By Iris Zeng
During the spring 2016 semester, St. Stephen’s Youth Programs (SSYP) partnered with two Service-Learning at Northeastern courses: Community Learning and Child Intervention and Treatment. The organization provides young people from areas of Boston’s most disadvantaged communities with year-round, after school academic enrichment. The organization serves 850 young people in grades K—12+ and includes programming for elementary, middle, and high school students. The service-learning classes partnered with SSYP are currently involved with the organization’s elementary school program, which serves grades K—4 and involves helping children with homework, enrichment activities, and supporting students in order to build positive relationships.
In an interview with SSYP’s Lower Roxbury Site Director, Maggie Casey, we learn more about SSYP’s rekindled relationship with service-learning at Northeastern, its role in the program, and advice from Maggie for S-L students.
How do you think service-learning fits into the goals of SSYP?
Our real goal is to really support the children in feeling big, feeling safe, and feeling connected, and I think it’s really good for the “feeling connected” piece. The children can connect with college students who live nearby, especially people who are in classes and not just doing service to get the service hours, but also really thinking about it and how it relates and connects to the larger world. As they think about the larger world, we want them to think about the children and the program too and know who they are, how they’re doing, what challenges they face, what strengths they have, and what opportunities they have. It’s also an opportunity for the children to have the outside world come to them too; because there are different classes, you get different groups of people coming in.
What are your expectations of service-learning students?
One of the challenges is that the volunteers are varied individuals that come in at different levels. Service-learning is still so new [to us], but with more time I would come to expect different things from different classes. I’m still trying to read volunteers as individuals and seeing where they can plug in. It’s all new for me too; there’s definitely lots of learning.
Do you have any advice for service-learning students?
My major advice would be to really try and understand how important building relationships are. Doing homework is part of it but it’s not the only way that you can build relationships or talk to the kids. Just yesterday, one of the service-learning students was helping a girl in second grade with her homework. I noticed that, although they weren’t getting a lot of work done at the moment, it was so great that they were connecting; I could really tell that they were both having a funny conversation and that they both looked really happy. The person was a relatively new volunteer, so I was happy to see him engaged in a fun conversation.
Do you think it would be a good idea for service-learning students to come up with their own ideas to incorporate into the program?
Yeah! On Tuesdays, we have volunteers running something called the Imagination Station. The kids can do theater, where they can sing karaoke or dress up. Other volunteers run a station on art, and another group does a station on building. It’s really cool to have them lead that; about half of them are CEP students who are here for their second semester and have been with the kids a bit longer. The first month started and I told them, “if you ever want to run something, let me know,” but now I tell them, “here’s a block of time that you’re going to help run for half an hour.” I do want to give volunteers more of an opportunity to run things and take ownership of it, but it’s hard when people don’t always come consistently.
Where do you see this partnership going in the future?
I would love to build relationships with specific classes where the students can have that same class come back consistently, and also to just find other Northeastern students who can come back and consistently teach and lead activities. It’s so much more rewarding to have people who stay, and to feel like, “oh, this is a good fit, I want to keep leading activities with these children.”
Is there anything you would like to see the service-learning program improve upon?
I think I would like to know a little more about the classes and what the bigger picture is for what the volunteers are doing. It’s really cool to have other people’s perspectives. Because volunteers tend to show up when the program has already started, I don’t really get to sit down and talk to them about how they think things are going. Sometimes people only share things at the end of the year and I think, “Oh, you felt that the whole time? I wish I had known that when I could have done something about it.”
Is there anything else that you would like to talk about?
When I was a college student, I volunteered and worked at different youth programs. It was really meaningful to me; I did a practicum where I worked in a program for high schoolers and did a presentation about it. When I graduated college, I was like “Oh what should I do for a job? Maybe this meaningful thing I’ve been doing my entire life but always thought of as not a career, but as like community service, not a profession.” It was a really cool transition for me to graduate college and realize I could keep doing this and continue using this experience and knowledge. I hope other people get this opportunity too because it can be a career, not just something people do for volunteer work.