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To learn about the Ladies and Gentlemen of the Village

For more information, visit the website www.instituteforhumangrowth.org, email drhawk@erols.com or call 301-863-9007.

Twelve years ago Dymond Estep was just starting kindergarten, unaware of the potential of her life. Last month the 18-year-old graduated from Great Mills High School and is preparing to go on to college, an accomplishment she attributed to the last dozen years she spent in a program designed to build positive families and communities called the Ladies and Gentlemen of the Village.

The program, founded by Francine Dove Hawkins, was developed to help improve children’s scholarship and well-being.

“We deal with the whole person, emotional, social, intellectual, spiritual, character,” she said. While the program is not affiliated with any particular church, it does receive support from some churches and Hawkins does not hide her own spirituality during meetings.

Estep joined the program in its first year, along with her older sister, Turquoise Biscoe, who now attends Morgan State University.

Since Ladies and Gentlemen of the Village was founded in 2002, more than 400 children have participated in the program. Dymond Estep is the first person to stick with the program from kindergarten through high school graduation, Hawkins said.

Raised by a single mom, both girls will be first-generation college students in their family. They both thanked and acknowledged their mother for her support, and said Hawkins and others at the Global Village played large parts of their lives, too.

“That was a family I could turn to,” Estep said, “and they would help me and support me.”

The girls took advantage of tutoring every week to help not just with homework but other academic topics. There were multicultural nights, she said, where the kids learned about other countries and experiences.

And the children in the program give back in their own ways, volunteering for Christmas in April, holding back-to-school supply drives and visiting senior living homes in the county.

“They’re like our second parents,” Biscoe said of Hawkins and other adults who run the program.

There are about 50 registered students in the Ladies and Gentlemen of the Village, half of which attend regularly and are active, Hawkins said. Some children do not come to all of the meetings because of sports or other conflicts, she said.

Estep said it would be hard to say where she would be if not for the Global Village, but she does feel it made her who she is today.

“It’s definitely molded me to be determined, follow my dreams,” she said.

One of those dreams is for her to eventually be able to help others in the community, as Hawkins and others at the Global Village do.

“Hopefully, someday, I can open a program like this,” Estep said.

Shaping lives

Every summer the group takes an educational field trip centered on visiting colleges, including always at least one identified as an historically black college or university.

“A lot of our students don’t necessarily get out of St. Mary’s County,” Hawkins said of the importance of traveling.

Those field trips helped shape Estep, she said, including last year when she got her first glimpse at Bennett College in North Carolina, where she plans to start college this fall.

Other trips have included Boston, New York and New Orleans. This year they will stay a little closer to home, visiting colleges and other points of interest in Washington, D.C.

It was also thanks to her time at the Global Village that Estep plans to major in computer science.

The program brings in people from both the National Society of Black Engineers and the Engineer Scientist Development Program, including young professionals from Patuxent Naval Air Station.

Those mentors share their expertise in science and math with the children, “And that is a blessing,” Hawkins said.

Along with promoting academic scholarship and good citizenship, envisioning and landing a productive career is high on the list of objectives at the Ladies and Gentlemen of the Village program.

The networking the older students are able to do with the engineer and scientist mentors helped Estep earn an internship at Pax River this summer, she said.

Not just for kids

Hawkins said that the Ladies and Gentlemen of the Village aims to not only educate and improve the lives of the children in the group, who range from prekindergarten through 12th grade, but to help better the lives of their parents.

“The village is not just for children. We have to have a parent [or other adult] for a sponsor, and that person has obligations,” Hawkins said. They must attend the meetings, help in fundraisers and generally be there to help the child, she said.

“The Global Village is designed to build families, therefore build communities,” she said. “The essence of community is family.”

The program helps bridge gaps where school or family may not be present, Hawkins said. She has seen children stop attending the program and end up dropping out of high school or worse, she said.

“That breaks my heart,” Hawkins said. Those who continue in the program through high school have all either gone to college, the military or landed jobs.

“I never blame the children. We are ultimately responsible for our children,” Hawkins said, and sometimes parents need a push to get them to push their children in the right direction.

Hawkins said in 2002 the program grew out of her nonprofit organization, the Institute for Human Growth and Development, including repurposing what was once a Dameron bar owned by her family into the Global Village Community Learning Center, where the Ladies and Gentlemen meet on Tuesday and Wednesday evenings.

It costs $150 a year, per family, to participate. There are also other ancillary costs such as field trips associated with the group, although Hawkins said she would never turn away a child because of inability to pay.

The program runs basically with the school academic calendar. New participants enroll when it restarts in September.

jyeatman@somdnews.com