After moving to the District in the fall of 2009, I started looking for opportunities to get involved in my community and give back. I volunteered with a few different organizations and while all were well-intentioned, none seemed to be the right fit for me.
At the same time, I had a friend who was involved with a neighborhood group that called themselves the “Grassroots Education Project.” So that winter I decided to attend their Day of Service in celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. I spent the afternoon canvassing the Columbia Heights neighborhood with another volunteer, recruiting residents to become more involved in their neighborhood school – Tubman Elementary. Before that day, I had never even set foot near this school. I had no idea it even existed.
After spending an entire afternoon pitching the Grassroots Education Project to my future neighbors, I was hooked. Not only was I energized by their mission, but the idea that I could have such a positive impact on my immediate community was what truly convinced me to sign-up. Soon thereafter, I moved to Columbia Heights.
Starting that summer I spent 2 hours every Saturday, all year round, at Tubman – just blocks from my apartment. I would be lying if I said the proximity didn’t play a major factor in deciding to join “Reading All-Stars.” Who wouldn’t want to just roll out of bed at 9:45AM on Saturday morning and arrive to your volunteer location by 10:00AM – sometimes with just enough time for a coffee pit stop along the way! But after 3 years with the Grassroots Education Project, I came to learn that the “convenience” of this volunteer opportunity meant so much more.
On Day 1, I was paired with a bright-eyed 4th grade student. For the first few weeks, we began our sessions by just getting to know each other. After we had become comfortable, we dove head first into reading. I quickly realized that I was very fortunate to have been paired with such a smart, energetic student who had already developed a love for reading. This gave us an opportunity to really tackle some challenging books for a student her age and she welcomed it with open arms.
I continued reading with her every weekend until she was no longer a student at Tubman and had graduated to the 6th grade. And while I will always look back with pride on her achievements in reading, I think we both benefited the most from the relationship that was formed over the course of our time together.
Because her mom worked on Saturdays, I frequently would walk her to “Reading All-Stars” and home again to their apartment. It was in those times I got to see what her life was like outside the walls of the school, and it’s when I started to feel even more invested in her life. Living in the same neighborhood, it wouldn't be uncommon to run into her at the grocery store with her family or hanging out with friends and other “Reading All-Star” students near the Metro. Every time we’d stop and chat, she’d ask me what I was doing and catch me up on the latest news from school that week. She’d tell me about how her teacher was impressed we were reading “The Hunger Games” or how she dazzled her classmates with her new-found knowledge of The Great Depression from our latest read. We spent birthdays eating frozen yogurt and summer nights watching the movie version of her latest literary conquest.
I savored those moments and with each encounter it transformed my formerly “convenient” volunteering into a life-changing experience. Being mid-20s without children, I was practically still considered a dependent. Never before had I felt this kind of responsibility for something or someone. My desire to see her succeed both inside and outside of school could not have been cultivated had I not lived in her neighborhood. And while she’d probably never admit it, I’d like to think she looks back fondly on our time as well.
The Grassroots Education Project doesn’t just have a proven track record because of the measurable gains they’ve made for students inside the classroom – it’s because of their mission to build a lasting community partnership. It is with this idea of collective responsibility that we will truly have a lasting impact on our neighborhood schools.