The following is the first posting in a series of blogs by Stewart Center staffers, volunteers, partners, and community members. Katie and Dakota live at the Center and are interning for the spring semester.
Our names are Katie and Dakota, and we have been at the Stewart Center for just over two months. Though we haven’t been here for long, we feel like we have learned a lot about these kids and this program. Spend a day here, and you’ll notice that the kids are playful, full of energy, and probably really ornery. Spend a week here, and you may come to notice that a few kids here and there need more help with schoolwork than others. Spend a couple more weeks here, and you’ll notice that the majority of students need one on one attention with their school work, attention that just isn’t possible in a classroom of thirty with only one teacher.
Our favorite part about the Stewart Center (aside from the gorgeous, blue paint) is the emphasis it puts on education. Homework time always comes right after snack, and continues until the child is either finished, or their parents pick them up. Every youth center either of us has ever attended has been one that was basically ‘free play’ for several hours, and provided little, if any academic support. There are consistently several people in each classroom available to help each student, which makes a huge difference.
Since we have been at the Center, we have noticed that the majority of the children are not where we think they should be according to their grade level. A second grader should not be struggling when reading a picture book and a child in third grade should not find difficulty in reciting their math tables. A 5 year old should be able write and spell their name. We find this so frustrating because we know that every single student that we have come into contact with at the Center is bright, kind, and has so much potential. The same second grader who has trouble reading can tell us, in detail, how LeBron James played the night before, and then can emulate the player on the basketball court. The third grader who has problems remembering their math tables has a beautiful voice and can remember the words to every song on the radio.
We both tutor in a program called book buddies, which is a one on one reading program for children who are significantly behind their grade level in reading. I (Dakota) have been helping my book buddy twice a week for two months, and witnessing his growth in such a short amount of time brings me so much joy. Every new word learned and every ‘Aha!’ moment makes this program the best that I’ve ever been a part of. I am learning that the small victories are the ones that make the biggest difference.
It’s wonderful to us to be able to witness growth in our students. We love to watch the triumph in a child’s face when they understand a math problem or they finally remember how to spell that tricky spelling word. It’s great to be able to call our moms and say, “Guess what I taught this student!” But often times we think about who will help them if they aren’t able to come to the Center. What will happen to these kids if they move? Will they get the help they need with their education? We often wonder if they will remember us, or their time at the Center when they are grown. And we think that they will. We think they will remember that they had a place where they were safe and cared for. We think they will remember that they had a place where the staff invested in their wellbeing, education, and truly loved them. We think one of the reasons we love this place so much is that everyone is completely invested in the children.
We love and cherish every child that comes through the Center’s doors. Even more, we love that the Center gives the children sound resources. Not just academic resources, but resources in other aspects of their lives as well. Both of us are from a small town in Indiana, so we are unfamiliar with what it means to grow up in the city of Atlanta. It can be hard to empathize with them – to try to understand what they go through not only at school, but also at home. While it can be hard to relate, or be relevant in their daily struggles, above all we believe in the work of the Stewart Center. We believe in keeping kids off the streets and in a safe place, where they can grow and strive to reach their full potential. We are thankful for the Stewart Center – not only for giving the students an opportunity to grow, but also for giving us the opportunity to grow alongside them.
Katie and Dakota