A helping hand

Shari Fenton is sitting at her desk shouting into a cell phone and trying to hear amid the noise of 20 playing children. In a corner, four kids are working on their science projects, and Fenton wants to find out from their teacher what exactly they’re supposed to be doing.

“Who am I talking to?” Fenton shouts, struggling to be heard over the clanking pool balls, beeping video games and running, shouting children.

Borderline chaos rules this day at Asian Youth Services, 4750 N. Sheridan Road, an after-school program that has been overseen for 18 years by Fenton, who serves as a mother, cook, nurse and teacher for about 40 kids who use the service.

Throughout the years, Northwestern students have played a vital role in relieving some of the burden on the one-woman operation by tutoring kids for three to six hours a week.

But during the past month, two students have gone beyond their usual tutoring roles to help raise money for AYS, which the organization needs for food, scholarships and other costs of operating a center that strives to keep kids in school and off the street. Weinberg juniors Joe Skalski and Valerie Barrios have collected $5,400 for AYS from churches, individuals and various fund-raisers on campus.

“With AYS you know you’re helping specific kids do very specific things, and I like to see the results of that,” Skalski said. “I’ve never seen a more direct charity.”

Skalski and Barrios have set a goal of raising $7,800 for the center by March 31. Since late January, the two have been writing letters to possible donors and brainstorming other techniques, including selling candygrams and bagels at Technological Institute.

Local eateries Dave’s Italian Kitchen and Papa John’s Pizza have each donated a portion of a night’s sales to AYS. And campus a cappella groups Harmony in Spirit and Significant Others are also pitching in, collecting donations for AYS at their concert in McCormick Auditorium this Sunday.

Other campus groups are helping out, including Zeta Beta Tau, which donated $500, and the Residence Hall Association.

“I’ve been calling places in Evanston telling them about our situation and asking for help,” Skalski said. “Most say no, but I keep calling until someone says yes.”

Skalski and Barrios met the AYS director as tutors and then site leaders for the service organization Oasis. Skalski said they admire the dedication Fenton puts into helping the kids, including her efforts to send them to college and her ongoing court battles defending program regulars.

“If it wasn’t for Shari these kids would be caught up by peer pressure to drop out of school and could probably end up in jail,” Skalski said. “If the program could stay around, these kids would have a chance to be positive members of society.”

Earlier this month, Skalski and Barrios organized a trip to the Shedd Aquarium for 12 kids, many of whom had never been there. They take about one trip per quarter with the kids.

“It’s fun,” George Jideonwo, a 10-year-old AYS regular said. “It’s kind of cool because you do your homework in a fun way.”

Fenton said Oasis volunteers are good role models and mentors for the kids.

“(Raising money also) shows the kids they really care about them,” she said. “That’s important to the kids, especially those who feel marginalized.”

Oasis president Amina Merchant, a former site leader for AYS, said donations are necessary for the service to continue.

“What they are doing is helping Shari out with maintaining the budget and carrying it out so that AYS can be maintained on a long-term basis,” said Merchant, an Education senior.

Skalski said his ultimate goal is to see some of the AYS kids at NU. Since he began volunteering two years ago, Skalski has worked with Hong Yem, a 10-year-old who could barely read when the two met. Last week Hong demonstrated his hard work for Skalski by reading a whole book to him.

“Seeing him read reminds me why I go and why I do it, which is to teach the kids how to learn,” Skalski said. “A lot of days it’s tough to drag myself to go there but every time I do, I’m glad I did it.”

Donations can be sent to AYS at 5701 N. Sheridan Rd., #6N.