PEORIA, Ill. (WMBD) — Teachers. They are arguably the people who have the most impact on children’s lives as they grow up. Sitting with your kids for seven hours five days of a week is crucial in shaping who they become. It’s one of the reasons behind the Grow Your Own program.

Linda Wilson, the program director, said, “I thought it would be wonderful to bring the program back to help change the lives of not only community folks that were also like me, striving to become a teacher, but also for the students, to create stability for our schools.”

Wilson relaunched the initiative that supports teacher candidates who live in the city these students call home.

“Our teachers know the challenges and successes of our students and they’re very committed and rooted in making sure our students are successful,” Wilson said.

The program originally started in 2008 but fell off due to a lack of resources. In 2018, that changed when Wilson took over.

“When I helped to get the program rebuilt and started working on the program, I just always really kept in mind that I really wanted to give someone else an opportunity that was extended to me and helped me become a teacher,” she said.

Aside from opportunities, Wilson said, “A lot of social capital goes into supporting high-quality teachers. So, our candidates get a lot of support in terms of child-care stipends, they receive book reimbursements and clinical experience stipends. So, we just try to do everything we can to reduce every barrier that they may encounter.”

The program partners with the Peoria Federation of Teachers, Bradley University, and Peoria Public Works to be cohesive for its candidates.

The program offers three main components to those wanting to teach:

  • Academic: helping with tutoring and support for content
  • Financial: qualifying each candidate for $25,000 in forgivable loans
  • Social: pairing candidates with mentors who are in-service teachers, professional development, problem-solving, field observations, cohort meetings, de-escalation strategies, and any needed resources

Latosha Todd, a first-grade teacher at Kellar Primary School, said, “I worked for District 150 for 20 years before I applied for the Peoria Grow Your Own program in 2018. And then I was like, you know what, I can do this, and so with all the resources that grow your own provided, I was able to use that to help me get my degree from Illinois State University.”

Todd struggled when she was younger. She was brought up by a mother who frequented drugs, she went to multiple grade schools in Peoria and then moved away in middle school. Later, she came back to Peoria High School but had to drop out.

“Once I obtained my GED, I just didn’t stop,” said Todd. “I knew that it was self-growth, I had to do something that was different from what my environment was. And I just kept going, like I had a love for education.”

It was most important to Todd that her students were able to connect with her. “Growing up and seeing a lot of the students that were like me, they didn’t have a lot of black and brown teachers, and I just felt like, you know, I really wanted to be a part of that.”

Kiara Berryhill, a fourth-grade teacher at CT Vivian Primary School, felt the same way.

“Grow Your Own not only helps me but helps the students and me build a connection together by saying I went through this program because I grew up here because I know what it’s like to be in your shoes,” she said.

She wanted to be a part of the program after being around “amazing teachers that I had in Peoria Public Schools and my mom being an amazing teacher in Peoria Public Schools,” she said. That’s when she realized she wanted to be a teacher, as well.

Berryhill went on to say, “It would’ve been nice to have more teachers when I was younger who grew up in my community and understood what it means to live in Peoria and be a part of Peoria.”

Seventh-grade English Language Arts teacher at Rolling Acres Middle School, Fallon Kirby, agreed, as well.

“I went through District 150’s schools my whole life. I only had one black teacher, one teacher of color, and that stuck with me. Representation is something you don’t know you’re missing until you get it, and our students deserve that opportunity to see themselves reflected,” Kirby said.

Kirby said she wants her students to know that, “If you work and you try hard, you can achieve, and you can be bigger than these set of circumstances that you might be born to, or that you might live in a neighborhood where you see that. People get out of those situations, and it comes to building those relationships with students, and that’s what I’m doing here.”

Now, 16 teachers are a part of the program. Kirby even said the program changed her life.