No CDF Freedom Schools® programs existed in California until 2005, when Reverend O. Leon Wood and his wife, Paula Wood, stepped in. The two had just recently opened a church in North Long Beach, California, and were looking for a program to help the children in that community.
“Members of our congregation were stressing that their children were having difficulty doing some of their homework,” said Paula. “We wanted to look for some opportunities to fund a program [to help].”
Their daughter, who had recently returned from college in Pennsylvania, had worked with a CDF Freedom Schools program in the area and recommended it to them. The Woods thought it sounded like a good idea, so they put together a staff and went to Tennessee for CDF Freedom Schools’ National Training to learn how to run their own CDF Freedom Schools site. They’ve run the program every year since.
After the Woods began their own CDF Freedom Schools program, ten more organizations began operating the program in California. Rev. Wood believes part of the strength of the program rests in its connection to the Civil Rights Movement.
“It brought back memories of the Civil Rights Movement that went through the south,” said Paula. “I knew the history of what the [original 1964] Freedom Schools were about.”
In operating their own program, the Woods have focused on ensuring their students learn about and appreciate Black culture. They know that many of the children they serve have not had exposure to rich African American history and culture at school, so CDF Freedom Schools play an essential role.
According to Paula, their focus on Black culture has motivated kids to read longer books and really find a passion for reading.
“What Freedom Schools has done for them is given them the desire to read and particularly to learn more about themselves and their culture,” said Paula.
In addition to cultural enrichment, the Woods have focused on ensuring children feel loved and welcome in the program. As a result, most of the children continue to come back to the program year after year, and many go on to become volunteers and staff, known as Servant Leader Interns, when they are older.
Paula still remembers one student who began the program quiet and afraid to speak up but who eventually found his voice and his confidence. “He credits Freedom Schools for making him feel comfortable to speak out and learning he had a voice,” she said. “He blossomed into a real leader.”
Throughout their time running their CDF Freedom Schools program, the community aspect of the program has kept the Woods involved. Young people in the program have mentored younger scholars. At National Training, people who have run other programs helped them learn to run their own. They’ve had support from major community figures like the rapper Warren G. Congressman Alan Lowenthal once missed a meeting in order to stay longer at their CDF Freedom Schools site as a “Read Aloud” guest.
The opportunity to teach Black children about their culture and history has motivated the Woods, and strong support within the community has made the program successful. The program serves 50 to 100 students a year and continues to help develop character and confidence in the children of Long Beach. The Woods continue to stay involved to this day.
“There’s a desire to continue doing this program,” said Paula. “We thought we would only do it 10 years and now we’re approaching 20 years. There’s definitely a need.”