Through its nearly 1,000 volunteers at work in Seattle and King County, RSVP supports the efforts of community agencies to meet the needs of the youngest to the oldest residents of all races, genders, sexual orientations and ethnicities.
Recently, I learned of yet another program in which several RSVP volunteers are already participating. It is the Youth Tutoring Program established about 25 years ago, sponsored by Catholic Community Services of King County with contributions from a broad spectrum of donors. The Youth Tutoring Program operates at six public housing sites of the Seattle Housing Authority located in the Lake City, First Hill, West Seattle, Columbia City, Rainier Beach and Beacon Hill neighborhoods.
A corps of over 500 volunteers provide after-school tutoring to children from 1st through 12th grades. The program is open to the children for as long as they need, free of charge. A point of pride is that some of the students become volunteer tutors after achieving their own educational objectives. There are currently about 450 students in the program.
I met recently with the Coordinator of Volunteers, Gabby Lanier, and also with their Fund Developer, Kevin Friedrich to learn about the program. And if the quality of a program can be judged by looking at its staff, then it was quickly evident that an individual such as Gabby has qualities that can help students achieve their best potential in spite of difficult life experiences.
Gabby has a background of experience in the Peace Corps and was posted in El Salvador where she engaged in language instruction. Though her college degree was in the sciences, her stint in the Peace Corps confirmed for her that she was especially drawn to working with young people to help them advance their education. Her work with the Youth Tutoring Program has reinforced this and is shaping her future educational plans.
The structure of the tutoring program has been carefully designed to help children achieve literacy and develop the social skills necessary for educational and life success. The great majority of students in the program live in family circumstances that present them with multiple challenges for achieving their goals.
More than 90% of the students need to learn English. They come from low-income family circumstances, usually as a result of the fact that their parents came to the United States recently – either as immigrants seeking a better life or as refugees from war-torn countries – and often after living in refugee camps.
They are mostly from East African countries such as Somalia and Ethiopia, and besides having to become literate in the English language, they also have to adjust to a different culture while retaining their cultural identity.
Gabby described the realities and difficulties these children encounter with remarkable sensitivity. Without the help of such a program, they can fall behind in schoolwork, sometimes begin to skip school, and may begin to use chemical substances to ease their unhappiness, which impairs the ability to concentrate and learn.
The program design provides each child with an individualized educational plan after assessment of their state of literacy and math skills. Assessments are repeated to determine their progress in the program. The educational plan also provides tutors with guidance for each tutorial session. Students receive individual tutoring twice a week and also participate in a weekly one-hour small group.
Because program sites are located within a housing community, the students often form social networks which provide support. Students receive assistance with homework though the main focus of the program is the development of broader literacy skills. They are also served healthy snacks of either fruit or whole grain options.
Tutors are selected for their ability to relate to children and serve as mentors and role models who can support students through stressful times and help them develop positive goals. Personal skills in relating to children are therefore more important than any particular educational or work experience. The tutors are diverse in age and backgrounds.
One such tutor is volunteer Vicki Gilmer. When Vicki first came to RSVP looking for a tutoring job, she indicated she would be most comfortable working with younger children. However, as it happened, she was placed with Adam, a 10-year-old 4th grader, and says she is having the time of her life.
“There is a reason we are together. Sure there are times he would rather be outside playing, especially when the weather has been so nice, but in the end, he gets his work done. I find I often provide as much emotional support and structure as I do academic help. I just can’t say enough about how I enjoy the time I spend with Adam and how much growth I have seen in him.”
The program operates from September through the month of May, and tutoring sessions are held in the afternoons and early evenings from Monday through Thursday. A summer program operates as well.
Typically there is a waiting list of students to be assigned a tutor. In addition to tutoring, volunteers may also function in other capacities which support the program. Contact RSVP if you or someone you know would like to learn more about how you can participate in it.
There is no doubt that by helping young people develop educational and life skills, volunteers can derive from it great satisfaction and a sense of fulfillment.