Some valuable life skills aren’t necessarily taught in school or at home.
Most are familiar with the acronym IQ, or “intelligence quotient,” but another measure that can play as big a role in someone’s life isn’t as familiar.
It’s EI, or “emotional intelligence,” basically how you cooperate with others, make decisions and handle stress in relationships.
For nearly 20 years, a nonprofit founded by recent Charleston mayoral candidate Ginny Deerin has been evolving and growing an after-school program for Title 1 elementary schools that focuses on developing the skills necessary for behaving well, making good decisions and building healthy relationships.
WINGS for Kids, originally created as WINGS for Girls in 1996, uses trained and paid college and graduate students to lead the programs that focus on developing the five core competencies of EI, which are self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills and responsible decision making.
“Life skills are things many of us may take for granted,” says Eleanor Smythe, the former executive director for WINGS in South Carolina (who resigned last week to spend more time with her family). “IQ is pretty much set in life, but EQ (EI) is changeable, and the social and emotional skills children learn in elementary school can carry on with them throughout their life.”
Some of the students that WINGS reaches, Smythe adds, live in family environments with “toxic stress,” with issues such as substance abuse, mental illness, homelessness, unemployment or incarceration.
“That’s toxic stress and some of these kids come to school stressed out and they don’t know how to deal with it. We try to give these kids opportunities to develop skills to deal with it.”
Ultimately, the program helps in keep kids focused and on track with skills they can use in middle and high school to graduate, go to college and get worthwhile, lasting employment.
In July, a 20-year retrospective study was the latest research to validate the power of EI and social competency traits such as sharing, cooperating and helping. The study funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and published in the July edition of the American Journal of Public Health.
The study followed children, rated by kindergarten teachers in the early 1990s, in Durham, N.C., Nashville, Tenn., Seattle, Wash., and central Pennsylvania.
The study suggests that kindergarten students who are more inclined to exhibit those traits may be more likely to attain higher education and well-paying jobs. In contrast, students with weaker social competency skills may be more likely to drop out of high school, abuse drugs and alcohol, and need government assistance.
And emotional intelligence is getting so much attention in the business world these days that “Forbes” magazine routinely features columns on it.
In its 19th year, WINGS, which claims to be the only program of its kind in the nation, has served about 5,300 children from kindergarten to sixth grade.
It currently has programs in four local schools, Memminger, Chicora, North Charleston and Burns elementary, as well as four in Atlanta, one in Lake City and one in Charlotte. The total number of local children in the program this school year is 475.
Smythe says the reason it hasn’t grown to more schools in the Charleston area is the limitation on qualified college and graduate students who can commit to the demands of an after-school program that runs from 2:30 p.m. to nearly 6 p.m. every school day.
“It (being a WINGS leader) is intense work. It’s not babysitting, but very high-energy, active work. The whole point of WINGS is that it is engaging and fun,” says Smythe, noting that each leader has a “nest” (each one named for a different kind bird) of 10 to 12 children, divided by grade and gender.
Local WINGS leaders include students at Charleston Southern University, College of Charleston and Trident Tech.
“We didn’t feel like we could stick to our model and expand to the entire CCSD (Charleston County School District),” says Smythe, adding that the nonprofit also wants to start growing other programs in the Southeast region.
The program is old enough, Smythe added, that four former students became leaders last year.
Public, private funding
The 56 WINGS leaders are paid largely with funds from public and private entities.
Public funding includes $1.5 million, which includes in-kind donations that come from local, state and other entities, including AmeriCorps and the Education Department’s 21st Century Community Learning Center.
Charleston County School District used to provide funding, but it cut WINGS out of the budget entirely this year, according to Smythe.
Private funding from individuals, foundations and corporations, including Trident United Way, brought in an additional in $885,000.
Parents and team leaders can attest to the program’s impact on the lives of children.
Angel Grant, a patient care technician at the Medical University of South Carolina, says her daughter, Adrianna Rogers, participated in WINGS at Memminger Elementary School for two years before entering the seventh grade this fall.
“She used to be extremely shy and she’s not as shy now. WINGS helped to get her out of her shell,” says Grant.
Often working 12-hour shifts, Grant adds that WINGS provided invaluable support to her, especially in helping Adrianna with getting her homework completed.
Shania Anderson, who works in an accounting department, says her daughter, Deavonne Anderson-Deas, participated in WINGS from kindergarten to fifth grade and watched her self-esteem and independence develop.
Anderson says the WINGS leaders become role models, “like aunts and older sisters,” to the children.
Yet WINGS leaders, many who are studying education, counseling and other subjects related to youth, benefit with a job that provides them hands-on expertise as they study.
Sumter native Jamita Brown, 23, was a leader in the 2013-14 year, when she was a psychology major at Charleston Southern University. She returned this year while she works on her master’s in education and counseling at The Citadel.
“It’s more than just a job. It has to be. If you don’t have the heart for the children, if you don’t have a passion for what you do, it will show and they will know that you’re not there for anything other than money,” says Brown.
“It (the job) is challenging but more beneficial than challenging. ... The school year is 180 days and you’re with a group of 12 kids, every single day from 2:30 p.m. to 6 p.m. It becomes like a family, and families have their challenges.”
Bryan Williams, 22, of Camden, says friends suggested that he become a WINGS leader, which has taught him, too.
“Among the principles we try to teach the children are being kind, being a friend to others, getting in someone else’s shoes, but in the end, we not only teach the children those principles, but we teach ourselves those principles.”
He adds, “If you look at it (the job) just for the pay, it won’t satisfy. The money will be spent, but the memories that I made with the kids will last forever.”
Reach David Quick at 937-5516.
North Charleston Recreation Department lifeguard Claire Withers and WINGS for Kids leader Juan Ray discuss what portion of the Danny Jones Pool is set aside for a cool dip during a WINGS training week in mid-August.×
Bryan Williams and Jeoffrey Dean watch over youngsters during a break in leader training.×
WINGS for Kids leader Andrey Gaust provides comfort to a youngster.×
The Wings for Kids after-school programs mix fun with academics and other learning opportunities as part of its goal of teaching social skills.×
David Quick/StaffWINGS for Kids leader Juan Ray explains a few rules before youngsters head to the Danny Jones pool in North Charleston during a camp just before the start of school.×