My first real experience with community service was also my first real experience with children. My sophomore year of high school, I thought I was going to North Carolina School of Science and Math, a selective public high school for juniors and seniors in the state (I eventually made the agonizing situation to stay at my home school, but that’s a story for another post). Regardless, NCSSM had a 60-hour summer service requirement that became my reason for involvement in Asheville’s youth soccer outreach program, and the beginning of several formative experiences (I’m loath to use such a cringy phrase, but it’s the best I’ve got at the moment) that I’ve had working with children, at home and at Swarthmore.
When I walked into the old community gym in East Asheville, carrying a big bag of soccer balls and following my mentor, whom I could never equal in extroversion and charisma, I was surprisingly nervous. Not only had it been several years since my club soccer days (as my readers may know, I turned to track in high school), but I had perhaps less experience in working with what the program called “underserved youth.”
Josh (aforementioned mentor) could probably sense my apprehension, and assured me that the children would quickly become attached. Indeed, I befriend a few girls who were much bigger fans of hugging and hand-holding than they were of soccer, and one in particular I remember quite well for the way she delighted in our shared name.
Little McKenzie might have been my motivation for continuing my work with children years after my experience with the soccer outreach program. Though she may have been half my age, and she didn’t get to grow up with the privileges my whiteness and my middle-class status have provided me with, she was much braver than I’ll ever be. Where most people, myself included, may have seen a world of difference between the two of us, she happily pronounced us “twins” (nevermind the fact that real twins would never actually share a first name). She helped developed my appreciation for the way children see the world: with more resilience and compassion than anyone my age does.
I started tutoring with Dare2Soar, during my second semester at Swarthmore. Dare2Soar is a Swarthmore program that sends students to community centers in nearby Chester to assist in various after-school programs. I think, after having the time for adjustment during my freshman fall semester, I wanted to disconnect a little from what Swatties like to call “the bubble.” I thought back to my time volunteering in Asheville, and I thought about little McKenzie, and I decided that the positive experience I had with her was the type of experience I wanted to seek out in my college extracurriculars.
Although I introduced myself as “Kenzie” to the children at Chester Boys and Girls Club, I was most frequently called “Miss Candy,” a cute derivative one of the girls picked for me. That semester, I think I spent just as much time turning a jump rope or having my hair braided as I did helping with math homework, but I don’t think that made my time there any less productive or rewarding. There was something special in the first time one of the students recognized me as “the blonde Monday girl,” something sweet about getting back on the bus with a poorly-drawn picture for a present, and something almost intimate about having a third-grader name to you all the people in their family, or point out their “crush” from across the gym.
Miss Candy became the inspiration for my “camp name” at the YMCA summer program I worked for two years, this time “Coach Candy” in order to align with our vague sports theme. Though I was an 18-year-old with no formal instruction in education or childcare, I was nonetheless given a group of twenty 7-year-olds for which I was solely responsible, with considerable freedom in designing their schedule and even their disciplinary system. After my first real day on the job, I called my boyfriend crying because I was more or less incapable of “classroom management,” and I thought for sure I would be fired in a matter of days. While I won’t bore you with my eventual growth into my technical job title of “Youth Mentor,” I will say it got better. For every child that refused to listen or participate, there was one who enthusiastically said goodbye to me at the end of every day, who wrote me a note that now hangs on the wall of my dorm room, or who, like McKenzie and the kids at Chester Boys and Girls Club, proved that they were perhaps kinder and more open-minded than the adults that teach them.
Before starting my third semester of tutoring this fall, I was required to attend a morning orientation, sponsored by the Lang Center and the Ed department, and attended by several Chester residents and leaders of the community centers at which we would be working. Though I enjoyed the get-to-know-you games with the other tutors, and I found Jennifer Bradley’s lecture on learning and teaching to be surprisingly engaging and relevant, I think my favorite speaker was a minister and professor who has taught several classes on Chester, including some at Swarthmore, and dedicated his life to improving the community. He detailed the rich history of the city with the goal of keeping us from condescending to, or even being afraid of, the Chester community, as so many locals do simply because of its marginalized status. He made sure we knew that Chester is home to two Gates Millennium Scholars, close to 200 churches, and upwards of 50 after-school programs that help mentor the community’s children.
He instructed us to be respectful of and proud of the community we were entering once a week. He wanted us to help change the common perspectives about the city by telling everyone back in the Swarthmore bubble that we have been to Chester. That we’ve worked in the community centers and have been welcomed by the generous and humble people running them, that we’ve helped some kids with math homework and maybe got our hair braided, and that at the end of the day, we’ve learned that the children there are kind and compassionate and above all, strong.
So that’s what I’m doing. I’m telling you about these kids.