Under a gray, spring sky, a light dances in Lenny Robinson’s eyes as the school bus pulls to a stop in front of the Ambler Borough Hall where Robinson stands, clipboard in hand.
It’s the end of a long school day, but Robinson, 56, is buoyant and beaming as nearly four dozen kids tumble off the bus. He greets each with a high-five, a hug, and a pump from bulk-sized jug of hand sanitizer.
“I missed you! How are you today? Hand sanitizer, everybody gets hand sanitizer!” bellows Robinson — better known as “Mr. Lenny" — a beloved, longtime custodian at Wissahickon Middle School. Inside, his mother, Joan, 79, arranges rows of bananas and Ziploc bags of pretzels and popcorn on a table for the children.
“Sometimes they take two if they want — I don’t mind,” she says with a smile. “It’s a joy to see the kids happy.”
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When Lenny was the children’s age, she would sit at the kitchen table in her Ambler home and work on science projects with him and neighborhood children after school. She loved it.
"But this,” she says, eyeing the bustling gymnasium where dozens of kids are settling into their seats under the watchful eye of Mr. Lenny, “this is my son’s dream.”
It’s called The W.A.C. Cares Homework Club, and Wissahickon School District teachers and students say it’s a smashing success. It was founded in 2016 by Robinson and fellow school district employee Patti “Miss Patti" Fabiani when they heard, through teachers, that some students were falling behind because they weren’t turning in homework assignments.
But when Fabiani and Robinson would drive past the neighborhood park on the way home from their respective schools, they saw that the same kids who weren’t finishing their homework assignments were already playing outside.
So Fabiani, a one-to-one support educator at Shady Grove Elementary in Ambler, asked the kids what was keeping them from doing their work. Their answer was pretty straightforward: Once they left school for the day they simply got too distracted to do assignments.
That worried Robinson, because completing homework is about more than the assignment at hand.
“It’s like the domino effect; it gives them confidence to do other things,” notes Robinson, who says he “barely” graduated from Upper Dublin High School nearly 40 years ago. “If they’re not worried about getting their homework done, then that stress is gone for everything else.”
In the summer of 2016, Robinson and Fabiani met with the district’s superintendent and reading specialists to craft an after-school homework program to help elementary school kids complete their assignments with confidence.
By August, the plan for the Homework Club was complete: Tuesdays through Thursdays, four buses would transport the children from district schools to the club, located at the Ambler Borough Hall. A printer, extra copies of assignments and textbooks would stay at the club for students who’d left their own materials behind.
And Ambler bought in. Within the first week of announcing the program at Shady Grove and Lower Gwynedd elementary schools, the Homework Club received 60 applications from students eager to join.
“I was like, ‘Oh my God, what are we gonna do?’ ” Fabiani recalls. "And [Lenny] was like, ‘It’ll be fine.’ I’m like, ‘It doesn’t feel like we’re gonna be fine.’ ”
The donations followed: snacks from the neighboring church and rotary club; educational games and toys from individuals; and a cart of laptops from the school district. The all-volunteer club now runs on a combination of fund-raisers, grants, and donations from the community.
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With a dedicated group of around 40 volunteers — mostly high school students and current or retired educators — the Homework Club works with 45 children each week. Some need additional instruction, some need help mastering English (their second language), and some, says Robinson, need “just a hug.”
“It takes a village," he says. "We all need a little bit of help. Some of our kids need confidence, that’s all. Some of them just haven’t figured [school] out.”
Almost immediately after the Homework Club began, teachers and parents noticed changes in their students’ work, says Fabiani.
“They were saying, ‘They’re understanding math all of a sudden,’ ” she says. "And, ‘The little bit of time you take with them is really making a difference.’ ”
In 2016, Jimmy Aguilar Vargas, then 6, joined the Homework Club. At home, he spoke only Spanish and struggled with reading, writing, and speaking English.
Over the next three years, despite a family move and a change in schools, he continued working with volunteer Anne “Miss D" Disisto. Today, says Fabiani, the 9-year-old is “soaring" - able to speak and comprehend English and reading at a second-grade level.
“It’s kind of hard sometimes, but it’s fun here,” says Jimmy. “Miss D. and Mr. Lenny ... they teach me here a lot.”
When students enter the hall, they mark on large posters whether they’re having a “thumbs-up,” “thumbs-down," or a somewhere-in-the-middle kind of day. Their feelings and well-being are a priority, said mindfulness instructor and volunteer Suzy O’Brien.
“If you feel safe and cared about, cognitively, you can do the work so much better," she says. “And it makes it easier to ask for help.”
“You know the phrase, ‘Be who you needed when you were younger?' That’s what this is about,” says Dean DelloBuono, a Temple University student who has volunteered with the club since its inception. Growing up, the 23-year-old said he was bullied in school and could have benefited from a positive place like the Homework Club. “Just that personal connection, being that friendly face for kids at the end of the day, that means a lot.”
After all, Robinson says, Homework Club is more than just another after-school program.
“You get a hug when you need it, you get a smile to meet you at the door,” he says. "Everybody’s invested in the same thing, and that’s to help our kids. To have a place ... where there’s so much love is very special.”