Mildred Cursh Reynolds spent many years making the Oakwood area of Venice a better place to live. She was instrumental in creating and developing the Concerned Parents Group, which dealt with the proliferation of drugs in the neighborhood, as well as co-founding the Oakwood Beautification Committee, which continued to deal with drug issues as well as work on other community projects.

It is fitting that her daughter, Antoinette, follow in her footsteps. The Mildred Cursh Foundation was established in 2002 to honor this woman of inspiration and dedication and to offer support to the families of prisoners and mentor their children who are living in economically depressed and difficult conditions.

While all children are welcome, the focus is to help those whose parents are incarcerated. According to a 2000 report written by Charlene Wear Simmons, an estimated 856,000, or nearly nine percent of the state’s children, had a parent involved in California’s adult criminal justice system.

Many of these children may be left in the custody of guardians or grandparents who often lack the time or the ability to guide children in their education and homework.

Primary outreach and recruitment is through Prison Ministry, which partners with local churches across the country to minister to a group that society often scorns and neglects — prisoners, ex-prisoners, and their families.

Antoinette’s biggest project is the ministry’s Angel Tree, when gifts are delivered at Christmastime, in their parent’s name, to children of inmates.

The Learning Companion Youth Project is a year-round after-school enrichment program developed especially for children with parents in prison. The foundation provides safe and comfortable surroundings for a diverse cross-section of children five to 18 years of age with a curriculum that encourages students to develop their own skills potential through exercises, tutoring, computer learning and the arts.

One parent who has three children — ages five, seven and eight — participating in the program says, “They see a different environment. The children learn discipline and how to get along with each other. There are a lot of activities. They can be here and learn, rather than sitting at home doing homework and watching TV.

“They enjoy coming here, so it’s not like I’m making them. They are willing to come.”

A key to the success of the instruction lies with the mentors and volunteer tutors. Mentors are provided by Loyola Marymount University (LMU), through its community service or work study programs. Volunteers are attracted by word of mouth or ads on the Internet.

While the children are supposed to gain knowledge, the adults tend to learn a thing or two also — mostly patience. How to motivate others is a close second.

Jeanette Molina, a mentor who is an LMU senior and wants to go into family law, has learned how to motivate someone other than herself.

“I help them out with their homework and maybe do something fun to make it interesting,” she says. “I show them what they are capable of. I keep pushing, without yelling, but with encouragement. I let them know that I’m here for them.”

Ken Ley, a 26-year-old volunteer who comes straight from work at a financial research firm, is learning to appreciate what it is to be young and how young people think.

“It helps me understand what motivates them and how you get them motivated,” he says. “They need encouragement in a different way. I say, ‘If you do your work, this is what it is going to lead to, what can come of it.’

“Giving a reason why they are doing the work is a better approach than just telling them to do it.”

Ben Mason, a 22-year-old volunteer who recently moved to Venice and is still looking for a job, feels it’s important to lend an ear and to be honest.

“Every experience I’ve had with this age group, they just want to be listened to,” Mason says. “So much of the time people tell them what to do or think they are just goofing around.

“In the seriousness of their existence in their daily lives they have all the facts. They’re just trying to compute it all and learn from everything they are doing, whether they know it or not.”

With the mindset of an adult, one nine-year-old, a student in the fourth grade at Broadway Elementary School who has been coming to the program for three and a half years, recommends that everyone come to the Vera Davis Center for the after-school program because then there would be more money for field trips. She says she likes the tutors because she can get help with her homework and she likes the mentors because “they never discourage you.”

Pastor Horace Allen of the First Baptist Church of Venice champions the activities of the Mildred Cursh Foundation. He is also a believer in bringing back the church as a centerpiece of the community, where children have a place to go where they know they will be safe. His church was recently wired for computers and he hopes this place of worship can be used the same way as he remembers in his youthful days going to the teen post.

For seniors, who are also often a group that requires special attention, there is community food distribution in collaboration with the Vera Davis Youth and Family Center and the Oakwood Seniors Club every second and fourth Thursday of the month.

In addition to Pastor Allen, Antoinette acknowledges the support of the Venice Neighborhood Council for funding, the Venice businesses and the partners who contribute to fundraisers and make the programs possible.

Information, www.mildred cursh foundation.com/.

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