January 23, 2020

A suburban Philadelphia community unites to give students in need a better chance

The nonprofit A Better Chance in Lower Merion provides a home-away-from-home and a world-class education for economically disadvantaged young men of color.

Residents of Lower Merion Township, Pennsylvania, serve as advisors to the student scholars at A Better Chance in Lower Merion.

A Better Chance in Lower Merion, or ABC/LM, was a five-year-old program in 1978 when I moved to this community. A neighbor invited me to a meeting for the organization. Not only was I excited by the opportunity to directly help determined, bright, high school students earn their way to college, I was elated to meet a cross-section of ABC/LM community volunteers. Different as we were, we all had the same goal: to help these deserving kids get a better chance.

ABC/LM offers academically bright but economically deprived boys of color an opportunity to qualify for admission to challenging colleges and universities. While enrolled in Lower Merion’s college-preparatory program, up to nine high school students live in the ABC/LM house in Ardmore, Pennsylvania, where they are guided by a resident director, resident tutors, and a volunteer board of directors. Students usually come from low-income communities at least 90 miles away, giving them a chance to fully engage in a new environment.

While in the house, the ABC/LM students learn to live together, to be responsible young men, and to seek help when necessary. We help them enjoy all the aspects of life outside of academics as well: to participate in school sports and other programs, to enjoy community facilities, and to live sociably in the larger community.

“Giving back” is a quality inherent in ABC/LM values. All of our ABC/LM students choose a community service project, with some boys even going on spring break trips related to their chosen service organization. The philosophy of giving back stays with our alumni. For one ABC/LM graduate, a desire to immediately “pay it forward” for his Lower Merion education inspired him to collaborate with his fellow college freshman friends to create a tutoring program for students in a public elementary school near their university.

ABC/LM is a life-changer.

Over 95 percent of our graduates have earned admission to schools such as Georgetown, NYU, Tufts, Cornell, Syracuse, Bowdoin, Haverford, and the University of Pennsylvania. Following college graduation, these alumni have found careers in law, business, education, engineering, technology, and the arts.

[Read more: Black boys need the guidance and mentorship of black male teachers]

ABC/LM is a community changer.

The organization offers meaningful opportunities to residents who want to help deserving kids who otherwise might not have access to a college-preparatory education. Every ABC/LM student has an academic advisor, a resident who volunteers to be his link to his teachers and the school, and meets with his teachers and school advisors on parent-teacher night. Each student also has a host family—neighbors in whose home he has dinner once a month, and who check in on him.

Academic advisors and host families often keep in touch with their students long after graduation. Many of our alumni come back for house reunions, sharing with volunteers and current students the stories of their lives since college, their growing families, and their careers. These stories are heartwarming, often stirring, and always rewarding.

Besides offering volunteers a chance to encourage and help these determined students, Lower Merion Township graciously considers ABC/LM students full residents, so not only are they entitled to their Lower Merion High School education, but they have full access to all Lower Merion’s facilities. Lower Merion doctors, dentists, and psychologists offer free services to our students, while nearby Haverford College and Bryn Mawr College offer qualified tutors.

Just as ABC/LM is an extraordinary bonus in the lives of these students who want to earn a better chance to pursue the education they deserve, ABC/LM is an extraordinary bonus for the residents of Lower Merion Township who want to participate in helping these young men succeed. ABC/LM is a community changer.

A Better Chance in Lower Merion is totally dependent on funds raised in the community. It receives no government funds and no funds from the national A Better Chance office. Every year volunteers must raise about $140,000 for utilities and maintenance of the old Victorian house that is “home” to these kids, a cook and meals for the boys, one resident director and three live-in tutors, stipends for the staff, insurance, transportation, and various academic and extra-curricular programs that give the boys a well-rounded high school life.

Lower Merion Township and Lower Merion residents are united in providing the facilities and the enthusiasm to keep ABC/LM vibrant. But keeping our organization functioning is a major financial challenge.

A recognized invaluable asset that brings quality to so many lives, ABC/LM is in need of further financial support, and deeply appreciates help from all people and organizations who care about helping these deserving students succeed. Learn how to donate here.

A Better Chance in Lower Merion

Judith G. Zalesne

A Better Chance in Lower Merion

Judith G. Zalesne is a former English teacher and a volunteer for A Better Chance in Lower Merion.