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<br />Amid schools drama, ‘heart’ work goes on in S. Memphis

Doris Hill is not waiting for the next shoe to drop in the “reality show” involving the Memphis City Schools charter and the future of the children the system now serves. She’s too busy helping students face mountains of challenges. by Tony Jones
Special to the Tri-State Defender

On McLemore deep in the heart of South Memphis, Doris Hill is not waiting for the next shoe to drop in the “reality show” involving the Memphis City Schools charter and the future of the children the system now serves. She’s too busy helping students face mountains of challenges.


At the ESPN Academy, Kelli Maclin is among those finding varied forms of support.


Doris Hill founded the ESPN Academy in South Memphis in 2001 and her hands-on commitment is a constant. (Photos by Earl Stanback)

Oh yes, she’s interested, and she’s keeping up as much as possible given the myriad next moves that keep unfolding. It’s just that duty calls, with futures to be shaped.

Everyday, Hill opens the doors at the Education Scholarship Preparation Nurture (ESPN) Academy around 2:30 p.m. Prim and classically humorous, Hill, a former executive for Welcome Wagon and Kimberly Clark, estimates that she has put more than 3,000 hours into the after school program she founded at Pilgrim Rest Baptist Church in 2001.

A widow, her late husband, Dr. Alfred Dewayne Hill, had led the church to a renaissance before was murdered during a trip to New Orleans in 2002. His legacy is only part of her personal history in the area. She grew up on Gaby Street right behind Lincoln Elementary School and the ills – economic, social and otherwise –of the 38106 and 38126 zip code areas strike at her heart.

Listen as she describes the challenges she sees everyday.

“When you have children where both parents are incarcerated and they are being shifted among relatives, or a family where there are nine children with a 33-year-old mother. The 33-year old mother also has an 11-year-old sister. The 33-year-old mother’s oldest daughter is 19 years old and has a 6-month-old baby. It’s hell for the children.”

Is it the children’s fault? Absolutely not, said Hill.

“Their teachers have to be social worker, nurse, parent, all while trying to teach a room full of children all on many different levels academically. At the ESPN Academy, in addition to providing academic enrichment, empowering and inspiring children to dream, we buy school uniforms, provide money to get supplies for special projects, fund field trips, visit their schools, refer children for counseling, enlighten them about gangs, conflict resolution, domestic violence, A/D use/abuse, take them to the doctor...just to name a few.

“They don’t have the parental support and involvement that help to inspire. I hope you get the picture.”

One hour a day. One day a month. One day a week. Whatever one can do to help the children has to be done – and done now – because “Our future is right here, right now,” said Hill.

As if on cue, “BAM! BAM! BAM!” goes the big metal door that is the school’s entryway up a long flight of steps. Two students make their way up.

“Boy, where is that cap I gave you yesterday,” asks Sharon Phifer, a teacher assistant.

An eight year old brimming with energy charges up the steps with the usual answer – “I don’t know” – then rushes straight to a desk in the tutorial classroom.

In an adjacent room, twins Andrea and Aarah Deans are working side by side. Both students at Central High both serve as volunteers and are college bound, one to be a nurse practitioner, the other a pharmacist.

“By being exposed to the work here, it helps them to decide their own directions,” said Hill. “The teens help with the younger kids, we don’t allow them to be involved with the social issues.”

From her vantage point, Hill says it most assuredly is time for unity in the community to become a rallying cry, again, in the African-American community. The support that Pilgrim Rest’s pastor, the Rev. Dr. A. McKinley Royal, provides for the academy is exactly what is needed from the community at-large, she says.

“I hope that the SCLC and the ministers are doing more than just talking when they pledged to (Memphis City Schools Supt.) Dr. (Kriner) Cash that they are going to get behind the volunteer and mentoring programs.

“Martin Luther King Jr. once said, in part, ‘...intelligence plus character is the goal of true education. When are we going to start setting our children up for success instead of failure?”

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