Washington, DC is known for some of the worst public schools in the United States. Most of the students who attend the city schools are black. Many come from poverty and perform poorly in reading and math. Steve Park, a South Korean immigrant who lives in DC, is trying to help young people do better in school and excel after they finish their education.
A warm smile and a loving hug are all that Steve Park needs to fuel his passion for helping kids in a tough Washington neighborhood not far from the Capitol. It began 15 years ago when Park met a 13 year-old boy here who couldn't read a children's book. "If he didn't learn how to read, it was going to be very difficult for him in adulthood, and so I felt convinced we should start a tutoring program," he said. "Especially to help kids to read."
Park founded Little Lights Urban Ministries. It's a free after-school tutoring and recreational program -- with some bible study thrown in -- for kids who live in this public housing project surrounded by poverty, drug dealers and crime.
"I think it's something about the culture sometimes that makes it difficult for kids to feel like they can make it out or going to college is even an option for them," he said.
Park says only one in three DC public school students finishes high school and if they make it to college only five percent graduate. He says Little Lights focuses on students who need the most help. "The kids just often have a very bleak view of the future just from a very early age. They feel like they will never be able to make it to college. They have a good chance of not even graduating high school. We try to provide as many resources as we possibly can to the young people so that they come through our program, because we know the odds are so stacked against them," Park said.
Park was born in South Korea and immigrated to the US, growing up in the Washington DC suburbs. He never dreamed of working with underprivileged children but 16 years ago, he was drawn to religion. "Before my conversion I had no interest in children", he says, "I was not interested in non-profit work but, after my conversion, I just had an incredible sense of compassion for the kids that I was meeting."
One of those kids was Dwaine Brown. He was tutored by Little Lights and now is in his last year of college. He remembers when Park first showed up in the black neighborhood. "A lot of times when you get new people that come into the community they tend to be a little timid or nervous but Steve doesn't display any of that," he said. "He fits right in."
A few blocks away, Steve and his wife Mary, with a small staff and volunteers, provide a safer environment to learn and play. But besides helping with grades, they also teach valuable life skills.
"If you really want to be happy, you have to build the person you are on the inside, you want to be an honest person, you want to be a hard working person and you want to be a person that cares about their own community and that takes care of their families," Park said.
Park says the test scores of students who spend two to three years in the program have measurably improved. "I just have this sense of gratitude and hope for the future that really drives me and I want the kids that we work with to experience that sense of hope and compassion for themselves so their lives can be changed."
Park knows he's succeeding by getting these kids to believe in themselves as much as he believes in them.