One man’s crusade to help kids inspires the Washington Township community
Tom Lange has a passion. It burns within him. You can hear it in the way he talks about helping others. He speaks, however, like a man who understands the realities of the world and the uphill battle he is facing to help give others a chance. He is softened by experiences that have both inspired him and humbled him.
Six-and-a-half years ago, Tom and his wife Nancy (North Central ’77) began tutoring through their church. At first, an hour over a lunch break from a successful engineering career at Eli Lilly seemed like a perfect use of time. His work at Indianapolis Public School 20 was the appetizer he needed to see the true value of volunteerism.
“I fell in love with it,” Lange recounts. “The yearning for learning from the students was so evident that it inspired you to help.”
When the school was consolidated, Lange transitioned to working with students inside of Washington Township, at Fox Hill Elementary. A highly diverse community, the Langes were inspired by two brothers, Jesus and Mariano, who came to provide a bigger lesson to their tutors. Raised in a tiny apartment with no beds, no table, no English and no comfort, Lange’s perspective on how hard it is to live in poverty was forever altered.
“It wasn’t just about tutoring, it was about experiences,” he said. “When you don’t have anything, you miss out on so many things we take for granted daily.”
From the theatre to parks, the Langes made sure the boys experienced all the community could offer. They became more than just tutors. They became their chance. One night, one of the boys called the Lange’s home just to show his appreciation. He wasn’t confident in his English yet, so all he could muster was ‘Me yamo Mariano. Goodbye.’ Lange was hooked.
The west side of Washington Township features some of the heaviest concentrations of low-income living in all of Indianapolis. A geographic area tucked in the southwestern corner of the district serves as a melting pot of poverty and people, crime and culture, hunger and hope. With 2,000 units across five adjacent apartment complexes, the children most in need feed into two township elementary schools: Greenbrier and Fox Hill.
Lange had witnessed the greater need in the community and wanted to do something about it. Admitting he was more than a bit “apprehensive,” Lange went all-in on finding a solution. He quit his job at Lilly, brought civic leaders together and worked to develop a plan to empower the community. In March of 2014, a formative meeting was held at the H. Dean Evans Community and Education Center. Support of a program was overwhelming. From it, thanks to the help of an Ethiopian proverb, Lion Catcher was born.
When spider webs unite, they can tie up a lion
Lion Catcher’s aim was to bring as many resources together. The Advancement Center provided the first bit of grant money in the fall of 2014, subsidizing larger partnerships with the Boys & Girls Clubs, YMCA (which, Lange points out, had never taken programs into the community), Glick Neighborhood Center, North Central High School and others. If Lion Catcher could get traction by taking existing programs into the communities, it could then take root with sustained programs it started.
- Increase Tutoring
- Increase Enrichment
- Reduce crime and violence
- Provide Leadership Development
Within the first year of Lion Catcher, there was noticeable progress. Tutoring takes place both in after school programs and through ‘homework help’ sessions in the apartment complexes themselves. A seven-week leadership development program gave students access to personal growth that they never had before. And a partnership with America’s Football Club brought a soccer league to all kids in the community. For the first time, parents were able to see the value of involvement.
“We have loved being a part of Lion Catcher this year by participating in the Greenbriar Soccer Club,” said Amber Jackson who, along with her husband, Stan, have taken on leading the club. “The club has evolved from a simple game of soccer into so much more. The sense of community we have built as parents, and the bonds we have witnessed the children make with each other is irreplaceable. With continued support, this program can become a staple in our community.”
For Lange, success is measured in involvement. The first year of Lion Catcher saw soccer teams staffed by paid coaches (supported by the Advancement Center grant). By year two, the league was fully run by parents within the communities.
“We simply needed a system to put things in to,” Lange recounts. “People needed a kick start to see what was possible.”
By 2015, the soccer coaches, tutoring coordinators and leadership development program heads were all members of the community that never knew of its own potential just one year prior. There are more smiles. And, there are more A’s!
At Fox Hill, of 37 students tutored through Lion Catcher, 85-percent now meet their weekly reading benchmarks. Beyond that, 34 of that group moved up at least one reading level thanks to the extra attention. It wasn’t just the tutoring either. Grant-supported funds provided the laptops and technology to bring learning materials into the apartments, which aided immensely in the progress.
Lion Catcher is still just a cub. Now in just its second year, the community support continues to grow, and the program has the potential to stretch throughout the remainder of Washington Township and Indianapolis.
“The Lion Catcher program provides young people with something all the scholarly research shows that they need for successful growth: positive, affirming relationships with caring adults,” said John Brandon, President of the Marion County Commission on Youth. “Whether it is a tutor, a coach, a speaker at a leadership program or any of the other ways Lion Catcher volunteers touch young people’s lives, each person is telling that young person the same thing: you are valuable, you have potential, you count. In my opinion, there is not a more important thing that Lion Catchers does, nor a more compelling reason to continue to grow its reach.”
Lange’s brain goes into overdrive when asked about what could be next. He quickly points out that 2014’s four objectives multiplied to 16 defined and targeted goals for 2015-16.
Like any community-led effort, it takes people, relationships and support. He would love to see Homework Help develop into an academy down the road. Concentrating communications for all apartment complexes and volunteers could be streamlined. Staffing the organization is becoming a growing possibility.
Lange’s dream is to throw the biggest party the community has ever seen. Have a huge tent in the common space of the complexes and allow community leaders to serve them. Educate the parents and families on what has been done; what COULD be done. It just takes some buy-in and some belief, Lange says. And someone like him too!
Help us continue to support trailblazers like Lange and the Washington Township students within Lion Catcher. Allow us to increase grant support to this program and others like it by giving to the Annual Fund today!