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A Man Helping to Build a Beloved Community in Harlem—One Afternoon at a Time

When the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote that “we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny,” he wasn’t talking about school staffing, or supply chain issues, or virus transmission; he was talking about injustice. But the pandemic’s ripple effects have issued an invitation along with the challenges they cause: they invite us to see how our lives are connected to, made better by, and bound up with individuals we may not have appreciated or even fully seen before.

That is certainly true in schools. Staff who don’t often get the same kind of attention or respect that teachers do are, nevertheless, crucial to our children’s education and our communities’ smooth functioning. The COVID spike this month has taught us this lesson yet again; for example, in Montgomery County, Maryland, the public schools have called on the National Guard to help keep schools open—not because of a weather disaster or civil unrest but because staffing shortages and positive COVID tests have left them with a crippling shortage of bus drivers.

Many school staff, regardless of their positions, do far more than complete tasks; they contribute meaningfully to the education of children and the culture of whole school communities. The St. Mark the Evangelist School community in Harlem knows that well, in part thanks to one such man: Melvin Martin.

Officially, Mr. Mel directs the school’s extended day program. But if you ask St. Mark principal John Bacsik, Mr. Mel does so much more: “he provides steadiness to students and families in the midst of a turbulent year.”

And if you ask Mr. Mel, he sees his work as something beyond the already important task of taking care of children after classes end. “It is so important for kids to have something to look forward to in these crazy times.” A renaissance man who coaches basketball outside of school and has a performing arts background, he incorporates a wide range of activities into afternoons that students have come to look forward to. “They’ll stop me in the hall all excited during the school day and ask things like, ‘are we having dance today?’”

A student looks to Mr. Mel for direction.

“The littlest thing like snack time can be cool, I guess. And I want them to have those kinds of routines—where they are going with the flow and it’s making them happy and excited; where their parents know their kids aren’t just getting cared for—safety first—but they are tapping into their creative side in addition to getting homework help.”

When he began serving as one of the aftercare team leaders four years ago, it was a logical extension of some of the other work he had done with young people. But he found that the children at St. Mark inspire him: “the kids inspire me to keep growing. At times when I think it’s tough, they let me know they need me, and I need to be there for them.”

So what began as a job has become a calling. “I love to work for our young people–to be a positive role model that can inspire them, like they inspire me.” He also found himself seeking out opportunities to be there during the school day too, not just working there but “being part of the school community”—something he is able to do now as extended day director.

It’s not easy; he has juggled a few staffing challenges from time to time this fall. “I push,” he explains simply. “I try to figure it out.”

The fact that he works at a Harlem school is one reason he pushes himself. “I am an educator in the community I grew up in,” he shares. “Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X, and other freedom fighters walked these sidewalks, and the talent that has emerged from this neighborhood–it breathes out a special kind of energy. To grow up a part of that and to keep pushing that forward is an honor. If I can help in a positive way with the problems of our community, that’s meaningful.”

On Monday, the Martin Luther King holiday, Mr. Mel will take a well-deserved day off, along with the rest of our educators. And on Tuesday, he will be right back at it with them, building toward the Beloved Community Dr. King dreamed of—one afternoon at a time.