Debora Gavin Merlock, President/Founder, Greater Excellence in Education Foundation (GEEF)
“I never saw the kids with three heads,” Deb Merlock says with sarcasm. From the day she and her husband moved to their Abingdon neighborhood more than 20 years ago, Merlock has listened – and ignored – the whispered and sometimes shouted warnings about sending her four children to the Edgewood area schools.
“I was never one to be influenced by someone else’s opinion anyway,” she states. “Everyone was asking about where I would be sending my son after elementary school, and he hadn’t started kindergarten yet!” Not falling for rumor-tainted negativity, Merlock decided to visit the schools herself – well before her son would be attending. “As a citizen and a parent, I exercised my right to visit the schools and observe the environment,” she answers. “I fully expected to see three-headed children everywhere, but I didn’t. Not one. What I did see were wonderful learning opportunities and some children with challenges. That doesn’t equate into a bad experience in which to learn or even a bad school. The issue wasn’t the school. It was finding a way to help the children and their families.”
Merlock decided to act. “I wanted to do something for the community that changed how people perceived it. There is a lot of positive energy in Edgewood, but you wouldn’t know it because of all the negativity that you hear around town,” Merlock declares. In 2003, she started looking into existing organizations in Harford County to see if she could join something already established. While there were and still are many great organizations doing good work in the schools and the community, Merlock felt there was a void in bringing the resources that existed to the students and the parents together.
With strategic and emotional support from Warren Hamilton of J. Vinton Schafer & Sons, Inc., Merlock began talking to businesses to further her cause. Graduating from the Harford Leadership Academy in 2004 where she met and drew inspiration from additional influential business people including staunch GEEF supporter Phil Logan of Slavie Federal Savings Bank, Merlock finished her groundwork and incorporated the Greater Edgewood Education Foundation in December that year as a charitable, non-profit organization. The mission of GEEF was simply to help underserved students find success in college, work
Getting involved is nothing new for Merlock. At the age of 12, she was volunteering in Baltimore City helping less fortunate residents. She also gave her time as a “Big Sister” to area youth throughout her twenties. She’s received the Outstanding Leader Award from the Girl Scouts of Central Maryland, the National PTA Lifetime Achievement Award, and citations from various delegations in Harford County and Maryland commending her service to children and youth. Although trained in computer information systems, she sees that as the perfect foundation for her current career that requires her to articulate a desired output, identify the variables, and develop a process and solution.
“My philosophy is you have to learn how to lead yourself before you can lead others,” she asserts thoughtfully. That philosophy is one of the guiding principles in the various programs offered by GEEF. The Youth Leadership Academy, one of GEEF’s most successful programs, is now in its sixth year. A three-day residential camp for 7th to 9th graders, the Academy teaches the participants how to envision their future then forge a plan to get there.
“It was interesting to see how self-limiting the children from challenging backgrounds were,” Merlock says. Adding, “The exercise asked kids to develop a personal action plan. Many of the children couldn’t see past a few days listing only simple accomplishments like learning to do a split or finishing out the week at camp. Our goal was to help them learn to believe in their own opportunity. To see their future beyond the next few days or few weeks.
“Research has shown that parental involvement and support is crucial for student success. But, as we have learned, you can’t expect different results if you continue doing the same thing. Situations often beget the same situation. If the parents were not raised to value education, it can be assumed they may not know how to teach their children to value it. If the parents didn’t attend college, they may not be confident that their children can. If a parent has difficulty understanding the paperwork for a college or scholarship application, chances are it won’t get done. Experience begets the same experience when there are no resources or guidance to do things differently. You can’t blame the children. You can’t blame the parents. You can’t blame the school. The situation is what it is until you change it.”
Merlock also stresses the importance of working in tandem with the parents. “All of our programs include parents, therefore, we have many on the weekends so that they can participate. Our Career & College Fest, for instance, used to be held during the school day. But, that didn’t help bring the conversation home. By moving it to a Saturday morning, parents can now participate. So when a child hears a presentation from a volunteer from SAIC on cyber security and thinks to him/herself that’s something they might like to pursue, the parent is right there to hear the same information, understand the possibilities, experience the enthusiasm, and eventually encourage the accomplishment. The parent can now say to their child, ‘Yes that is possible. Yes you can.’ That’s very powerful for a child to hear.”
How Can You and Your Business Help?
• Host a school supply drive in July and August
• Donate to the “Tools for Schools” Schools Supply Drive
• Sponsor a new book drive in November
• Collect used prom dresses in February
• Sponsor a student to attend the Foundation’s Youth Leadership Academy in July
• Donate to the College Pathways Scholarship Funds
In June 2011, GEEF officially changed its name to the Greater Excellence in Education Foundation to better reflect its mission serving all Harford County families who need help. “What started out as a way to amplify the energy of the Edgewood area schools has turned into a county-wide effort,” Merlock explains. “Parents and teachers from all over the county were asking about how to participate. Children with challenges are not an Edgewood issue. It’s an individual issue no matter where you live.
“The feedback from parents was so positive that we solidified our relationship with the Harford County Public Schools with the support of Superintendent Dr. Robert M. Tomback. We do not duplicate the efforts of the school system or the Board of Education. We are not educators or administrators. We don’t provide after school programs, but we complement
and supplement the system. One entity can’t do it all. We as a community need to build the bridging capacity so that everyone learns.”
For more information on GEEF, visit GEEFINC.com. Call Deb Merlock at 410-322-7743 or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.