Founder Ginny Deerin, Executive Director Bridget Laird, and colleagues have built the WINGS for Kids after-school program slowly over 11 years, trying methodically to get everything right. They first started it as a summer camp in 1996 near their home base in Charleston but concluded that one week was too short a time to make lessons stick.
"We learned pretty quickly that the strongest way to teach these skills was in small lessons over a long period of time, while kids are living their lives," as they are after school, Deerin explains. She estimates that it takes about two years in the program for the skills to take permanent root.
She believes the system is now seamless enough to be expanded across the country. People have criticized WINGS for being too slow and cautious, says Deerin. "But what we won't do is grow faster than we can while still remaining effective." She's aiming to have programs in 10 to 30 schools across the country within four to eight years.
Now, WINGS operates on $1.6 million a year that's cobbled together from government grants, foundations, and private donations. (Deerin's skills as a marketing and fundraising pro have been a big plus.) The schools and the district contribute $50,000 of the $250,000 cost per school site. WINGS employs 11 full-time staff members: Deerin and Laird; directors of development, communications, and business affairs; a chief program officer; one program director at each of the four schools it serves, and one assistant program director. The nonprofit organization runs out of a donated office space in the Advent Lutheran Church around the corner from Chicora Elementary School in North Charleston. Its other program sites are Memminger, North Charleston, and James Simons elementary schools, all in the Charleston County School District.
WINGS earned AmeriCorps status this year -- a designation that came with a $200,000 grant and that made the WINGS leaders official AmeriCorps members. Organizers see this as an important step toward making the program more sustainable. And with hundreds of alumni, they plan to start a long-term study on the effects on children as they progress to middle school and high school.
Principals from a variety of schools throughout the Charleston County School District, including those in affluent suburbs, are asking for WINGS, says Superintendent Nancy McGinley. "They're seeing that WINGS gives kids better coping skills for the classroom," she explains. "The core values of honesty, kindness, and respect not only create better students, they create better citizens in the long run."