She Went for Free, and Now Works for Little

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Carla Shelton

Carla Shelton’s mother was a single mom who worked several jobs to make ends meet and pay Catholic school tuition for her and her sister.

“Especially coming from a single-mother household, you can never have enough adult support,” says Shelton, 33. In sixth grade, she found that support in a youth program at the Catholic school she attended in West Philadelphia.

There, she said, she learned “your life is not limited to your immediate environment. I had some real good grownups in my life as a teenager.”

Now a single mother herself, Shelton directs the program that nurtured her as a child. It’s housed at Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament in West Philadelphia, and it’s called Orita, the Yoruba word for “crossroads.” (It is not affiliated with a program of the same name sponsored by the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organization.)

The program started in the 1980s, “when I was about 11 years old, as a way to give kids a sounding board to talk about some of their socioeconomic limitations and issues,” Shelton says. “A number of kids … just needed people to talk to.” The program was initially for sixth- through eighth-graders, and later expanded to cover grades five through 12.

Shelton could have attended other programs, but her mother couldn’t afford them. Orita was free. “We could go here and feel a sense of belonging,” she says.

Shelton credits Orita with steering her into youth development work. Although tied to the Catholic church, Orita is open to anyone. “It is pretty much a community- rather than a faith-based program,” Shelton says.

Shelton continued in the program while attending Catholic high school in suburban Villanova, Pa. She went from there to Spelman College in Atlanta, but dropped out for financial reasons after two years. A year after returning to her hometown in 1999, she became Orita’s program director. It is, for the most part, unpaid work. For income, Shelton has held a series of administrative jobs. “Orita is something I’ve always done on my own,” she says. “This is more my passion than my profession.”

Shelton says about 100 children have been through the program under her direction. Current enrollment is 34, plus seven adult volunteers. The Friday night programs are structured, with six-week sessions focusing on health and nutrition, public speaking, video game design, multicultural exploration, art appreciation, and etiquette and fashion.

Shelton eventually earned a degree in computer technology from Drexel University in Philadelphia. She’s working on a master’s degree in education. She wants to become a school teacher while still working with Orita.