[Talk] In for the Long Haul | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

[Talk] In for the Long Haul

Robert Langford, executive director of Operation Shoestring, expresses himself passionately about what goes on at 1711 Bailey Avenue, across from the Capitol Furniture store. Passionately, but not so loudly as to awaken his son, sleeping soundly draped over his left shoulder as we spoke last Saturday amid the bustling lunchtime crowd upstairs at Banner Hall. Taking care of the needs of children comes naturally to Langford, it seems.

Operation Shoestring, from its mid-'60s, civil-rights-era roots, today focuses on systemic problems facing inner-city families. For 36 years, since it was incorporated as a non-profit in the basement of Wells Church in November 1968, Shoestring has provided a means for Jacksonians from all walks of life, black and white, to reach out and help others.

Langford is convinced that we all have within ourselves the tools to build a productive life. Operation Shoestring's job is to help people find and strengthen those tools by focusing on parenting skills, family literacy, the GED and education. "It's not rocket science, it's not particularly flashy, but it is important for us to roll up our sleeves, settle in for the long haul, and keep doing the work of building the community one kid and one family at a time," he explained.

Project KIDS, Operation Shoestring's flagship program for kindergarten through fifth-grade students, serves 67 children daily after school and as many as 75 in summer camp. Focusing on academics interwoven with the arts, the after-school program provides homework assistance, a computer lab, library and an art studio. Three certified teachers design lessons that coordinate with educational benchmarks established by the state and Jackson Public Schools, while a number of teacher assistants implement those plans. "We partner with a lot of different entities to try to provide the best opportunities for the kids," Langford stated. For instance, further arts education is provided on site by City DANCE, a USA International Ballet-sponsored program for 22 7- and 8-year-old girls, and by Covenant Presbyterian Church where several students receive music instruction twice a week.

Of course, all this costs money. That's where a new partnership comes in—the Dec. 11 holiday benefit concert at Hal & Mal's. Twelve local music groups, headlined by Bobby Rush, will perform on three different stages beginning at 6 p.m. For a mere $10, citizens of the metropolitan area can witness creative Jackson and support the good work of Project KIDS after-school care program.

Jacksonian Scott Albert Johnson, 33—consultant for Operation Shoestring, organizer of the benefit and a musician whose band will perform with special guests Jesse Robinson and Chris Gill—told me, "The fact is, we have some of the best talent and the most diverse talent that you'll find in this town." To him, it was not surprising that the musicians readily agreed to participate. "I think it's a great example of what a really strong community Jackson is. Sometimes we take [that] for granted."

People like to help each other out, Johnson said, and this is a chance to get the word out about Operation Shoestring, a place that sets an example for the city in how involvement can make a difference in children's lives. "We're still all one community, and we need to remember that," Johnson pointed out.

Go to http://www.operationshoestring.org for times and performance schedules. Tickets are $10 each; a limited number of reserve tables that seat 10 ($250) will be available in the big room where Bobby Rush will perform. The kitchen will close at 10 p.m., but the music will go on until after midnight.

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