Mission Memphis Day 16: Knowledge Quest

The Experience

If a picture’s worth a thousand words, a visit is worth a thousand pictures. I took more pictures at Knowledge Quest than anywhere else, but they cannot possibly do justice to this incredible, amazing place. I loved this group – the team, the facility, the kids! As I was leaving, I confessed to the Knowledge Quest team that I was terrified by my responsibility to describe this place in words. I’ll do my best, but really – you have to go see it for yourself.

I can count on one hand the number of times I have intentionally been to South Memphis. This place has a stigma to it. Growing up here, there are some areas that you’re warned to stay away from and South Memphis has been firmly on that list. Knowledge Quest Director Marlon Foster says that in the past, “South Memphis ranked #1 in all the wrong things.” Many people believe that only crime and heartache come from anything south of Crump Boulevard, but as I learned, that is not true. I can confidently tell you that Knowledge Quest is not only one of the best things in South Memphis, but also a shining beacon that all of Memphis should celebrate.

If this is the first time you’re hearing of Marlon Foster, it won’t be the last. Marlon is easily one of the most genuine, charismatic, inspiring people I have ever met. I could listen to this man talk for hours and it’s easy to see why the kids flock to him. After just 5 minutes with Marlon, I felt like I could go save the entire world. He was born and raised in South Memphis and as a teenager, Marlon’s best friend was killed in their neighborhood. Marlon made the decision to honor his friend by turning his death into a motivator: he was the only one of his friends to graduate high school and certainly the only one to attend college. After college, he stayed in South Memphis to give back and to give the kids a chance to learn, grow and succeed while keeping them off the streets.

Marlon said he wants “the private school experience in the hood,” explaining that when a private school student decides to pursue an interest, there’s a whole community and network ready to support that student, but in poorer areas, these interests often extinguish because of a lack of support and resources. Marlon wants to “bring the private school experience to this community and watch the magic happen.” They’re on a mission to establish a comprehensive and innovative approach to learning in order to reach as many kids as possible. Knowledge Quest started with just a few tables as an after school program for grade school students and has expanded to provide programs for Pre-K through 12th grade in the areas of health and nutrition, exercise, homework, and “adventure education”. They offer activities for those interested in creative performance (dance and music), visual arts, STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math), gardening, writing, and sports. Marlon reminded me that the kids don’t have to come here – they could be at home playing video games or doing anything else. He said, “the children choose us. Everyday they come – that’s their decision – so a room full of kids is the miracle.” I told Marlon I loved talking with him. He just laughed and said, “the kids are the real story. Let’s go talk to them!”

As we walked outside, Marlon pointed to their street and said their goal is for you to be able to do a 360 and see that they want to transform the whole neighborhood – not just their own property. They’ve been cutting grass and caring for empty lots around them and it encouraged their neighbors to take more pride in their own homes. The lot across the street had been turned into their Green Leaf Learning Farm and that’s where I spent the rest of the afternoon.

Green Leaf Learning Farm at Knowledge Quest. Christian Man and students making healthy pasta.

Christian Man was in the middle of a cooking lesson for grade school students in their outdoor classroom. “Mister Christian” as they call him was teaching the class to make pasta and was talking with them about acorn squash, arugula and pine nuts (truly in line with the healthy eating emphasis at Knowledge Quest). I snapped a few pictures from the side and marveled at how the students were so engaged and enthusiastic. Even when Christian asked for a volunteer to take the squash seeds to the compost bin, five little hands shot into the air.

As I walked over to join the group, I hesitated. I realized that I was experiencing an odd mix of emotions. First, I felt ridiculous for wearing a white peacoat to an outdoor cooking project with kids. I felt overdressed, impractical, and out of touch. But more salient than that, I also felt awkward and unsure of myself. I was surprised to realize that I was worrying about whether or not the kids would accept me or if they would just see me as an outsider invading their safe haven. It occurred to me that these kids probably worry all the time about fitting in. I think most adults still worry about being accepted and included by others and it holds us back from pursuing our true potential. I decided that if the kids had the courage to come put themselves on the line, that I could do it too, but it took me a little while to get comfortable – not because of the kids, but because of myself.

Two students in the foreground and me – standing awkwardly in the background

While this vaguely occurred to me at the time, it really hit me when I looked at the pictures. One of the students, Jailon, was really excited about taking pictures for me and caught me in one of these awkward moments standing off by myself. I actually almost deleted this picture because my first reaction was that it didn’t show me as the engaged volunteer that I wanted to portray, but I realized that if this resonates with me, that hopefully it will resonate with you.

After I few minutes I got my act together and started talking to some of the kids. Kids are just like adults in most ways – they want to belong, to feel important and to feel good at something. People sometimes ask me whether you can compliment someone too often. I whole heartedly believe that if you offer someone a genuine compliment, it’s always welcome. Kids are especially receptive to that type of feedback.

Students from Knowledge Quest and hugs for me! Photo credit: Jailon

For example, Jailon told me that he really liked photography so I handed him my phone and watched as he took such pride and ownership in his work. Most of the pictures I’m posting today are because of him! Once I remembered this simple approach – asking questions about their interests and praising their hard work during the cooking lesson, they warmed up right away. I simply sat down next to one of the students and asked if he would take a picture with me. He wrapped his arms around me and three other kids jumped in, while Jailon snapped this awesome picture. I went from being on the outside to being right in the middle.

Proud Jailon – my guest photographer for the day

While talking with Jailon, I remembered what Marlon told me about the students – they come here by choice and choose to spend their time here. So I asked Jailon why he comes everyday. He said “because it’s fun, I learn new stuff and I get help with my homework. It makes me feel good.” When I asked what he would be doing if he hadn’t come he said he’d do some homework and then play video games. Jailon ran back to join the cooking demo and I started scanning through his pictures and realized they were great! Definitely better than mine. I yelled across the table so all the kids could hear, “Jailon! These are awesome!” and he just beamed at me.

There’s so much more to tell you about this amazing place – it’s like a happy bubble in the middle of the community. Here’s a really quick run down. They have the only urban farm in Memphis with USDA Organic Certification! Nine months of the year you can buy their produce from the South Memphis Farmers Market. To reinforce healthy eating, they have cooking classes and broccoli eating contests (I could definitely benefit from that!). They’re planning to triple the number of kids they can serve by expanding to other facilities along Walker and calling it the Knowledge Quest Kid Zone. In January they’re going to get access to a commercial kitchen for cooking classes. Christian took a 10-day trip to search out the best practices in urban agriculture as a way of youth development and implemented those practices here. As for what the volunteers should take away from the experience, Marlon said he hopes that you “will feel informed and enlightened about our community and it’s awesome assets, so that when you leave, you will be able to say ‘I made a difference. That was a sounds investment of my time and that I helped the kids find something they love.”

I always rate my volunteers experiences on an informal scale ranging from “How soon can I get out of here?” to “How soon can I come back?” The time flew by and the setting sun was the only thing that clued me in to how long I’d been at Knowledge Quest. I can’t wait to go back and I hope you’ll come with me!

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How to Help

There are so many ways to volunteer!

  • Teach a skills class!
    • You can have teach an ongoing course like cooking or chemistry or creative writing (endless options).
    • You could do a one day workshop! What’s your interest? Singing, painting, science experiments, art? Whatever you love, here’s your opportunity to give the kids an opportunity to love it too. You don’t have to be an expert – for example, chefs are very welcome, but enthusiastic home cooks are welcome too!
  • Help tutor! The kids seemed really receptive and grateful for the help. If you can commit to one day a week for at least 6 weeks, this would be perfect. If you could come Monday – Friday even better!
  • Skilled workers are needed to help finalize the Knowledge Quest Kid Zone. If you’re an electrician, plumber, HVAC technician, etc. your time would be greatly appreciated.

Donate. Donate. Donate.

  • Knowledge Quest currently has a waiting list and the faster they can expand, the more kids they can help.

Help with their Wish List:

  • Speed bumps or other traffic calming measures in front of Knowledge Quest. A cut through street divides the Knowledge Quest building from the Learning Farm. I saw several cars fly down this street past the kids.
  • A total re-branding and marketing campaign. Marlon said they have many ideas and need some help revitalizing their image to match the way they’re revitalizing the community.
  • An 8th raised garden bed. A great half day project for a group. If you let them know in advance, the kids will show up too!

Contact the wonderful Marlon Foster mfoster@kqmemphis.org to get started.

If you’re thinking about volunteering with this organization or in general, but aren’t quite ready to jump in, email me at sarah.petschonek@gmail.com. Thinking about helping is the first step!

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