URBANA — Third-grader Isaac El-Jamal, looking pretty spiffy in his Canaan Academy uniform, is determined to succeed in science.
His first love was orca whales, but right now it's chemistry.
"But I don't want to blow my whole lab up," he says sagely.
There are two teachers for 13 students in the second and third grades at the private Canaan school, 207 N Central Ave., U.
Isaac enjoys the attention and care he gets from team teachers Grace Han and Stacy Baby.
Across town in Champaign just north of Interstate 74, Latasha Davis says she's grateful for the opportunity to give back to the community when she sorts clothes at Champaign's Salt & Light Ministry.
"I want to contribute something now to society, not take something," she says.
She's in an unusual program called SAFE House, sponsored by the Canaan Development Foundation, a private entity dependent on donations.
The Rev. B.J. Tatum is senior pastor of Canaan Baptist Church — very senior considering that he was ordained at age 12. While most churches serve their congregations from the cradle to the grave, or christening to funeral, Tatum says his projects are particularly focused on intervening at critical junctures in people's lives.
Canaan's mission includes the church, the academy, the charitable foundation, a credit union and two SAFE houses, one for men and one for women.
According to its mission statement, the foundation seeks "to partner with the community in providing a value-based approach to rehabilitating victims of substance abuse and to bring education to those lacking access to crucial economic and social resources."
While many 12-step-based programs continue for about two months, the SAFE houses have a 12-month program that works out to a month per step. (SAFE stands for Substance Abuse Free Environment.)
The recently opened Women's SAFE House is at 502 E. Church St., C. The men's SAFE House is at 213 N. Central St., U.
"We don't have any church members in the SAFE houses and possibly 5 percent in the school," Tatum says. "It's serving the community at large."
Davis is learning not just about fighting her demons, but developing a deeper relationship with God, learning good work habits and becoming part of the middle class — which is one of the reasons there is a credit union.
SAFE House workers teach residents to become financially responsible through saving money in their credit union accounts.
"Money management is important. Money is a trigger to the addict," Tatum says.
Davis is also learning about getting together money for a new residence — first month's rent and deposit — before she leaves, so that, like all successful members of the SAFE Houses, she'll have a secure place to go when the 12 months are up.
Fellow SAFE House resident Nila Ross, 56, says she was at a low point before coming here from Indianapolis.
To be exact, she says, her "life was a disaster."
"There was no beginning, nor an ending," she says. "I prayed every day for the Lord to take away" her addictions to drug and alcohol.
She now has 10 months' sobriety, and by late November she expects to move out of the SAFE House.
Prison or college?
Tatum, a Texas native, was also a Motorola executive, and auxiliary chaplain at Chanute Air Force Base in Rantoul before he founded the Canaan ministry.
He says he was moved to see life as a series of challenges by a "state of African-Americans" report he read more than two decades ago, which stated that more black men are incarcerated than are in colleges or universities.
That statistic has been reversed in recent years, according to the National Prisoners Statistics Program and the Department of Education's own statistics.
More black men are in the correctional system than there were enslaved in 1850, Tatum says.
Still, the Illinois Department of Corrections has a $1.2 billion budget, and the incarcerated contribute little to society while there, Tatum says.
Instead, shaping their lives — especially relating to work habits and addictions — builds a better society for everyone, he says.
Formation of character
There is a motto attributed to the Jesuits: "Give me the child for seven years, and I will give you the man."
Canaan Academy, started in 1996, runs from preschool through fifth grade.
It is aimed at "at-risk children and children from needy families."
"Canaan Academy teaches children not only academics but also about life, and emphasizes the importance of morals, appropriate behavior, discipline and love," its mission statement says.
According to a Canaan Academy report, the student population is 94 percent African-American and 6 percent Hispanic.
"Many of the students are from single-parent homes," the report continues.
Canaan Academy reports that these students in all grades score two grade levels above average in all subject areas on the Stanford 10 in 2012, the elder says.
"We're always in the 90th percentile," Tatum says.
Academy Principal Bryant Tatum, the son of the founder, says that the school sees each student as an individual as "God has designed each child."
Literacy rates for the students can be three to four grade levels ahead of national averages on standardized tests, Bryant Tatum says, and many of the first graduates are now at universities.
A philosophy major in college, he now teaches upper grade levels the essence of logical and analytical thinking at a high school level. He's also a chess player who teaches that game to show the every choice has both meaning and consequences.
There's an emphasis on science, literacy, math and rigorous thinking, as well as a religious component.
Learning about the Bible is "my favorite part of school," third-grader Maya Brown says.
Religion is also a focus point for the SAFE Houses, where Ross believes that faith is the most important aspect.
The live-in, gender-separated SAFE Houses boasted an 86 percent completion rate in 2012.
The program is based on a structured daily regime that includes GED classes, adult education, money management (including accounts at Canaan's credit union), devotional periods, group therapy, personal counseling, volunteer work projects and evening communitywide personal enrichment courses.
"It's a holistic approach, to make people whole," women's SAFE House director Cheryl Hollis says.
How to donate
The Canaan Development Foundation is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. The foundation supports children primarily through its education program.
Donations can be mailed or dropped off at 404 W. Main St., Urbana, IL 61801. Make all checks payable to Canaan Development Foundation.
The foundation's web site also has a credit card option through PayPal at http://www.canaandevelopmentfoundation.org/contribute.php.