Weaving a new social fabric
December 13, 2018
By most measures, Sarah Hemminger had it all: she was married to her high school sweetheart and was pursuing her doctorate in biomedical engineering at Johns Hopkins. Yet something was missing.
“Not having family in the area and having trouble making friends at first brought back memories of feeling isolated during my youth. It triggered something very deep inside me,” remembers Hemminger BS ’02 PhD ’10.
In 2004, to overcome her sense of isolation, Hemminger sought to connect with the community around her by creating the Thread Community Model, or “Thread,” a volunteer-based support network that is now garnering national attention.
Based in Baltimore, Thread identifies some of the city’s most underperforming high school students and weaves a fabric of volunteer support around them for a period of 10 years. Currently, more than 400 struggling high school students have benefitted from the work of nearly 1,000 Thread volunteers, who serve as extended family members. These Thread Families support students by doing what they would do for members of their own families—driving students to and from school, packing lunches, helping with homework, and more.
The Thread Community Model works. According to Hemminger, 87 percent of students enrolled in the program graduate from high school and 83 percent finish college, a two-year degree, or some type of certificate program. And a whopping 100 percent are still involved in the program 10 years out.
“We believe, and our data shows, that every young person can thrive if we end the poverty of isolation by weaving a new social fabric with relationships that cross the lines of race, class, and zip code,” says Hemminger. “This social fabric has the power to transform not only individual lives, but the city as a whole.”
Of course, Hemminger’s community was much smaller when it first started in 2004, with a cohort of 15 students and volunteers who came primarily from her biomedical engineering program at Johns Hopkins.
“At the time, I was taking anatomy, and I just asked the three people sharing my cadaver if they would come and meet a few students,” says Hemminger.
With that small team in place, Hemminger worked hard to balance her studies with her new initiative to support Baltimore teens. She found the support she needed through the late Murray Sachs, then director of the Department of Biomedical Engineering, who ultimately provided the funds needed to sustain the organization’s first three years.
“Instead of telling me that I didn’t have time for this on top of my graduate studies, he understood something innate with who I am and he encouraged me,” says Hemminger. “I think everyone needs a Murray Sachs in their life, and I think Thread provides that for many people.”
Hemminger hopes Thread will continue to grow so that the community can help even more students. Launched one year ago, her organization’s four-year strategic plan aims to reach five-to-seven percent of the freshmen attending traditional Baltimore City public schools, which equates to nearly 60 percent of the city’s highest-needs students, by 2021. At this rate, Hemminger estimates that Thread will serve a total of 3,040 Baltimore students, knitted together in relationships with more than 7,600 volunteers, by 2030.
“There’s an incredible process that happens in Thread where you get to understand others better, but you also start to understand yourself better,” says Hemminger. “Over the last 15 years, the relationships in Thread have created a gradual awakening for me to realize who I am and where I fit in the world. That’s what keeps me going.”
If you would like to become a Thread volunteer and join the 1,000+ people currently connected to Baltimore’s young people, please visit Thread.org.
– Sarah Tarney