Lessons Learned: Rachel Slaughter in her Lansdowne classroom//Photo by Tessa Marie Images.
The Garden Church might be an unlikely place for an office, but it’s where Rachel Slaughter has set up shop. It’s been said that it was once a stop on the Underground Railroad. When Slaughter arrived at the Lansdowne church’s Methodist congregation in 2008, the old slate chalkboards, former ballroom and other amenities were squirrel- and pigeon-infested.
Today, a varsity jacket is displayed as both a symbol of accomplishment and a nod to her project unfolding. “This is the whole reason for my living,” she says. “It’s been a dream for everyone involved.”
Slaughter lives down the street and often walks to the church, but it’s not her congregation—and her programs aren’t religiously affiliated. Even so, the name of her Salt and Light Learning Institute is a biblical reference—to the salt of the earth and the light of the world. It has a goal of enriching young people’s lives by “celebrating cultural literacy and exposing students to an academic cornucopia.” S.A.L.L.I. provides year-round tutoring, SAT preparation, and a summer camp. It’s renaissance learning in one of Delaware County’s roughest neighborhoods.
Slaughter, the executive director, is a 48-year-old Yeadon native who came to Lansdowne when she married. Immediately, she saw kids wandering the streets and thought, “This would be a perfect place to have a school,” she says.
In 2005, she began knocking on church doors, looking to rent space. One pastor at a white Baptist church asked her flat-out, “Will these kids look like you?”
“I said they would look a lot like me,” she recalls. “He said, ‘Well, it’s not going to work. Think about it: a white Baptist church with a lot of black kids. It’s not going to work.’”
That pastor connected her with a more liberal one—Rev. Timothy Thomson-Hohl, then of the Garden Church, who welcomed the opportunity. He installed new lighting and bookshelves, bought a piano, and freed up courtyards and a music room. S.A.L.L.I. branched out from one camper to 22 in its first summer.
“And, yes, they all looked like me,” says Slaughter, a Cabrini College graduate who is also an author.
“I had an immediate impression that Rachel was very committed to serving the community,” says Thomson-Hohl. “I liked her dedication to education and to reaching all people. She’s a great model for teaching, learning and administration.”
Thomson-Hohl departed for Ardmore United Methodist Church in 2011. Now, one proposed scenario at his old church is to tear it down.
If S.A.L.L.I. is forced to relocate, it will be hard to replace the church’s spacious four floors and history. “For years, nothing was happening here,” says Slaughter. “When we brought kids in, we brought it back. These rooms lit up again.”
These days, S.A.L.L.I. has just one room, a courtyard and a side yard. It must request use of others, though there’s more freedom during the summer. “We remain grateful for the opportunity,” Slaughter says. “This is what I was born to do.”
Rachel Slaughter’s love of teaching empowers kids in a struggling community//Photo by Tessa Marie Images.
Rachel Slaughter always wanted to teach. Her college days were spent at the predominately white institutions of Cabrini and Kutztown University.
Once she started teaching at Reading Senior High School, she became a mentor for her students of color, who had a kindred cultural background. They began to see the light. “They were so proud and excited to have someone like them,” says Slaughter. “It really stroked my ego, too.”
Today, Slaughter is a literacy coach at the Chester Community Charter School. The previous three school years, she was the director of curriculum development at Eastern University Academy Charter School in Philadelphia. “I float, I guess, because it always seems to get to the point where I realize that, if they were really interested in having kids learn, then things wouldn’t be so hard,” she says about her career as a drifter.
When Slaughter ends summer camp in early August, she gears up for the school year. Joyce Thornsberry, a longtime S.A.L.L.I. employee and now its lead instructor, is a substitute teacher for the school year. “Sadly, parents are looking for a babysitter,” says Thornsberry. “Salt and Light is not a babysitter, but it’s positive and offers experiences our kids will not get at home.”
To help keep the project going and open it to others, Slaughter and Thorns-berry have been planning the center’s biggest fundraiser to date. The hope is that they can have kids attend camp for free. It currently costs $100 per week, though Slaughter believes the actual value is closer to $300 a week. Unfortunately, what comes in doesn’t equal the cost to rent the church space. Warren, Slaughter’s husband and a systems technician at Verizon, will often pick up the slack with so-called “Slaughter funds.”
“When we buy groceries for ourselves, we buy them for the camp, too,” Rachel says. “It’s the norm. I have 20 other kids [besides her two daughters].”
Indeed, keeping S.A.L.L.I. programs going requires a great deal of effort.
“If she could, this would be running non-stop,” says Thornsberry. “Salt and Light is her baby. She can take pleasure in knowing that she took the time to do something for others, and she’s impacting so many lives.”
On a more personal level, “it brings her a sense of peace and joy,” says Thornsberry. “It’s an avenue for using something she enjoys—teaching—to enlighten others and open doors. She’s always found a way to make it happen.”
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