Program aims to help needy through education

    By Amanda Perez
    Special to

    NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCIV) -- Their approach to helping those stuck at the bottom of society involves enriching the mind to foster confidence and a love of learning. Project Director Mary Ann Kohli said it is an attempt to stop the often inescapable cycle of multi-generational poverty.

    When it comes to helping the homeless and disadvantaged, most people take a practical approach. Physical needs are addressed with shelters and soup kitchens. There is encouragement to help get the downtrodden back on their feet through minimum-wage jobs that may put food on the table, but do little to feed the mind or allow for career growth.

    That's where the Charleston Clemente course steps in. Clemente has been in the Lowcountry for six years and offers free college-level humanities courses for the homeless and disadvantaged at Trident Technical College's Palmer Campus.

    Kohli said Clemente students are provided with books, tuition, bus passes and one-on-one mentoring. They get exposed to another world by attending arts events where they might otherwise feel uncomfortable.

    "I've seen people change, completely change," Kohli said.

    She's not sure whether it's the self-esteem or intellectual abilities gained by students that make Clemente successful, but she has personally seen its positive effects. She said the program reverses the idea that physical needs of food and shelter must come first--Clemente focuses on food for the soul.

    There are free courses offered in the fall and spring, with about 30 students enrolled in each. The fall course focuses on history and art; the spring on philosophy, literature, and writing. The classes meet for an hour and a half twice a week, and students are provided with a meal each meeting.

    Kohli said students don't need a GED to enroll, but they must pass a placement test to determine a certain level of literacy. She said Clemente gave some students the courage to go back and get their GEDs. The courses count toward non-degree college credit, and are averaged into student GPAs.

    The Clemente program was born in 1995 when Earl Shorres, author of Riches for the Poor, realized what limited access the impoverished had to study the humanities. He sought to bring an Ivy League education to the man on the street and piloted the program at Bard College in New York.

    There are now more than 65 different Clemente courses around the world. Charleston's program is the only one in the Southeast, but Kohli would love to change that.

    An English professor at Trident Technical College, Kohli heard about Clemente shortly after recovering from breast cancer. She said she had a vision of her own mortality and what she wanted to do with her life and was inspired by Clemente's mission.

    Kohli obtained a $4,500 grant from the South Carolina Humanities Counsel to jumpstart the program in Charleston. It is now self-sustained through grants, individual donations and the sale of tickets to TTC's annual play, which Clemente students help produce.

    Those interested in the program must submit applications to Trident's Admissions Office, set up an interview with Dr. Kohli at (843) 720-5713 and present an acceptable ID.

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