For a lot of years it didn’t occur to me to volunteer, and even if it had, I felt overwhelmed with the obligations I already had between work, family and social engagements. But about six years ago, I felt like something was missing from my life.
I struggled to figure out what was bothering me, and I realized that I felt like the whole world revolved around me. My needs. My job. My schedule. I didn’t feel like I was giving anything back to the world that had given me so much.
I grew up poor. I was lucky, however, to be labeled “gifted” and shuffled through excellent programs. My teachers, understanding that my life contained challenges that my peers’ did not, were incredibly kind, and provided me with many opportunities. When I graduated from high school in Denver, my English teacher nominated me for the Denver Public Schools scholarship. I won, and the money helped put me through college at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
I had been the recipient of so much generosity. But I really wasn’t giving it back.
I knew I wanted to start volunteering, but wasn’t sure where. What would I really have time for? I ended up finding the Children’s Literacy Center (childrensliteracycenter.org). The free program is really simple: Tutors volunteer for an hour twice a week (or in my case, once a week) helping young schoolchildren with reading. There’s a short training, and then you just show up, and are assigned a kid. Tutoring locations are all over the city, and held at different times. I chose the southeast location, which was originally located at the Sand Creek Library, but has since moved to the Southeast & Armed Services YMCA.
The first boy I tutored was such a joy. An athlete with ADHD, he helped me imagine what my husband would have been like as a little boy. It didn’t take long for him to graduate from the program.
Since then, I’ve had the pleasure of tutoring so many kiddos. Each of them was different. One boy I had for close to two years. He wasn’t an easy child (though I adored him), and persuading him to go through his lessons involved a little bribery on my part. He especially loved magic toys. Usually, I wouldn’t let him see what his surprise was until after he successfully completed our lesson, but he was always trying to get me to give it to him early. I called him “my little negotiator” and I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s an excellent businessman one day.
Then there was the sweet girl I called “Ruby Two Shoes,” who struggled to learn to read in English because her parents spoke only Spanish in their home. Later, there was the diminutive tomboy that I tutored for over a year (reading endless books about bugs), who made me so proud and brokenhearted when she graduated from the program.
The child I currently tutor looks so much like I did at her age that I call her my “mini-me.” At 11, she’s at the age when kids can’t stop eating, and I’ve gotten her addicted to Boulder Canyon Malt Vinegar & Sea Salt Chips. Her sweet parents, who have no idea where to find the snack at the store, are a little confused.
All the lessons I have taught these kids — in between snacks and negotiations — add up to something big. If you’re a parent, you’ve likely heard teachers stress third grade reading levels. A 2010 report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, updated in 2013, found, “In 2011, 82 percent of fourth-graders from low-income families — and 84 percent of low-income students who attend high-poverty schools — failed to reach the ‘proficient’ level in reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).” What’s more, it noted, “The share of low-income black, Hispanic, and Native American students who scored below proficient on the NAEP reading test was very high (88, 86 and 87 percent, respectively) and much larger than the share of low-income white or Asian/Pacific Islander students (74 and 72 percent).”
And that matters, because, as the report notes, sociologist Donald Hernandez found that kids who don’t read proficiently by the end of the third grade are four times more likely to leave school without a diploma. Black and Hispanic kids are twice as likely not to graduate from high school if they aren’t reading at grade level in third grade as their similarly struggling white peers. Of struggling readers who live in poverty for one year, 26 percent won’t graduate. That’s six times the rate for proficient readers.
That means that all the fantastic kids I’ve tutored have a better chance of having a quality life because I gave them one hour every week. I can’t think of any better way I could have passed the time.