Michael Russell is realizing his dream as a biology major at Webster University. Thanks to ACCESS Academies, he is the first person in his family to go to college.
Established in 2005, ACCESS Academies is a nonprofit enabling students to break the cycle of poverty through higher education. A “school within a school,” the organization automatically enrolls students at Most Holy Trinity Academy, St. Cecilia Academy and St. Louis the King School into a seven-year program that raises the bar of academic performance in middle and high schools, prepping them for college success.
“We believe every student should have the opportunity to succeed and the right to be prepared for college,” says executive director Blake Youde.
Using the NativityMiguel educational model, ACCESS students attend extended 10-hour school days during expanded 10 1/2-month academic years in middle school. Students go on to a vigorous ACCESS Graduate Support Program in high school, where they are provided with tutoring, counseling, scholarships, ACT preparation, and college and financial aid application assistance. Additionally, the organization holds educational events, such as career days and college fairs, with the help of dozens of volunteers.
ACCESS’ annual impact has been life-altering for more than 300 disadvantaged students in poor urban neighborhoods, with 96 percent of its middle school graduates gaining acceptance to college-prep high schools, 98 percent graduating from high school on time and 83 percent earning acceptance to college. ACCESS students, 90 percent of which are minorities, have achieved academic success at 26 area high schools and colleges across the nation, from Saint Louis University to Notre Dame. “Most of them are the first generation in their family to have an opportunity to attend college,” Youde notes. “We’re empowering them to take advantage of an opportunity they have earned.”
This is true for the Carillo brothers—Alfredo, Alex and Jesse—who attended ACCESS while at St. Cecilia Academy. And Russell, a Most Holy Trinity and ACCESS graduate, was propelled to CBC High School and Webster University to follow his dream of becoming a forensic scientist.
Youde says ACCESS not only influences students to aim higher throughout their academic years and during their future careers, but it also encourages a sense of community. “It’s another way of instilling that philosophy of giving back to their community,” he explains. “We hope as they grow and see the community step up to help them, they will, in turn, give back to the community.”
ACCESS relies on its annual NativityMiguel Scholarship Dinner each June for a majority of its financial support. The gala raised a record $430,000 last year.
For more information about ACCESS Academies, call 898-0430 or visit accessacademies.org.
Volunteer Spotlight: Marie Kenyon
Marie Kenyon would love to run out of clients and close up shop tomorrow. “That’s my goal—to work my way out of a job,” she says. That’s because shutting her office’s doors would mean there were no more disadvantaged people who needed her help.
Kenyon, a managing attorney at Catholic Legal Assistance Ministry for the past 26 years and a founding board member of ACCESS Academies, is grateful her law office allows her to give back to the community through the nonprofit. She provides complimentary legal assistance to ACCESS client families, and holds educational programs at her office to help the organization’s students prepare for college. “It became apparent to me early on in my career that the only way out of poverty is through education,” she says.
One such educational program is Financial Aid Day, where Kenyon and her staff provide free assistance with filling out financial aid forms for college. Many ACCESS kids go on to be accepted to the college of their choice, Kenyon notes. “We are so proud of their efforts, and it is a blessing we get to be involved in this process.” And helping even one child—and ACCESS helps hundreds each year—makes a positive impact on the community, Kenyon says. “They are St. Louis kids, so they are going off to college and they are going to come back and be productive members of our society.”
Kenyon is happy to provide a helping hand, because she says no one becomes successful on their own. “We all had help—I had help in high school and college—because we’ve been helped, we have an obligation to help others,” she explains. “And when you see these kids who are really working hard, it’s easy to be motivated to help them. It really gives you hope.”