Are you a bobblehead? Why is your head bobbing up and down like a bobblehead?! You must mean ‘Yes sir,’ right?”

A pair of little second grade eyes grow huge as a big, imposing man stands over him. This is Jorge’s first day at the Huntsville Inner City Learning Center (HICLC). He is frantically taking in his surroundings when Art Leslie walks up and asks if he’s ready to go running. Art is the director of the HICLC, and he doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to manners. This is a disciplined place, and that’s the way he intends to keep it, even with an influx of new students from Huntsville’s roughest schools.

When Jorge nods his head timidly, Mr. Art grows serious. “I don’t want to see a bobble head, son. Use your words. Now go get your tennis shoes on.” As he says it, a big smile sneaks across his face, and he winks at Jorge. Suddenly the young boy isn’t so scared. He just really wants to make Mr. Art happy.

Running and Smiling

Jorge joins eight other second graders who are changing into their sneakers. They tell him that they are about to go running outside with Mrs. Carol and Mrs. Beth, the exercise directors. “Here?!” he asks incredulously. Jorge lives in Butler Terrace just down the road from the center. His mom says he’s not allowed to play outside because it’s too dangerous. He has heard this is one of the most dangerous places in the whole city. Surely these kids are mistaken — they can’t be running here.

But they do. Volunteers guide Jorge and about 30 other students around Butler Terrace. Some people wave at the group as they pass by while others stop and stare. They are used to seeing this big group of kids running through the community twice a week, and while they think it’s strange, they also remember the 5K race that came through last year. It was full of people having fun, and a sense of peace had settled over the community that day. They had heard it was that same group of kids who ran all those miles and later signed a check for $4,000 to give away to charity. The onlookers don’t understand why they would give all that money away, but they understand this program is doing something different for their kids.

Mr. Art, the founder of the HICLC, and Ms. Susan, the program director and trusty sidekick, are constantly amazed by the resilience and determination of their students. They have seen them work through neighborhood shootings and school closures. They have watched students finish their 5K in first place despite being evicted the night before. They have mentored family members and parents as they navigate impossible circumstances and debilitating poverty. Art and Susan have watched these students and their families rise up and conquer despite their circumstances, and they look on now with pride.

The kids breeze past Art and Susan on their way to the Bible study classroom. They eagerly grab their Bibles and wait for Mr. Art to start his lesson. Jorge grabs a Bible like the other kids and sits down to recover from his run. He’s exhausted. He can’t remember the last time he got to be outside for that long.

Jorge opens his “Adventure Bible.” He has heard about this book from his mom, but he never really understood the words. When Mr. Art begins to teach, though, he suddenly hears sentences he understands.

Finally Understanding

“Did you know that the Bible says to keep drama out of your life and live quietly? It says we are created to work hard and not depend on other people or the government or anyone if we’re able to work. Did you know God says to mind your own business?” Mr. Art asks. “Let’s turn to 1 Thessalonians 4.” Jorge can’t believe God says all these things and eagerly looks for the passage where they are written. The more Mr. Art talks about Jesus and the Bible, the more Jorge begins to understand a connection between the words and his own life.

After the Bible study, the kids are ushered into a big lunchroom facility where they circle up. Lots of volunteers join in the boy- girl, boy-girl circle. Ms. Susan smiles encouragingly at Jorge and asks him to tell the group who his favorite football team is. He shyly whispers, “Auburn,” before the whole room erupts in “War Eagles” and “Roll Tides.” Jorge starts to feel more at ease. He’s not used to kids laughing with him and running alongside him at school. He has a hard time in class sometimes, but here, no one tells him he’s stupid or makes fun of his clothes. The kids here tell him how you’re supposed to open doors for girls first and always say, “Yes, ma’am,” and “No, ma’am.” They ask him to play basketball outside and show him where his classroom is. He likes it here.

After Mr. Art says a prayer, the kids eat a hot meal. One of the ladies dishing out the fragrant chili says she made it for the kids all by herself! Jorge thinks that’s an awful lot of people to cook for, but he gratefully digs in. Sometimes he doesn’t get much to eat after school. He wonders if they get to eat every day at the center.

After dessert, it’s time for tutoring. Jorge is scared. He’s never had a tutor before, and he doesn’t want them to get mad at him when he takes too long with his math homework. But when April sits down across from him, she’s cheerful and extremely nice, and Jorge instantly decides he likes her. April is infinitely patient as Jorge works through his math problems. When he doesn’t understand, she shows him a different way to work things out. By the time 5:30 rolls around, Jorge has finished all of his homework. He can’t believe it! He feels better than he ever has and ready to go confidently to school tomorrow. His little stomach is full, his homework is done, and he learned something interesting about God that he can’t wait to tell his mom about.

Kids Like Jorge

Jorge’s story is not unique. The Huntsville Inner City Learning Center serves 30 of the city’s most incredible kids. They participate in an after-school program that looks exactly like what Jorge experienced. The HICLC serves 2nd — 6th graders who come to them by teacher recommendations. The more the HICLC works with at-risk youth, the more they understand that these kids don’t lack the ability to perform well in school; they simply lack the availability of help outside school.

The HICLC’s goal is to help kids build a strong educational, moral and spiritual foundation. They believe that kids in the inner city can level the playing field in America by getting an education, and they fight hard to instill that hope and future in their students. Students find a safe, Christ-honoring place at the center where they get to play in the garden, run in their own neighborhood, feel confident in their education and just be kids.