I volunteered in a lot of different places as a freshman in NYU, whether I was helping to make food for AIDS patients or cataloging books that would be sent to Hurricane Katrina victims. Out of all my volunteering experience, the one place that left me with the deepest impressions was a Family Services center located inside a hotel on 28th St. and 5th Ave. I used to go there every Wednesday to help grade school kids with whatever homework assignments they had. I don’t know what it was about the program or about the setting, but every time I volunteered for the program, I was either shocked or awed.
The first striking thing about the place was the location. As mentioned, the program was set in the fourth floor of a hotel. In all honesty, it was an odd setting. When I went there for the first time, I actually got lost because I had no idea it was inside a hotel building. The program was set in a large room on the fourth floor. The room was fairly large but did feel a bit crowded, especially with the book shelves at one end, the large tables in the middle and the computers and the staff working at the other end of the room. If the fact that the program was locate in a hotel wasn’t enough of a hint, then the room itself was enough of an evidence that this program was underfunded and lacking necessary resources.
Yet, the staff workers were knowledgeable and enthusiastic, more than many of the staff members I met on other volunteer programs. There were only five staff members total but each of them had at least fifteen or so years of experience in the field. Work was rough in this setting but nonetheless, they wanted to help as best as they could. I actually got pretty close to one of the staff members there and his story was fascinating. When I asked him about what motivated him to keep coming back here even though it wasn’t much, he told me about how it was hard for him to even get to this point and he wanted it to be easier for the future generation of kids in the area. He had worked three jobs while going to college before this job and he didn’t want that kind of heavy burden to fall on the kids that were coming to this program.
To be honest though, the program was a bit disorganized and despite the high enthusiasm of the staff members and us volunteers, the program at times felt a bit ineffective. The biggest issue was the student-to-staff ratio, which seemed like it was 5:1. Helping one 5th grader on his math assignment often meant ignoring a 1st grader struggling to learn the alphabets, albeit unintentionally. The steep range of various abilities of students didn’t help either. Every student was at a different skill level. One kid may be able to do multiplication tables but another kid didn’t even know how to count numbers. In the end, the two-hour program felt it was designed more to keep kids in a safe environment rather than providing them with significant academic help. For most parents, that was all they wanted since many parents of these students were too busy working out of the home, but even so, I always felt like the program was lacking. I wanted it to be more than just a refuge; I wanted it to be an environment that fostered real learning. But as the cliche saying goes, that was easier said than done.
One impressive thing about the program however was that the kids themselves actually liked coming here. In many of the places I volunteered in, the kids often couldn’t wait for their parents to come so they could go home. Here, they were glad to come and some even didn’t like leaving. The environment was a lot freer and since the staff members were so enthusiastic, they connected to the kids extremely well. Even if we weren’t able to help a kid with his homework assignment, the program made sure the kid was in a really positive environment. In the end, that was all that mattered. Many of these kids lived in battered and run-down neighborhoods – especially compared to kids in other volunteer programs I’ve been in – and this program was a refuge away from all that. In that sense, I felt that this program was very, very crucial for these kids.
I wonder how the program is going nowadays. I’m a bit worried about it and have a feeling that it’s still very underfunded and very disorganized but I have good faith in its staff members and a few numbers of volunteers who come to the place.