Beaming with pride, Lianni Heslop reads aloud for the camera. A year ago she would have struggled with the words and would not have had the confidence to read for an audience.

Now she counts herself as one of the first success stories of an innovative new programme which aims to help kick-start the education of children with economic disadvantages.

Charity Acts of Random Kindness links underprivileged children with businesses who commit to sponsoring a child for four days a week of specialist tuition. The aim is to provide a “fuel injection” for the child’s education.

Lianni, one of four children to be sponsored in a pilot programme last year, made so much progress, her tutors say she is now reading on grade level.

Thanks to a number of donations, including $25,000 from the Dart group, the Mentor Educate Reinforce programme is expanding this year to accommodate 15 students.

Founder Tara Nielsen said the charity was working with George Town Primary School to identify students in need of a boost to their education. She hopes the project will ultimately attract enough funding to expand to other government schools as well.

The programme focusses on children who are falling behind in school as a result of their background. In many cases, Nielsen said, they were from underprivileged families who lacked the resources to help their children succeed.

She said such children often had academic challenges and struggled throughout their school careers, often leaving compulsory education without significant qualifications.

“The program is intended to reverse the vicious cycle of poverty in Cayman by investing in at-risk students, strictly from underprivileged homes, at the beginning of their academic lives,” she added.

“It takes a village to raise a child, and these are kids that don’t have a village.”

She said a lot of the children that ARK seeks to help came from single parent families that would never be able to afford tutoring for their children.

“These mums are all on their own and we need to step up as a community and do what we can to help,” she added.

Children enrolled in the programme get 132 hours of one-on-one or small group instruction through ARK’s partner, the Cayman Learning Centre.

The programme also includes a mentoring component, with positive adult role models paired with the children to help with extracurricular activities and other guidance. ARK also supports their families through its other charity programmes, helping to ensure they live in safe housing and have access to food and basic healthcare.

Businesses who sponsor a child in the programme get regular updates on the child’s school reports and are encouraged to get involved in the mentoring aspect of the programme.

“It is not just about academics, it is about broadening their life experience and making sure they have access to good role models,” said Nielsen.

“We have found that people don’t just want to write a cheque. They want to make a difference, and this allows them to do that in a really tangible way.”

She said there were scores of children in every school in the Cayman Islands that were crying out for this type of support.

She added, “Wouldn’t it be great if every law firm, bank, every insurance company, hotel and business in the Cayman Islands, had a picture in the lobby of a child they were supporting?”

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