This week is Spring Break. Students have the week off from the public school system, and I have a week off from a volunteer mission I began two months ago. Late in January, I was walking up to pick up dinner from my favorite neighborhood Chinese take-out and passed by what appeared to be a new store next door. Outside the new storefront, a young woman was writing up a request for volunteers on a chalkboard two-sided sign. It turned out that the “new store” was in actuality the new location for an 826LA tutor center. As I discovered, the 826 organization, founded in San Francisco, have started up volunteer centers in cities across the country to provide free afterschool tutoring, in-school tutoring and projects, and field trip/workshops focusing on literary creativity for students. Los Angeles is the only city to have two locations and one had just moved into my neighborhood. For me, education is a core tenet in my charitable activities. It is a basic foundation for growth, discovery and success. Based on my current time availability, I signed up as a volunteer, making myself available on Tuesdays and Thursdays for three hours to provide afterschool tutoring to elementary students at the local center.
The basic procedure for the afterschool tutoring is to focus on the student completing his/her homework first, then to encourage the student to find something to read and/or write a story. A theme or project is posted on a blackboard to give the students direction on what to write, but if a student wants to write in another direction, he/she is not discouraged in doing so. The key is to encourage creative writing in general. When a student writes a story, he/she takes it to the coordinator for approval. If approved (based on whether the tutor has directed and corrected grammar and spelling errors), the effort is announced to the entire group, and the student puts the paper in a publishing box and gets to ring a bell to celebratory applause. The stories are collected over a period of time and published in a small volume that is sold in the volunteer center storefronts to support the programs of 826LA. Whenever a book is published, a book party is held at the center with the student authors reading their stories to fellow students, tutors and parents. Last week, we held one for the newest book of stories, “A Fireplace with Cold Fire in It,” focused mainly on Denver, whose central zip code is 80206.
Of course, the ideal is better than the reality. The student/tutor ratio could be 5 to 1 on some days with the students coming from different schools and grades, so a tutor often has to shift from first grade spelling to fifth grade social studies on to third grade math. Many students would rather be playing than doing homework and are easily distracted, so it might take the full three hours just to get a student to complete homework. I would not doubt that a few of the parents who take advantage of the free tutoring for their children are seeking an extra three hours of free daycare, but they are definitely in the minority. Like any job, volunteering is challenging work, but the rewards are different. Yes, it is heartening to see the light in a student’s eyes when they get it or to feel the joy when you have made a difference in someone else’s life. However, there is a selfish satisfaction in knowing that in a small way, I am improving the social and environmental structure around me that will improve my life and society in general.