World traveler, credentialed teacher and longtime Loveland local, Evangeline DeVol has not only built a program that’s a force of nature—but one of nurture.
“I wanted to work with at-risk kids,” says NEST’s executive director, known by all simply as Van. “It’s the heartbeat of my life. It’s my purpose. My calling.”
That calling culminated in the NEST Community Learning Center, a keenly structured and groundbreaking after-school tutoring and homework help program serving school-age children living at or below the poverty level in Loveland. And it just happens to be on wheels.
In a unique twist, NEST brings its support services right to the front doors of those in need.
“We’re in the middle of the suburbs. If there’s no car, no metro bus, these kids have no way to get to an after-school program,” Van says. “Instead, we bring the program to them.”
Thanks to its regular cadre of dedicated volunteers and core staff members, NEST operates 3 p.m. to 9 p.m., Monday through Thursday, traveling to impoverished Loveland neighborhoods in a refurbished RV and recently acquired study bus. Inside both, every shelf and space is maximized to house library books, school supplies, color printers, poster boards, art materials and more—including Wi-Fi access and fruit, grains and water for everyone on board. During the school year, they serve anywhere from 115 to 150 kids. That number skyrockets to 200-plus in the summer.
“Every day, our goal is the same: that every child leaves us having had something good and nutritious to eat; that they know they are precious and important; and that we’re going to help them be successful, help them get their homework done for just one more day, so they can go to school the next morning with their head high.”
Make no mistake—this is no simple after-school diversion. Rather, it’s an intentional, organized program backed by endless, ongoing research and cutting-edge educational and neurological trends. A data-driven, targeted action plan that works hand-in-hand with each child’s teachers, parents and school. Best of all? It’s working. Since its launch, local law enforcement reports reduced vandalism and petty crimes in neighborhoods where NEST operates. Teachers find students have more confidence—and improved behavior and grades.
“For some of these kids, we’re the only consistent thing in their lives, and we’re not going to let them down. All they needed was someone to believe in them.” –Evangeline DeVol
And while results like these are important and impressive, they’ve only scratched the surface of what NEST is really all about. What the team has accomplished and built together—with the community, for the community, in the community—is much more powerful.
“Every child deserves a fighting chance. Every child has skills and abilities and things that make their heart sing … if we can help them recognize that, find their purpose, they’re going to turn around and gift it to the world. That’s what NEST does … gives every child a fighting chance.”
Of course, there was a proving ground. After leaving the education world, Van was challenged to design an after-school program with tutoring for the 900 at-risk kids of the Friars Boys and Girls Club. It was a success—taking snacks to kids at low-income schools, helping them with homework, offering extra tutoring time and sports programs. But it wasn’t enough.
“I knew there was something else around the corner for me,” she remembers. “And I kept praying about it and thinking, 'why isn’t this enough?' I was leaning hard on my faith, and saying, 'show me.'”
The answer came—to put poverty in Loveland under a microscope.
“I remember saying, 'Lord, do you know where I live? There’s no poverty here.' Little did I know.”
And she was astounded with what she found.
Since 2012, more kids were living in poverty in our suburbs than in the city proper. Even worse, the percent of children nationwide at or below the poverty level had risen dramatically in the last 50-plus years, despite the federal government’s war on poverty. Most startling of all, her own community of Loveland was sadly boasting its own 13 percent of these kids. And yet, nothing was in place to change that trajectory—at least, nothing that worked.
“There were a lot of great ideas, but nothing concentrated in my own backyard. The best people to serve those in need within a community are the people who actually live there. But no one was dedicating the time or energy or resources to have a relationship with the people they wanted to serve.”
Talking to city leaders, superintendents, police officers and educators, Van started to build a plan.
“Everything seemed like a Band-Aid. Yes, food and shelter are terribly important. But the only way we were going to change these kids’ lives was with education and support. And no one was funding those.”
She needed to forge relationships with those at-risk kids, and more important, with their families. Her strategy? Fulfill a need.
In the spring of 2016, she and some friends decided to serve those kids lunch—right in the parking lot of their HUD apartment complex. In advance, fliers had been sent. Doors knocked on. And six kids showed up to partake.
“We had a whole lot of people looking out their apartment windows thinking, 'what the heck is that woman doing?'”
By the end of the summer, they had 86 kids in a fledgling program that involved reading, games and serving their entire families.
“They’ll tell you to this day, they kept waiting for us to give up,” Van says. “But we got to know everyone. It was an incredible gift to be able to see things from the inside out.”
“The best compliment of my life came at the end of that first summer. Sarah, a single mother of five, said to me, ‘You’re the first person in my life to see me. Everyone else sees me through the lens of poverty. You see me first. No labels.’”
NEST snowballed from there, despite setbacks and start-overs. And with it came the wheels.
“Going to their neighborhood, going to them … we don’t just help; we become part of the community. They trust us. Their whole family does. We’re right there with them.”
Three years later, NEST is working—and working extremely well. It’s cost-effective and startlingly simple. And while nothing like it had ever been done before, it’s grown exponentially from one woman’s mission to a well-oiled machine—a turnkey solution every community can, and should, adopt.
“Not a day goes by where I don’t hear someone admit that they never knew this existed, this need, this neighborhood, they’ve driven right by. And every community has it. People just don’t know. I’m constantly working and speaking to get the word out—not just about NEST, but about what’s in your own backyard.”
It’s a program that’s a win-win for the community. A win for the schools and local businesses. A win for everyone.
“For me, for the volunteers, for the kids … we changed their destiny,” Van says. “I believe with all my heart that I can leave this community a better place. We're not alone in any of this. Open your eyes. Everyone can do something. Why wouldn’t you?”