UNL staff and students aim to inspire children in Malone community
From conducting science experiments to giving hugs, a group of volunteers is doing their best to lift a forgotten community out of despair.
“It’s incredible how, just down the road from campus, exists a completely forgotten community with its own unique people and culture,” said Dr. Deb Mullen, who is an associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “At one time, it was a thriving community with movie theaters, barber shops and diners. Now it is crippled by poverty; it’s completely forgotten.”
Mullen, along with a small (but growing) band of UNL students are planning on changing that and restoring the Malone community to the prosperity it once possessed.
Junior Biochemistry major Sam Frankel is one of those students.
Frankel and another science student volunteer once a week at the center to inspire the children– primarily grades 2-6– who attend the after-school program to pursue an interest in STEM careers.
But for a lot of the kids attending the Malone Center, there are much bigger problems than memorizing Newton’s laws of motion, and volunteers like Frankel realized quickly that their roles at the center would not be limited to conducting science experiments.
“We give snacks to the kids once a day.” Frankel said. “Usually, we try to give them some sort of protein and some kind of vegetable, and for a lot of kids that is their only meal during the day. On days that their school is canceled due to weather, we have no idea if they are eating or not.”
Both Frankel and Mullen admitted that the alarming circumstances which threaten the kids they see everyday were shocking to them, especially considering the Malone Center’s proximity to campus.
“To most people,” Frankel said, “poverty this bad isn’t supposed to exist in this part of Lincoln. That’s what shocked me the most; I had no idea that conditions were this bad so close to where I live.”
The Malone Center aims to provide the kids with an escape from those conditions, and Dr. Mullen has provided the primary push for the community center to set kids on a better path.
“Every day, I give each boy and girl a hug when they walk in the door.” She said. “For a lot of them, they just need to be shown that they are loved, that they are valued. They don’t get that at home.”
In addition to the science lessons conducted by Frankel, Mullen has coordinated a “robotics time” to further intrigue kids in the areas of science, technology and mathematics.
Mullen purchased all the robotics kits and supplies herself.
“Nobody at home is telling these kids they can be doctors, or engineers, or astronauts.” She said. “We have made it our mission to let them know that there are not limits to their futures.”
Last Thursday afternoon, a group of 12 boys and girls crowded noisily around a focused Sam Frankel, who was measuring the distance from the ground to the pencil he was holding. The pencil was to be dropped at exactly the same time from exactly the same distance as the crumpled sheet of notebook paper held by Frankel’s partner.
Frankel instructed each curious student to write down their prediction for which object would reach the floor first. The race was surprisingly close to most of the kids, and one shouted above the noise: “is that ’cause of gravity?!”
Frankel smiled and responded that it was.
He leaned over and said, “In the end, that’s what it’s all about.”