By Courtney Marcelo Norton

At the Albert T. Mills Enrichment Center, the children are practicing for graduation.  Solemn 5-year-olds march single file onto a pretend stage while Edward Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1 plays in the background.  Sitting with their small hands folded in their laps, they are remarkably self-possessed.  For these preschoolers – many of whom have survived violence, hunger and neglect–this graduation is a big deal.  They will be leaving the place that has been their refuge for the past few years; a place of safety from stressors like domestic abuse and poverty.

Founded in 1995 by Pastor Rosa Arnold, the center provides children between the ages of 3 and 5 with hot meals, educational activities, counseling and basic needs that would otherwise go unmet. Arnold established the center after her own son was murdered by a group of young men in Atlanta. The men (two were teenagers) were eventually apprehended and Arnold was standing in the courtroom at their preliminary hearing.  “They appeared cold-hearted,” she recalls, “and then it hit me that they were once little boys.  I wondered what had happened to them.”  That moment sparked a desire to help at-risk children avoid the same outcome.

Sixteen years later, the center serves an overwhelming number of children in need.  Most of the parents are single women. Some parents are on drugs. Many are jobless. The meals served at the center are often the only meals the children will eat that day. Arnold recounts the story of one boy who arrives at the center ravenous, eating several helpings at breakfast and lunch.  At the end of the day, they load his backpack with additional food, hoping it will reach his siblings at home.

To pay for this food, Arnold has pawned or sold most of her personal belongings and borrowed from friends and family. She relies almost exclusively on donations. “If they need coats, if they need shoes, we find a way to get them,” says volunteer Julie Silber, who works to coordinate donations for the center. “We have had children come to us without underwear . . . in the dead of winter.”

Not only does the center address immediate needs, like food and clothing, it helps students learn early reading and mathematics skills. Many graduates of the center go on to excel in school. “We had one grandmother who was raising nine children by herself,” recalls Arnold, “all of them crack babies.” The oldest of those children have since graduated high school at the top of their class. Perhaps more important than the academic lessons, the center teaches values such as integrity, respect and kindness ­– hard lessons for children who come to school shoeless because their parents sold their sneakers for drug money.

Arnold watches from the doorway as the graduation rehearsal winds down.  “I wanted to get them caps and gowns,” whispers the woman who has spent over a decade-and-a-half scraping together money for utility bills, food and teacher salaries to keep the center running. She claps softly as the children file past her, smiling just as she will on graduation day, having armed her little students with lessons of love and kindness that will hopefully last a lifetime.

The Albert T. Mills Center is in immediate need of donations and volunteer assistance. The center is temporarily located in Grant Park and is looking for a permanent location.  To learn how you can help, please visit their website at atmills.org or call (404) 635-2326.

Collin Kelley

Collin Kelley has been the editor of Atlanta Intown for two decades and has been a journalist and freelance writer for 35 years. He’s also an award-winning poet and novelist.