Azusa Community Celebrates 20th Anniversary of Our Neighborhood Homework House

by Cynndie Hoff

Gangs, drugs, and prostitution once infiltrated the streets of the family-oriented Azusa community. Children had no safe space to play, no quiet place to study, and little hope of escaping the destructive influences around them. But Rosa Chenet, mother of two, held plenty of hope, which ultimately changed the course of her children’s lives.

The humble heart of a praying mother and the faithful Spirit of a loving God set into motion a grassroots movement in the city of Azusa. His plan began with three ordinary people He would gift to do extraordinary things. He inspired Paul Keeler ’98, a young married student at Azusa Pacific working on his Global Learning Term project, which focused on caring for the community from the inside out. He also called Janet MacDonald, an Azusa pastor’s wife, knowing her heart for the lost. He rounded out his team with Kerry Freeman, a former teacher with a passion for children.

From their individual strengths, God multiplied their efforts as they obeyed His call to come alongside the families in Azusa, specifically in the neighborhood of 9th Street and Pasadena Avenue. They began by listening to the needs of the parents, many of whom were new to this country and unfamiliar with the language, the education system, and the social mores. They also listened to the children, who expressed frustration with their school work, the lack of secure places to play, and the negative temptations that surrounded them. Without a formal business plan, long-term vision, or even a facility, Keeler, MacDonald, and Freeman rolled up their sleeves and got to work as partners willing to listen, learn, and act.

Parents quickly came on board, and a few opened their homes for some homework sessions with the kids. Chenet volunteered first. Given her kids’ struggles with school and life, she gratefully offered whatever space she had. Her son, Chris, then a fifth grader, remembers what drew him to the program. “I wasn’t the greatest student, and I tended to get into trouble a lot,” he said. “But I kept coming to the Homework House, which was essentially my house, because of the community that developed there.”

And so, Our Neighborhood Homework House (ONHH) began—at the kitchen table of a faithful mother. Once word spread, the kitchen table session quickly spilled over to the living room sofa and the family room floor. Other neighbors joined in and opened their apartments on a rotating basis. Through tutoring, counseling, playing, reading, and listening, Keeler, MacDonald, and Freeman began building relationships with these families they came to love.

After three years, the popular program drew many more participants, prompting the application for 501(c)(3) charitable organization status and the need for an executive director. The board tapped Abigail (Aldrich ’00) Gaines for the important role. The job came as an answer to Gaines’ prayer: “I was just about to graduate from APU, and I said, ‘God, if you want me to stay here, please send me a cross-cultural community development opportunity’—and He did!” When Gaines took the helm, she committed herself body, mind, and soul. “There were homework sessions twice a week, but we needed more,” she said. “There were so many latchkey kids, no afterschool programs, and parents and grandparents eager for ways to help young people in their spiritual and academic growth.” By the end of Gaines’ first year, the program doubled in size and expanded from serving only elementary children twice a week, to more than 80 kids meeting five days a week, including middle and high schoolers.

The expansion came as a result of her genuine passion and her persistence. She spent countless hours in the neighborhood every day, knocking on doors, striking up conversations, recruiting volunteers, soliciting food and supply donations, praying, writing grants, and making meaningful connections that built trust and changed lives. “After a couple years, it became my home, my children, my family—they stole my heart,” said Gaines.

The faithful actions of a few good servants established the foundation for a growing, thriving ONHH. Now housed in a facility on the Foothill Community Church campus, nestled between Foothill Boulevard and Citrus and Alosta avenues, the program serves more than 200 students throughout the Azusa Unified School District. ONHH employs a modest staff and primarily runs on volunteer power—typically 100 a year. Of those, nearly 75 percent are APU students, with up to 7 earning Federal Work Study funds.

These bolstered resources enabled the program to increase its offerings. Today, ONHH serves students from pre-K through 12th grade, Monday through Friday, from school-readiness programs for 3 and 4 year olds, to tutoring, mentoring, character development, field trips, and academic clubs, such as Girls Who Code, Leadership, and Lego Robotics for elementary and middle schoolers; and college-prep activities and job-readiness workshops for high schoolers. Parents also comprise a key component of the ONHH. Inspired by the eager involvement of parents in the first days of the fledgling program, the organization continues to integrate the assistance of parents and families in the day-to- day activities. Further, through conversational English as a second language classes, continuing education and computer courses, and parenting seminars, parents now attend ONHH as well, gaining much-needed skills and resources as they strive to empower their families.

From the humble beginnings when Rosa Chenet opened her home and later volunteered and helped grow the program, parents have followed her selfless example, and their children have reaped the benefits. Son Chris ’14, one of the program’s first students, went on to attend Azusa Pacific on a scholarship; earned his Master of Arts in Public Administration at California State University, Fullerton; and served an internship under Senator Ed Hernandez (D-22nd). Today, he works as a community development analyst for the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority overseeing funds and services to the homeless in L.A. County. “I credit Our Neighborhood Homework House as a big part of why I chose this field,” he said. “That was my first exposure to a nonprofit organization that really gave back to the community and was serious about developing it. It changed my life.”

While the mission that inspired Chenet remains the same as the day it began 20 years ago—to partner with families so students can thrive academically and socially—the scope and vision have far exceeded the expectations of the individuals, the sponsoring organizations, and the generous donors who have supported the dream over the years, including Azusa Pacific. Jennifer Hicks, current executive director, points to the inspiring words of President Jon R. Wallace, DBA, when he announced his desire to serve the community and meet the needs of the families in the neighborhood. “He described the heart of what we do at ONHH, and APU has certainly been a steady supporter of our vision from day one,” said Hicks, who has overseen the organization since 2014. “We now have students on a waiting list in desperate need of what ONHH offers, and it breaks our hearts to turn them away.”

Hicks and her team envision a larger facility or community center that could accommodate the increasing number of students and parents who benefit from their services. However, for a nonprofit, such plans rely on the generosity of private foundations and individual donors. As it has from the first gathering at Rosa’s kitchen table, Our Neighborhood Homework House will trust in God’s provision and the Spirit-led vision gifted to them 20 years ago when three willing servants said: “Here I am. Take me.”

Cynndie Hoff is a freelance writer living in Walnut, California. ceh.hoff@verizon.net