Among the rolling hills and dense pine canopies east of Atlanta’s I-285 bypass, down the street from a halal meat market, two Buddhist temples and Good Times Country Cookin’, sits the Willow Branch Apartment Homes. The complex is tucked behind a flapping “Welcome” flag, which is emblematic of Clarkston, a small but famously global suburb that has been coined “Ellis Island South” and “the most diverse square mile in America.”
Built in 1971, Willow Branch looks like any other aging metro-Atlanta apartment building and dozens around Clarkston, save for its unique mansard roofs. But after school one warm afternoon in February, what used to be the pool house transforms into another thing that sets Willow Branch apart: a banner-bedecked classroom where a circle of refugee children, representing more than 30 ethnicities, sit squirming and giggling. The kids, all of whom are residents, play a clapping game, each contributing another word to a growing sentence they pass around the room like a hot potato: “Valentine’s. Day. Is. About. Moms. And. Dogs.” The last word sparks hysterical laughter.
“A lot of them, their parents don’t speak English and can’t help with their [school] work,” says Allie Reeser, the program director of the nonprofit Star-C, which runs the afterschool program at Willow Branch. “Socially, it’s a great place for kids to go.” Nearby, 8-year-old Elizabeth Mawi, who emigrated with eight siblings from Burma, concurs in a mousey voice: “It’s good, because we can share, and we help people.”
Held for four hours each weekday afternoon, the Star-C afterschool program is one part of a dynamic model — piloted here at the 186-unit Willow Branch, where the residents’ average income of $18,750 is well below the U.S. poverty line — that’s showing how affordable housing can boost performance in local schools, increase resident health and even quell crime.
To read the rest of this story by Josh Green, published in NationSwell, click here.