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Phyllis Wheatley Center wants to help virtual learners, families

Carol Z. Shane

Shopper News

When you’re trying to plan for families and their school-age kids at the start of the school year for a no-end-insight pandemic, there are thousands of details to be worked out.

Monica Smith-Albright, the YWCA Phyllis Wheatley Center’s executive director since August, knows all about that. With a master’s degree in public health from UT, she’s got a stellar background in child, family and educational services — most recently with Project GRAD, her last position before coming on at the Wheatley center.

And when the center stepped up with its new Virtual Home Away from Home Program for Knox County middle- and high-schoolers who’ve opted for virtual learning, she had an eye toward the small things that can make or break a student’s success.

“She hit the ground running,” says Karlyn Reel, the YWCA’s director of public relations. “Monica’s done a really good job of seeing ‘what could that barrier be?’” One immediate concern was space, especially considering social distancing precautions. The center did have a long-standing modular classroom to its rear, and they’d already consulted with Maryville-based construction company Clayton, national builder of off-site

See YWCA, Page 3A

Monica Smith-Albright has a history of helping children and families. As the Phyllis Wheatley Center’s new executive director, she’s been overseeing the thousands of tiny details that come with creating a safe space — the Virtual Home Away from Home Program — for middle- and high school-age virtual learners in the age of a pandemic. COURTESY YWCA KNOXVILLE

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and on-site-built homes and longtime supporters of the YWCA, who had determined the classroom was structurally sound and cosmetic repairs would be the most cost-effective option.

Clayton team members volunteered their time — almost daily since February — and the company donated materials. Office Furniture Outfitters on Grand Avenue near UT donated tables and chairs.

Now the center has 2,000 square feet of extra space, and — thanks to Smith-Albright — all the details in place. They’re ready to accommodate middlethrough high school students who have opted for remote learning, so that they have a place to go when their parents are at work.

“Youth come to the center each day, have working Wi-Fi, receive a snack and lunch and support from YWCA staff to complete their virtual school,” says Reel. Such a program, in such a fresh, newly renovated space, solves a multitude of problems that families may be facing during this uncertain time.

And as always, the center’s After-School Enrichment Program continues.

This Friday, those interested in enrollment for either the virtual learning or the after-school program are invited to an open house.

“We want to increase student participation,” says Smith-Albright, who keeps a close watch on the status of the Knox County School System and its pandemic color-coding. “We are better together and so grateful to Clayton for seeing the mission and vision of our program. Our youth have a newfound ownership of their new and improved space!”

The YWCA Phyllis Wheatley Center’s open house happens from 3:30 to 6:30 p.m. this Friday, Sept. 18, at 124 S. Cruze Street. Info:

Before the work by Clayton volunteers: This building was “at least 20 years old when I got here,” says Karlyn Reel, the YWCA’s director of public relations since 2015, “and it was bought used!”

After: the multipurpose room for the Virtual Home Away from Home Program, renovated by Clayton, longtime supporter of the YWCA.

The new facade of the Phyllis Wheatley Center modular building, courtesy of Maryville-based company Clayton. PHOTOS COURTESY YWCA KNOXVILLE

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