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A steady hand gets a helping hand to extend virtual learning

At 590 Jennette Place, Memphis, TN 38126, the nonprofit Knowledge Quest is 22 years intertwined with its mission of “transforming lives by expanding minds.” Factor in a global pandemic that locked Shelby County Schools students out of their buildings for the rest of the academic year and the need for a helping hand becomes dramatically clear.

Knowledge Quest founder/CEO Marlon Foster (left) walks along the supply line set up to package donated computer equipment for distribution to service clients. (Photo: Gary S. Whitlow/GSW Enterprises)

Officials at Valero Energy Foundation reached out and – without solicitation – let Knowledge Quest’s operators know that wanted to positively affect children’s learning while they were out of school.

“We shared our plans for a virtual experience and the challenge of students not having electronic devices at home,” Marlon Foster, founder/chief executive officer said. “In short, they agreed to purchase 200 devices, age-appropriate tablets and laptops, for our students.”


In March 2018, The New Tri-State Defender did a deep dive into ZIP code 38126 to see how Shelby County’s poorest ZIP code had fared in the 50 years since the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed at the Lorraine Motel. Since then, the TSD has reported periodically on ongoing efforts to empower the community. This story chronicles Knowledge Quest’s move – and the help it received – to address a technology gap facing students forced to rely on online services when schools were closed to slow the spread of COVID-19.

(Photo: Gary S. Whitlow/GSW Enterprises)

The first distribution was last Saturday afternoon. Josh Tulino, vice president and general manager of the Valero Memphis Refinery, was there handing out bags with computers and other needed items. It was his last day at the plant; he’s moving to lead a plant in California. One of his first Memphis experiences had been building raised beds with his team at Knowledge Quest’s Jennette Place site.

Valero Energy Corporation and the Valero Energy Foundation committed $50,000 to support Knowledge Quest, United Way, the Red Cross, MIFA and other local organizations on the front lines of responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Valero and the Valero Energy Foundation are proud to share these resources with our community,” said Tulino. “These donations help make sure organizations on the front lines have the resources they need to be able to continue to provide vital services. We appreciate all of these organizations and others for continuing to take care of our community.”

By self-description via its website, Knowledge Quest “responds to the needs of the community through helping to stabilize homes, providing access to health, and by making the clear path to opportunities for families.”

With the donation from Valero, Knowledge Quest will meet the computer needs of about 120 of the 200 families it seeks to service. (Photo: Gary S. Whitlow/GSW Enterprises)

Engaging the “whole family” is a priority. Along the way, Knowledge Quest has developed programs offering targeted assistance to Memphians,  including its Extended Learning Academies, Green Leaf Learning Farm, Family Stability Initiative and its Universal Parenting Place.

Lisa Sledge’s four grandchildren – 10, 9, 6, 5 – all participate in Knowledge Quest. She secured two computers. “You give this one so much time, and you give this one so much time. That’ll stop the fight for a minute,” she said, laughingly.

“It (the computer distribution) is important because they need to continue their education, to keep up with the work. We didn’t have any. So I am thankful.”

The extended family – the grandchildren and their mother – live with Sledge. She took the call about the availability of computers.

“When they called me to come pick them up, I must have got the time wrong because I was two hours early,” she said. “That’s how excited I was.”

With two of the grandchildren along, she maneuvered through the drive-thru pickup.

“It was the same time they pass out the lunches.”

Living through this period is difficult, said Sledge, 56 and disabled.

“You’ve got to do what the people say, but in the end, you’ve got to pray; you’ve got pray.”

The computers are an answer to prayer, she said.

Serving South Memphis families during the pandemic has forced Knowledge Quest to make changes based largely on feedback gained from direct conversations. (Photo: Gary S. Whitlow/GSW Enterprises)

“I can’t teach them. I don’t even remember the work. They come to me now and I say, ‘Wait a minute until your mama comes back.’ They know how to work them, though.”

Knowledge Quest, said Sledge, “is a blessing, it is.”

Foster keeps it real when talking about the community Knowledge Quest serves. “The stats are the stats,” he said. “I’m always…wanting people to understand …that we have to deal with what’s real. To stay motivated and inspired for the work, you’ve gotta see this glass as half full and engage the work from a strength-based approach.”

His folks moved into what now is the Knowledge Quest service area in 1942. He’s lived in it all his life. For him, service comes with the territory.

The Knowledge Quest-Valero connection is longstanding. (Photo: Gary S. Whitlow/GSW Enterprises)

Ahead is a third survey (direct telephone conversations) to monitor the needs of service clients during the pandemic. An earlier survey pinpointed the need for technology assistance.

Marlon Foster observes the operation with Lisa Wheeler Jenkins, public affairs manager for Valero Memphis Refinery. (Photo: Gary S. Whitlow/GSW Enterprises)

Valero is Knowledge Quest’s most consistent, longest-serving and most benevolent corporate partnership over time, Foster said. “They basically built our farm.”

Case management (family coaching), he said, ensures stewardship to make sure the donated devices are used as intended.

There was very limited virtual learning in the Knowledge Quest operation prior to the onset of pandemic response.

“We were looking at virtual learning as more of an enhancement of what we were doing and how we could reach more children outside of our immediate neighborhood. What was initially just a residual, a small part, actually got accelerated during COVID-19 to be a primary expression of the work. …

“Beyond this COVID-19 challenge, we do expect a new normal on some levels whereby virtual expression will become an ongoing part of how we do our work.”

A final distribution of available computer devices was set for Thursday (April 22).

“We still need more devices,” Foster said. “We are going to be able to reach about 120 homes. Our goal is 200 homes. If there are others who want to contribute to a childhood device, we want to reach those 200 families.”


Marlon Foster (right) approaches his work with Knowledge Quest from a strength-based approach and that includes the contributions of people such as Josh Tulino, vice president and general manager of the Valero Memphis Refinery, who step up to serve. (Photo Gary S. Whitlow/GSW Enterprises)

(For more information, visit www.knowledgequest.org.)

(Karanja A. Ajanaku is associate publisher/executive editor of The New Tri-State Defender.)

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