ATLANTA — Kristin Hemingway sits at a card table in a tiny room behind the leasing office at Summerdale Commons apartment complex. Her big red purse leans against the wall.
She’s running an after-school program for about 13 kids who live at the complex and go to nearby Cleveland Avenue Elementary School in southwest Atlanta.
She barks out orders as fast as she can speak.
“Ms. Kristin says touch your head! Ms. Kristin says touch your knees! Ms. Kristin says touch the floor! Touch your eyes.”
“You’re out,” she points at two kids, picking them off mercilessly in this version of the game “Mother May I.”
Finally, fourth-grader Aaniah is declared the winner.
Then the children sprawl on the floor to do their homework. Some line up in front of Hemingway to get help. “Correct!” she says loudly as she looks at a paper.
One boy sits idle after finishing.
“What are you doing? You can’t just sit there. You’ve got to do something with your life!” she admonishes him.
Hemingway is both strict and warm, quick to smile, quick to issue orders. She is also imbued with purpose.
She’s dedicated to kids. It’s the work she wants to do in her life.
Hemingway grew up in Detroit, the daughter of a teenage mother. Her favorite photo is her mother’s high school graduation picture in which she holds 2-month-old Kristen in her arms. Hemingway lived in her grandmother’s house surrounded by aunts and uncles and in a neighborhood with a strong sense of community.
She tutored kids and babysat in the summer. “I had a true neighborhood,” she said.
Developing community is important in her work at Summerdale Commons, the adjacent Springview complex and Cleveland Avenue Elementary.
When kids play together, parents get to know each other and come to support each other, she says. She wants children to believe in themselves and gain the life skills they need.
After the children go home, Hemingway reflects on the afternoon. “It had the potential to be a very bad day,” she said. Two students started out frustrated and she had them go sit by themselves. Her aim is to teach conflict resolution and coping skills. She helps kids figure out why they’re mad and what else they are feeling.
“A lot of it is just mindfulness,” she said.
When Star-C, a nonprofit founded by Atlanta property owner Marjy Stagmeier, hired her to start an after-school program for Summerdale Commons and Springview, part of the deal was that she would move into an apartment in the blighted Springview complex. Teachers at Cleveland Avenue Elementary were surprised and concerned. It’s a dangerous place, they told her.
But Hemingway did not seem particularly concerned. The complex is under renovation and the goal of its new owner, TriStar Real Estate Investment, is to create a safe and stable community.
One afternoon, Hemingway brings a new book to the after-school program: “I Am Enough,” by Grace Byers. On the cover is a child’s open face encircled by a wide Afro.
“Like the sun, I am here to shine,” Hemingway reads. The children listen attentively. As she finishes, one boy said quietly: “That was fun.” Another claps.
Like everyone, Hemingway has her own struggles. “Some days are really hard,” she said. She’s dealt with her depression and anxiety.
But she wants people to know they matter.
“I want to help people find wholeness,” she said.
And she also wants kids to listen up. Even at this small after-school program she has them line up and wait at 5:30 before they can leave.
“Waiting in line is a life skill,” she admonished.