Volunteer Tutoring for CABPES

When I moved to Colorado a year and a half ago, the one activity I knew I would miss was being a volunteer tutor for 826LA. Helping the young students with their homework and promoting their creativity was as much an inspiration to me as it was to them. Unfortunately, even though the 826 organization is a national nonprofit with centers in several cities across the US, the Denver metropolitan area currently does not have an 826 center. I felt a bit of a loss with some empty free time. However, shortly after moving into my current townhome, I casually mentioned to a new neighbor about my time as a volunteer tutor, and she passed this on to another neighbor who was currently a volunteer tutor for a program supported by a local organization, CAPBES. This other neighbor recruited me to volunteer my time for the program at the beginning of 2016, which has been a bright spot for me this year.

CABPES, which stands for Colorado Association of Black Professional Engineers and Scientists, is not associated with or supported by a national organization. As one can infer by the association name, the tutoring support focus is more directed toward math and science, than reading and writing creativity, but the main goal is similar in supporting and encouraging underprivileged students to learn and move into more fulfilling careers that benefit society as a whole. As a local organization, its tutoring program has had to connect with local partners in order to find space to host the tutors and students. During the winter and spring of the last school year, we were meeting the students at a local high school that opened a few classrooms for the program. When the tutoring program started back up in the fall, a local community center opened its doors for the program.

The organization’s main program, MEP or “Math Enrichment Program,” is limited to two hours on only Monday and Wednesday during the school year and is focused on assisting math homework and improving math skills. There is no time for history or writing homework. Officially, MEP is for fourth to twelfth grades, but parental demand has brought first, second, and third graders into the program. Even though I was a math genius when I went to school, I realize that my career was mainly focused on entertainment, arts, and creativity, not engineering, so I offered and have been working more with the elementary grade students in the program. The other program that the organization offers is for high students planning on science and engineering majors in college and is called JETS for “Junior Engineers Tomorrow’s Scientists.” Presented in the winter and spring half of the school year for one night a week, the program challenges students to tackle scientific and engineering problems tied to a basic theme. Last year’s theme was planning a space colony on Mars, but the theme for 2017 will be to tackle climate change. The potential solutions that the students design are presented during a May banquet at the end of the school year. Finally, there is a program to help students with SAT/ACT testing for college applications.

As a smaller local organization, it has less resources to handle its mission, but it is still strongly dedicated to its mission. On some nights, I have had up to seven kids at my table, each of them wanting my full attention, but from what we have heard from the parents, each volunteer tutor has made a difference in the students’ work at school. CABPES may not have a national organization to help support its mission, but its local perspective is still evident in trying to attain its goal to improve and uplift every deserving student in its program. For Denver area residents who would like to learn about CABPES programs or other local communities who would like to see how they can set up a program like CABPES, the website CABPES.org is a good resource to check on. At least, I can foresee a good 2017 in supporting a worthy mission in encouraging young students onward in improving the future.

A Year with 826LA

It has been a little over a year since I started volunteering for 826LA, the Los Angeles chapter of the national non-profit organization dedicated to helping elementary to high school kids with tutoring assistance and projects to enhance their literary creativity. My volunteer work has focused on the afterschool tutoring sessions for elementary students, scheduling my time for the Tuesday and Thursday sessions during the school year. I also volunteered the same two days a week during a four week summer camp in July which focused on group writing with theme weeks. When I first started with 826LA a year ago, the basic process was very flexible. Volunteer tutors would spread out among the various tables, and then students would seek out open spots as they came in. When homework was done and a student was encouraged to write a story for the upcoming chapbook, the story was written, revised and approved for publication on the same day. However, in the course of the year, staff evaluations, parent/staff meetings and volunteer feedback helped design a more organized process that was more beneficial in guiding the students. Within each six week publishing cycle, students were assigned to a specific seat, as were regular volunteers, separating students that tended to distract each other and allowing students and tutors to bond over a longer period of time. For the first four weeks of the publishing cycle, students were encouraged to write stories based on a theme, reflected in the written prompts on the blackboard and put them back into their binder. In the fifth week, the student was to select one of the stories he or she had written and work with the tutor to edit, revise and expand it for final publication. Tutors were encouraged to be more critical before approving it to be shown to the staff coordinator. Tutors were also asked to be more detailed in each student’s daily homework log, providing detail on the student’s work habits and emotional disposition, giving the staff valuable information during parent meetings. A little structure has gone a long way in providing guidance to these students.

Another change was the addition of a “Barnacle” bag under each table that contained various school and art supplies to encourage the students, and I have been credited with the addition of one of the elements in this bag. After my first week of tutoring, I realized that demonstrating or having a student practice math or spelling with paper and pencil was not efficient, so I bought a dry-erase board and markers from a local drugstore and added it to my backpack. Lesson demonstrations were quickly presented, student practice errors were quickly erased and corrected, and the board also became popular for quick art projects when extra time was available. The value of the dry erase board was quickly noted and a couple of boards are now in each of the “Barnacle” bags with an erasable marker. However, the bags also have a set of permanent color markers for the color art sheets and I’ve noticed that some of the boards have been permanently marked by the wrong markers. Still, the boards continue to show students that errors will be made while learning, but they can be erased, corrected and overcome.

This past weekend, the “super volunteers” were honored at a party given by the 826LA staff in the rear of a West Hollywood comic book store. I was able to meet some of the other volunteers who help out at both the Mar Vista and Echo Park locations, assist the in-school programs and work on the field trip projects, all to promote the literary creativity of students from grades 1-12. In a presentation by the staff, we learned that 826LA serves more students than all of the other 826 organizations across the country, but many more students are on waiting lists to take advantage of the 826LA programs. It makes me proud to continue to provide my services to the deserving kids in the 826LA program.

For more information about the 826 organization, you can go to 826national.org. Los Angeles residents can check on the happenings of the two local centers by going to 826la.org.

Volunteering for 826LA

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.

For more information about the 826 organization, you can go to 826national.org. Los Angeles residents can check on the happenings of the two local centers by going to 826la.org.