Wednesday, April 6, 2011
Time is something I don't have a lot of these days. So when Operation Shoestring Development Director Wade Overstreet asked me to sit on a planning committee for the organization's upcoming Spring Fling fundraiser, I thought about what I could do to help an organization that plays such a vital role in our community.
In the past, I have covered Operation Shoestring's "A Conversation About Community" fall fundraiser, and I visited their Bailey Avenue facility last summer when I was working on the JFP story "Keeping Kids In School." But I had never actually served as a volunteer, seeing the organization operate through that lens.
Operation Shoestring is a hub of progress, hope and second chances. The organization, which started in 1968, primarily serves students and families in the Lanier High School feeder pattern by offering a free after-school program with activities and tutoring. Shoestring is also a referral resource for parents who need medical services, food assistance, GED classes and general support services.
Carving out two hours of my time on a Monday afternoon was a challenging prospect. I had big deadlines looming, dozens of emails to reply to and several phone calls to return. But when I arrived at Operation Shoestring to find about 75 third, fourth and fifth graders absorbed in their textbooks (the other students are nearby at other locations because the program has gotten so large), I knew that this was one of the most important ways I could spend my time in Jackson.
More than 90 percent of the students at Rowan Middle School and Galloway Elementary School, the schools Operation Shoestring serves, are eligible for free and reduced lunches, an indication of poverty. By providing caring adults and a safe place, promoting healthy eating and placing a high priority on education, Operation Shoestring hopes to alleviate cycles of poverty. Volunteers are a vital component of this process. The organization employs 37 teachers part time but serves more than 300 children and teenagers per year, so volunteers typically tutor students one-on-one or mentor them.
"Time is the hardest thing to give up, and it's the most precious gift," Operation Shoestring Project KIDS coordinator Kim Luckett told me during my impromptu volunteer training session.
Amen, sister, I thought.
Luckett advised that I act naturally around the kids and be honest about my commitment. The worst thing is for a child to expect you and then you not show up, she said. She also told me to be patient. Sometimes it takes a while for the children to warm up to new people. I have to admit, I was a little nervous at first. I don't typically hang out with fourth-graders, so I wasn't sure how I'd register on their cool meters.
When Galloway Elementary School fourth-grader Kayla sat beside me with her math workbook, she told me that she wanted to be a writer when she grew up, and I smiled, knowing I was in good company.
We practiced mean, median, mode and range for her homework assignment. (Yes, I had to give myself a quick refresher course). On a few problems, Kayla added and subtracted numbers faster than I could keep up with her, and once she even caught my own addition error.
"See, it's like that game show, 'Are You Smarter than a 5th Grader?" and you just won," I joked.
In between workbook problems, Kayla would stop to ask me the essential questions: Why is your hair so blonde? Do you have kids? Do you want kids? Do you watch Nickelodeon?
Eventually, she shared a few details about herself. In New Orleans, she had lots of friends and got to play with them all the time. But then Hurricane Katrina came, and she had to move to Jackson. When she was in second grade, she got mad a lot and didn't want to do any schoolwork. Now she likes doing her homework and wants to be a writer or maybe a detective someday. She likes to save her spelling words for when she gets home so she can practice with her mom.
The staff at Operation Shoestring says that Kayla has made tremendous improvement in her reading and math levels over the past year, and they try to get her one-on-one attention whenever possible. I had told Kayla that I was only there for that day but hoped to come back if I could find more time in my schedule. I wished I could promise her that I would be back again to help her. I wondered how she would do when her teacher tested her on the material.
"Thanks for helping," Kayla said, as she collected her belongings. "If you ever get time to come back, I'll see you then."
Attend Operation Shoestring's annual Spring Fling starting at 7 p.m. April 15 at the Mississippi Museum of Art. The event includes food and live entertainment by The Chill. Tickets are $20 and available at the door. For information about volunteering, email [e-mail missing] or visit http://www.operationshoestring.org.