The Path Project is a community and youth development nonprofit organization that works alongside children and families that live in the mobile home communities in Gwinnett County. Volunteer Susan Wood assists kindergarten students Cassandra Ruiz, right, and Brisa Aponte, center, as they answer an english homework question correctly during the Path Project after school program at the Gwinnett Estates Mobile Home Park in Loganville on Tuesday. Top, Jim Hollandsworth the founder and executive director of the Path Project, helps repair the bicycle chain of second-grader Daniel Hernandez during the after school program at the Gwinnett Estates Mobile Home Park in Loganville on Tuesday. (Staff Photos: Brendan Sullivan)
The Path Project
The Path Project is a community and youth development non-profit organization that works along side children and families that live in the mobile home communities in Gwinnett County.
LOGANVILLE — Jim and Melinda Hollandsworth started a Christian outreach center in a dilapidated trailer with 23 bullet holes in the walls and blood soaked carpeting. Within five years they opened five community centers and changed the lives of more than 300 impoverished kids in Gwinnett County.
Through patience, unconditional love and support from local churches, businesses, school officials and other community helpers, they are changing their small corner of the world one trailer park at a time.
“Our three big areas of focus are academic, social and spiritual development,” said Jim Hollandsworth, founder of The Path Project in Loganville. “So we tie those three things in together.”
The Snellville couple are usually followed by a well-behaved crowd of kids with big dreams and a lot of homework. The Hollandsworths started The Path Project in Gwinnett Estates off U.S. Highway 78 in 2009 after being introduced to a Hispanic family there with young children struggling in elementary school. They soon discovered the trailer park was full of disenfranchised youngsters with close to a 100 percent school dropout rate. They were on a swift one-way road to teen pregnancy, generational poverty and gang activity.
“A lot of these children speak Spanish in their home so there are some challenges in learning English in the schools,” said Hollandsworth, a former associate pastor at Graystone Church off Ozora Road in Grayson. “And there are challenges with homework because their parents only speak Spanish. So it was the students who first asked us for help with their homework and it started from there.”
Hollandsworth and his wife are lifelong Gwinnett County residents. Melinda graduated from Shiloh High School and Jim graduated from South Gwinnett High. They considered missionary work in other countries until they realized their life calling was literally on their front doorstep.
“This is our home. This is our community,” Hollandsworth said. “Our church had been involved with ministry overseas but nothing in our community. So we thought, ‘What’s a way we can serve locally?’ So when we met these students, it just sort of presented itself.”
Hollandsworth said Graystone Church bought a trailer in Gwinnett Estates for $1,000 after a drug related shooting and started the Hope Center. It later changed its name to The Path Project, became a nonprofit organization in 2012 and the couple committed themselves fulltime to the service ministry because of rapid growth and the opening of other centers in Hispanic trailer parks at Stone Mountain, Shiloh and Covington. A satellite center also opened in Franklin, Tenn., at the urging of a company that owns Gwinnett Estates which has more than 250 children. The Path Project helps more than 500 students at its five locations in Georgia and Tennessee.
“We’re into mentoring and building positive relationships,” Hollandsworth said. “We want to walk along beside these kids to help them graduate from school and possibly college, get a good job and become productive members of society ... We’re working closely with our schools to give these kids that little extra nudge to help them apply themselves and succeed.”
Hollandsworth said The Path Project’s main focus is on giving children hope and encouragement to do better in school. They also give school supplies, teach English language skills and tutor in all subjects on Monday through Thursday afternoons. They initially focused on elementary students but expanded up to middle school and high school youth. They are also helping preschoolers.
“We found that it’s hard for kids in kindergarten to get ready to attend school if they don’t know English,” said Hollandsworth. “So we started helping preschoolers learn to speak English so they will be more on a level playing field when they start school.”
Omar Hernandez, 16, remembers having to start school in Gwinnett County without being able to speak English.
“It was difficult because I didn’t know anything,” Hernandez recounts of his first few years. “The plus and minus signs were easy, but writing sentences was really hard. So all I could do was just sound the words out and write random letters down on the paper.”
Now, Hernandez speaks flawless English and has plans for college and a career.
“I would like to be a soccer player,” he said. “But if that doesn’t work out, I would like to be an engineer or an architect.”
The Hollandsworths said Gwinnett school officials have been helpful and credited teachers, honor students and Spanish Club members at area high schools with tutoring help.
“When we first started five years ago, we didn’t have a single student in high school,” Melinda Hollandsworth recalled. “... Now, we have at least 30. And they’re going to graduate and some will go to college.”
Support for The Path Project and its dramatic impact on at-risk youth in Gwinnett County was recently voiced by principal Eric Thigpen of South Gwinnett High School in Snellville where most of The Path Project students will graduate.
“It has been said that great communities make great schools and great schools make great communities,” Thigpen wrote in an email. “The Path Project is an excellent example of the community supporting the local public school.
“Under the leadership and vision of Jim Hollandsworth, The Path Project has given many of our Hispanic students hope,” he continued. “Not only does The Path Project believe in our students, many of our students now believe in themselves for the first time. The Path Project is making a positive impact on our school.”
Melinda Hollandsworth said in summer camp they use Bible stories to teach honesty, responsibility and community service. They instill hope in youngsters with field trips to college campuses, libraries and public buildings like the state capitol. And they go on fun adventures such as the Georgia Aquarium and a recent trip to Stone Mountain.
“We want to get them out of this trailer park and into positive social settings,” Jim Hollandsworth said. “And we want them to have a good time.”
The couple has brought in business leaders and guest speakers such as state Rep. Tom Kirby, R-Loganville, to speak about jobs, government and the importance of a college education. In addition, an R.O.T.C official has visited to speak about military service. There have also been health programs on issues such as teen pregnancy and drug and alcohol abuse. They even helped a couple of the youths obtain employment.
“We’ve helped some get jobs at Chick-fil-A and another at Salamandra’s, which is a Mexican restaurant,” Jim Hollandsworth said.
The couple said Hispanic parents support their efforts and encourage their children to attend project functions. Gwinnett School officials have also met at Path Project facilities to speak with parents reluctant to walk into schools because of language barriers. The Hollandsworths are also encouraging students to help their parents learn English and offered adults any education resources they need.
“Many of these families come from areas where education wasn’t a priority,” Hollandsworth observed. “So we’re not only teaching kids the importance of finishing their homework but also connecting parents with what’s going on in the school system … We’re serving as a liaison between families and the schools.”
Hortencia Garcia has lived at Gwinnett Estates for six years. She said The Path Project has not only had an incredible influence on her children but also helped her and other Hispanic parents learn English and get involved in their children’s education.
“It’s difficult for moms who live in Gwinnett Estates to learn but they need to,” Garcia said slowly in broken English. “It’s important so moms now know how kids are doing in the schools, if they are going up or down. It is scary for moms to go into the school because they don’t speak English. They get embarrassed. That is why they don’t help their children. They leave them alone.
“The Path Project helped me get involved in the school and helped me keep their grades up,” she added. “The English class has helped me learn more English and how to read. Each year I read a story in the school to my son’s class and to another class. I am working hard with The Path Project at McGill Elementary to help my kids and working hard to motivate other mothers to get involved.”
The Hollandworths admit that their efforts have not met with 100 percent success and a few students have strayed from The Path Project and into trouble. But they always take the kids back if they are committed to change and learning. They espouse unconditional love because it is in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. A sign in the center reads:
“Do everything in love.” 1 Corinthians 16:24
“We’ve had a few kids roller coaster back and forth into some bad things but they’ve come back here because they know our love is unconditional and we’re not going to judge them,” said Sheri Sharer, an employee who helps the Hollandsworths at Gwinnett Estates. “We will still love them and help them work through things because we do not see life in black and white here.”
Brian Sanchez, 16, has been in The Path Project for four years. The Hollandsworths helped him and a few other Path Project students gain admission to a five-year Atlanta-based summer camp leadership program called the C5 Georgia Youth Foundation. He is proud that his grades, attendance, behavior and hard work enabled him to earn a coveted spot on the South Gwinnett High junior varsity soccer team. He looks forward to becoming the first member of his family to graduate high school and wants to attend the University of Florida or Louisiana State University to study sports medicine or sports administration.
“During the first year, I didn’t try out because I didn’t think I could make it,” Sanchez said of South Gwinnett soccer tryouts. “But Jim talked me into it the next year and I got on and we’ve done OK.
“My parents like for me to come here and do something,” he added, “instead of sitting at home and doing nothing.”
Kaitlyn Tovar, 12, attends Grace Snell Middle School in Loganville and has three siblings who attend Path Project classes with her. She said her grades have improved, she’s made friends and wants to graduate from high school.
“Most of all, it’s fun,” she said of the center’s activities. “I’ve enjoyed all of it.”
Sophia Jennifer Abarta, 16, says she has been in The Path Project for four years and credits it with changing her life. She is a high school sophomore and also plans to be the first member of her family to graduate high school. She then wants to attend college and become an orthodontist.
“It’s amazing,” she said of The Path Project. “I’ve changed a lot because I used to be a bad kid. I was into a lot of bad things. And then I started to come here and they helped me get into … the C5 Foundation ... That program has helped me a lot and so has The Path Project.”
The Hollandsworths said they are still surrounded by gang activity in the trailer parks but gang members generally keep away at a respectful distance. A few have even sent their younger siblings to Path Project events.
“I’ve heard them say ‘Here, take my brother and sister. I wish you had been here when I was younger,’” Melinda Hollandsworth said of gang members. She added that beyond finishing school and getting gainful employment, they want Path Project students to serve their community and help other kids following in their footsteps.
“We want them to come back and serve as role models,” she said. “And some of them in high school are doing that now by helping younger kids with their homework.”
The Hollandsworths are raising a preschool age daughter and son along with the kids in their program. The couple are polite and encouraging to the students and resemble Pied Pipers of academic success and social and spiritual development. And their Path Projects have become dream factories for youngsters who were once growing up in a downsized world of low expectations.
Future plans are to open other community centers and expand to another trailer at Gwinnett Estates that will hopefully have a computer lab. They also need furniture, computers and a 15-seat van because they still use a bus supplied by Graystone Church. And for all of their resources and future plans, the Hollandsworths are grateful and trust in God to guide them.
“We’ve had teachers and principals come here to help us and students and other volunteers from the community,” said Jim Hollandsworth. “We’ve had churches, businesses and individuals and families who support us financially. It’s a huge undertaking. We’ve had parents and a lot of people come in from the community to help us because they care about what we’re doing.
“We have a lot to be grateful for.”
More information on The Path Project is available at www.path-project.org.