I taught for 35 years, and I ended my teaching career in the same rocking chair where I began, in a second-grade classroom in rural Albemarle County, VA. My own children went to school there, and my last year teaching, my colleague was a former student. It was every ounce of my life!
When I retired, I was looking for an opportunity to engage and interact with young people without the duties and responsibilities of a full time teacher. In other words, being able to do the best part of teaching – teach.
I’ve served as a math tutor and homework helper since I retired in 2011. There’s a nice mix of volunteers at the Boys and Girls Club – older people and college students from the University of VA in Charlottesville, where I live – and I enjoy getting to know the kids. I volunteer during the academic year and also in summer, in the Summer Reading Program, which is a very structured literacy program where we work with small groups on reading skills and other basics.
My decision to volunteer at the Boys and Girls Club was two-fold, Paying Back and Paying Forward. My husband grew up in Reading, PA, in the 1950s, one of six children. The Olivets Boy’s Club was a huge part of his life, offering a safe place for recreation/sports and providing mentors who encouraged hard work and scholarship. To this day, he is grateful for those opportunities and the lessons he learned. I also grew up in the 50s – an era when career options for women were limited. I make it my goal while working with young people to expose them to as many opportunities as possible, to help them find their passion, hoping they make it their life’s work and someday make positive contributions to make our world a better place. In that way, I see it as “paying forward.”
I found very, very quickly that it was important to make and build relationships with children one to one and one at a time. Here I am, a woman, ‘old’ – and Caucasian. Most of the kids are African-American, biracial or Hispanic. It’s not just sitting and reading. There’s a lot of conversation before you open the first page of the book – you learn their interests and share yours. They love stories that start out, “when I was your age . . .”
I never had a real mentor myself, although I’ve been fortunate to live and travel overseas extensively, especially when my husband served in the Peace Corps. However, I have always considered myself a life-long learner and want to model that for children. I want young students to believe they can do anything with desire, passion, encouragement, and hard work!
My work as a volunteer, while sometimes challenging, is always fun. Staff members have become friends and I have enjoyed seeing some of the students I first worked with six years ago grow and develop into middle schoolers. And of course there are always benefits to my personal health – working with kids keeps me physically active and always forces me to “exercise my brain.”
In my mind, what is given to the students is ultimately given to the community. By providing individual support, encouraging positive learning behaviors and strong academics, and helping students to build confidence and self-esteem, young people hopefully become productive community members of the future – a benefit to all of us. For students who may not get support at home or who may struggle in the larger school setting, getting this one to one attention is invaluable.
If every young person in their early years had the opportunity to be surrounded by individuals who cared for them and loved them, encouraged and supported them, helped them find their passion, and was invested in their educational success, then the next generation would grow and develop to the best of their abilities, they would become adults who are happy and healthy of mind and body, and they would become productive members of our society and global community!