by Marni Sholiton
This summer, six other college students and I took on a job responsibility in Cleveland unlike any we have ever had. As AmeriCorps*VISTA members, we accepted President Clinton's America Reads challenge to help children read at the third grade level by the end of the third grade. As tutors in Cleveland homeless shelters, our aim was to provide homeless and at-risk school-age youth with enrichment activities and individual attention that they might not otherwise receive.
Our students were children who likely do not get the attention in school that they require simply because they lack structure and regularity in their lives. They relocate often, and, consequently, switch schools throughout the year. These children were referred to us by the Cleveland Public Schools' Project ACT's (Action for Children and Youth in Transition) homeless youth and teens program.
My experience working with children who live in homeless shelters was definitely different from my expectations. I was surprised by how easy it was to get through to kids and how receptive they were. They were hungry for our attention. As Rachel Goldberg, a Cleveland Heights native and student at Case Western Reserve University, summed up, "These kids are no different from others I have worked with, except that most of them lack the encouragement and continuity necessary to nurture a belief in their own achievement."
This job has taught me the true meaning of the word "flexibility." There is no such thing as a typical day. We had to adjust our lesson plan to accommodate the number of students that we would be working with, and for the activity for the students.
Some mornings, students with whom we had been working for a few weeks were unexpectedly not there to greet us: their family had moved to a new location. While a sudden departure for us was shocking and disrupted our lesson plan, my thoughts were always on the child and his or her reaction to the change.
In an unstable world, a reading friend for these children is something they learn to look forward to. After seeing their faces light up every day and being bombarded with hugs when we arrived at work, it was no surprise that we quickly we became attached to them. Debbie Ensler, a CWRU senior from Atlanta, agreed, "I loved being greeted each day as if it were a surprise that I would be there." Even though they asked us every day before we left if we would be there the next day, there was still an element of doubt. Leaving the shelter was often hard, too, because the children did not want us to go.
As the pilot season of the America Reads program comes to a close, we ask ourselves if we feel like we have reached our program goals. While we may not have worked many literacy miracles in two months, I feel that our legacy is rich. We have helped to create a sense of competence in these children in their literacy abilities, an area in which many of our students had previously lacked self-confidence. We also have encouraged their families to become more involved with the education of their children. Most importantly, I feel we have shown these kids that people genuinely care about them.
At our Pre-Service Orientation in Columbus, we were told that the lessons and experiences that we would take with us from our job would outweigh what we put into it. It did not take long to realize the wisdom behind these words. I am leaving this job with new perspectives and many rewarding experiences. The most important lesson I have learned, however, is that all it takes is a little effort to really make a difference in the life of a child.
I have seen the immediate results of my work, both in the expressions on the faces of the children with whom we work and in their sense of accomplishment when they successfully complete a challenge that we have set for them. My only hope for them is that they continue to receive the special attention and encouragement that we have given them this summer. As the new school year begins, I sincerely hope that Project ACT finds individuals who will help to continue our efforts during the school year. This is a unique experience from which everyone benefits: the children learned from us, and we learned a lot from them as well.
M. Sholiton is a senior at Cornell University, Ithaca NY and participated in the Summer America Reads Program.
Copyright for the Homeless Grapevine Issue 23 October 1997