth grade at two local elementary schools: the neighboring Indian Creek Elementary and the Robert Shaw Theme School, a charter school. A dedicated on-site manager runs the after-school education program, and a regular team of long-term volunteers—most are graduate students from Emory University or multilingual students from Lakeside High School—allow the after-school education program to provide one-on-one attention to the children.
The afterschool educational program is operated from 2:45 to 6:00 p.m. on days that DeKalb County Schools are in session. The program starts with play time, followed by homework time, healthy snacks, and an organized learning activity, such as reading buddies or math review. The program meets in a converted clubhouse at the back of the Willow Branch leasing office, offering separate rooms for group work, computer work (with internet access), and homework. In the summer, Star-C offers eight weeks of camp at the same location. In addition to providing a free child care solution when the children are out of school, the program helps alleviate learning loss, provides lunch, and allows for additional volunteer engagement—from youth groups, Scouts, college students, and more—which ultimately leads to raising awareness and garnering more community support for the program.
Over time, Star-C hopes to expand its afterschool programming beyond K-grade 5 and into grades 6-12, allowing it to take on more of a cradle-to-college model.
Upon walking through Willow Branch, the individual tenant gardens are one of the first things a visitor notices. Not fastidiously arranged annuals like at some complexes, but rather clusters of pots by front doors, in small plots beside back terraces, and in community green space throughout the complex—sprouting plants of all sizes, both exotic and familiar. There, the residents proudly grow vegetables, herbs, and other produce, both for their personal consumption and to sell through the complex’s go-to-market program.
The gardens provide a source of comfort foods, many of which are not available or affordable locally. They also provide sustenance, a necessity as this part of Clarkston is on the edge of a food desert, and at least half a mile from the nearest supermarket. Further, the gardens provide a source of exercise, stress reduction, recreation, and interaction between the members of the community. An added benefit: with more residents engaged outdoor in the community and keeping vigilant watch, criminal activity is significantly reduced.
Fresh Harvest, a Clarkston-based organic food delivery service, supports a weekly farmers market at Willow Branch’s leasing office, with produce heavily discounted for the residents. Recognizing the largely refugee community at Willow Branch, Fresh Harvest adds more specialty items based on the residents’ comfort foods from home: Thai chili peppers, small fairytale eggplant, and different varieties of spinach and bok choy. They also operate a program called Share the Harvest, which promotes the sharing of fruits and vegetables from their clients to someone in need; much of this extra food is delivered straight from Fresh Harvest to the Willow Branch community.
At the beginning of each month, when rent comes due, two non-residents can often be found in the leasing office: Allie Reeser, the wellness coordinator for Star-C, and Brenda Pace, the community outreach coordinator at Oakhurst Medical Center. They are there to meet new residents, and make sure that they know about Star-C’s wellness programming and healthcare navigation services.
By so doing, according to a study by Johns Hopkins Center to Eliminate Cardiovascular Health Disparities, they are able to better maintain their treatment regimens and consistently receive medical care and support services, as well as reduce their personal stress levels.
The beauty of Star-C is the value created by the collaborative programs. The educational and gardening programs work together to teach about healthy eating and the importance of fresh fruits and vegetables. Trusting relationships that develop between the afterschool staff and the children then carry over to the rest of the family, allowing Star-C to promote the wellness programming. Afterschool staff can provide childcare during health fairs. This collaboration builds community and inspires success.
TriStar has structured 3Star and Star-C to ensure financial sustainability. 3Star purchases and operates the individual apartment communities and reinvests a set percentage of its operational profits into Star-C to fund the free on-site educational, medical, and community-building initiatives to residents.
Any apartment community that engages Star- C will offer the following programs to improve family outcomes: