During my five months of self-imposed unemployment, I discovered that I don’t do well without a schedule. When I was teaching, I was up by a bit after five in the morning, at school before seven and several nights a week didn’t head home until 5:30. Weekends were something to be looked forward to and treasured. Sleeping in (which in the world of early birds like myself just means getting up without the squawk of an alarm, even if that is 7:00AM) was a treat to be cherished each and every time it was possible.
Post-cross country move, Thad had a very rigid agenda, while I was free to wander as I pleased. There were parts of that independence that I loved. Over the summer I was reading a book every day or two (thank goodness for library e-lending!), discovered creative new ways to paint my fingernails and in much less than the seventy-two days it took Kris, discovered that I was just not that in to the Kardashian clan.
As I wiled away my summer days, I began to look for volunteer opportunities in the area. One evening I took the green line (gasp!) out to Petworth to work with ESL students. I spent the evening tutoring a Cambodian woman hoping to get her GED. I enjoyed the time I spent there, but without a car, the commute there and back took as long as I actually spent working with students. In July I had an opportunity to volunteer at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial opening, which was super, but just a single day project. With a few other odds and ends chances thrown in throughout the summer, I soon decided that I would like something a little more regular, something with a schedule that I could count on, dates that I could obsessively mark on my calendar.
It was at this point that I was introduced to a program called The Reading Connection. This is a group founded in 1989 by some teachers who saw the profound effects created by a lack of literary material in the homes of children. The Reading Connection is a volunteer program that works out of shelters and homes for at-risk students to create literacy-rich environments in which they can grow. As a reading teacher and uber-book lover, this was a great fit for me.
After going through the training process and getting my background check and references in order, it was time to actually begin. Along with my team of three other members, I go to a local homeless shelter once every four weeks to read with the children.
This has been…well…an experience. I taught middle school for a decade. I have a pretty good handle on discipline and control when it comes to a group of students. The gal I go with, Pam, was a middle school teacher (6ht grade, bless her heart!) in Hawaii. She now teaches in the education department at a local university. She is organized and I’m sure was a fabulous teacher. And yet, TRC nights are utter chaos. The last time we were there, I had to convince a young girl that standing on the table was probably not the best option. Pam had kids hanging on her the moment she walked in the door. These kids are needy, in many senses of the word.
While it can be frustrating and a long hour attempting to bring books to life for these kids, it is the neediness that creates the need for the program. These kids need more adults who care. They need more attention. They need more structure. They need more books.
During the November session, which of course revolved around Thanksgiving. I hauled in a pile of picture books about turkey feasts and thankfulness and harvesting fields. For a treat, I put together “turkey baggies” which held all of the fixings for Oreo turkeys. (This is the OCD teacher in me. Rather than just bringing and trying to pass out the various turkey parts at the house, which I knew would be the epitome of bedlam, I pre-packaged the necessary cookies, candy corn, and Whoppers for easy access.)
Volunteering with The Reading Connection has been an eye-opening experience. I am well aware than an hour of reading time each week isn’t going to solve the root problems that create the cycle of poverty in which these kids are being raised. I do hope that our books and discussions provide a glimmer of what else is available in the world and hopefully even just one child will latch on to that possibility and become something bigger and better than she had previously dreamed!