‘You Have to Choose to Succeed’ in Fairfax

‘You Have to Choose to Succeed’ in Fairfax

FACETS honors students’ academic achievements.

From left: Three Ragan Oaks attendees, Shahid Latif, Stephen Tatem and Mohammed Froukh with their academic-achievement certificates.

From left: Three Ragan Oaks attendees, Shahid Latif, Stephen Tatem and Mohammed Froukh with their academic-achievement certificates. Photo by Bonnie Hobbs.


Ragan Oaks students and FACETS staff members, including Tijani Musa, celebrate success.


Robinson Square students who made the A-B Honor Roll for the first three quarters, with FACETS’s Shanel Hudson (in front).

To inspire young people to stay focused on academics as a means to break the cycle of poverty, FACETS runs a year-’round, youth program in certain low-income areas where the average income for a family of four is about $18,000 per year. At Robinson Square in Fairfax and Ragan Oaks in Fair Oaks, staff and volunteers provide an array of educational, preventative and enrichment opportunities.

They offer one-on-one mentoring and tutoring, homework help, plus classes including literacy, art, computers, and substance-abuse and dating-violence prevention. And before school ended, they honored graduating seniors – plus more than 60 Honor Roll students who earned A’s and B’s on their report cards – with an Academic Achievement party at Centerpointe Church in Fair Oaks.

Ragan Oaks

Some 35 students in grades K-12 go to the FACETS center in Ragan Oaks, every day after school, for homework help, plus various activities and field trips. For example, they went to GMU for International Week, celebrating the university’s diversity.

“I took the kids there to see different cultures, and we also saw a dance competition there,” said Tijani Musa, FACETS community development advocate at Ragan Oaks. “I want to encourage them to go to college, and they got to see that it’s not all studying – it can be fun, too. We also went to Wolf Trap to see a show, and the kids saw and participated in a CYA summer wrestling program. During spring break, they took a field trip to Van Dyck Park and played games, and they also swam in a pool in Ashburn.”

The students learn life skills, too. “Currently, I’m working to establish a Girl Scouts group at Ragan Oaks for grades two through six,” said Musa. “And for the boys, volunteers come on Fridays, hang out with them and teach them about taking initiative at home – for example, cleaning up after themselves and looking after younger siblings.”

They also learn conflict resolution. If someone’s bullying them, they’re taught to tell Musa, a teacher, parent or other trusted adult. “We also teach 11th- and 12th-graders what a healthy, dating relationship looks like, plus how to recognize a bad relationship,” said Musa. “We use a curriculum about safe dates from Partners in Prevention.”

Volunteers talk with both high-school boys and girls about self-esteem, and GMU students speak with the girls about their image. In addition, boys are taught responsibility.

During the summer, the students spend more time playing outside; the boys play soccer and football, and the girls play with chalk and hula hoops. And they all participate in Passport to Fun, learning fun facts about different countries and what they’d need to know before traveling there.

“Once they learn about a country, we stamp their ‘passports,’” said Musa. “This way, when they return to school, they can engage with their friends in conversations about what they did during the summer, too. Instead of just listening to their counterparts, they also have fun experiences they can share.”

“I was born in Sierra Leone, so I see myself in a lot of these kids,” he explained. “I came here when I was 12 or 13. My parents didn’t have anything and didn’t speak English, so I faced a lot of cultural challenges. But I knew that opportunities were here, so I applied for scholarships, got several and went to Mason.”

Musa majored in global affairs, with a concentration in international development, and he works for FACETS full-time. He does case management for the Ragan Oaks parents while their children are in school. And he says FACETS’s work with the students is critically important.

“We’re trying to end homelessness and break the cycle of poverty in Fairfax County,” said Musa. “My team tries to empower the kids to go to college and come back and help their families. Or we’ll direct them to figure out what they want to do. We also connect the parents to county resources for things like financial assistance, food, referrals to job training or even help with depression. I’m there to help provide these connections, while putting smiles on the faces of their kids daily.”

One of those smiling children is Eagle View Elementary fifth-grader Shahid Latif. He likes the FACETS program because “There are a lot of kids to play basketball, football and tag with,” he said. “The people are nice and I get homework help in math and science.”

Agreeing, classmate Stephen Tatem said he looks forward to going there because “They help us with our homework and I play tag, skateboard and chill.”

Centerpointe’s pastor, the Rev. Brandon Horst, said his church hosts most of the Ragan Oaks special events, such as summer kickoff, National Night Out and a holiday meal where children pick out Christmas gifts for their parents. The boys group plays games on church property, and Centerpointe also lets FACETS use its vans to transport the students to and from activities.

“When there are needs in the community, you need people to meet them, and that’s what FACETS does,” explained Horst. “The average income in the communities they serve is under $20,000/year, so that’s why it’s a joy for us to help them.”

Robinson Square

Shanel Hudson is the FACETS community development advocate at Robinson Square, next to GMU’s fieldhouse and adjacent to Main Street. Usually about 30 students, ages 4-18, participate. The program serves students attending Fairfax Villa Elementary, Frost Middle School, Woodson High and Robinson Secondary School.

They receive homework help and take part in boys and girls groups, plus life-skills groups. There’s also a weekly, adult ESL program. Besides running the program for the students, Hudson also works with adults in this area. Volunteers provide various programs, such as yoga and meditation, and a Women’s Business Circle advises attendees on how to succeed in the workplace.

Self-confidence and self-esteem classes are offered, as are life-skills classes in topics such as financial management. “When you work with low-income individuals or at-risk youth, you’re interacting with a population dealing with many deficiencies in their lives,” explained Hudson. “They don’t have access to the resources that people in other socioeconomic circumstances do.

“So we bridge that gap. We provide them referrals to other resources, such as free eyeglasses, vehicles and food. There’s even a ‘grocery store’ at Robinson Square where people in need in that community can come and get whatever they need. And they usually don’t take much because they know their neighbors are also in need.”

“Each center can also create programs to best serve its community’s needs,” continued Hudson. “At Robinson Square, a lot of my clients don’t have access to transportation, so a monthly volunteer takes them to do errands. And I ask local businesses to donate things such as grocery gift cards or snacks for the kids to eat during homework help.”

FACETS also holds an annual drive to provide children with backpacks and school supplies. And, said Hudson, “If they run out during the year, they can come to me and I’ll give them more.”

Pleased to host the Academic Achievement party at Centerpointe, Horst told the students there to look around at all the adults present. “These people care about you and want you to succeed,” said Horst. “But they can’t make you [do it]. You have to decide not to let things around you determine what happens to you. You have to choose to succeed.”

About 150 people attended the event – students, parents, FACETS staff and community partners, such as the Neighborhood and Community Service Unit, which helps nonprofit FACETS obtain grants. Also there was another partner, Fairfax County Housing and Development, which provides the spaces for the centers.

“They’re places to go after school,” said FACETS Executive Director Joe Fay. “They’re staffed, safe places where students work with caring adults, plus volunteer mentors, who get to know the kids over a long period of time. They’re role models and coaches and, by their commitment, they show the importance of what they do.”

“Tonight, we’re celebrating academic achievement,” he continued. “It sets the kids up for success and lets them know that what they’ve done is valuable and worth celebrating. And last year, all the graduating seniors in our programs went on to higher education afterward.”