“I love to learn and to help others to learn.”
“Helping others to achieve their goals through education is very important to me.”
“When you have an emotional, personal connection with a student, it’s very meaningful.”
“I love to motivate students, to give them confidence, and to show them that if I came to this country and can succeed, then they can too.”
“I’m excited to be in the classroom, get to know students, and give back to the community.”
With such motivation and inspiration, more than 60 people came to the Cambridge School Volunteers Kickoff Orientation, on Wednesday evening, September 30th. They included young scientists, retired English teachers, a librarian, a graduate student in government, and a graphic designer. Gathered in the Pearl K. Wise Library of Cambridge Rindge & Latin School, the volunteers’ diversity of backgrounds and interests reflected those of the Cambridge Public School students with whom they had come to connect.
Founded in 1966, Cambridge School Volunteers (CSV) is an independent non-profit dedicated to the academic and personal success of CPS students. This year, some 1,000 volunteers will devote at least an hour or two every week during the school year to work with some 1,200 Cambridge students in grades Kindergarten-12. The volunteers serve in CSV’s wide array of programs—ranging from early literacy in the elementary schools, to middle-school math, to the Tutoring Center and College Readiness programs at the High School. In addition, 15 corporate partners, including several Cambridge-based biotechnology and pharmaceutical leaders, support and further CSV’s work, through the organization’s Reading Buddies program and NetPals, a mentoring program that introduces 7th-graders to the STEM fields.
The key to the success of CSV—which will celebrate its 50th anniversary next spring—are the one-on-one relationships forged between individual students and volunteers, who serve as both tutors and mentors. As Executive Director Jennifer Fries told the assembled group during her opening remarks, volunteers “can change the odds” for students in an overall population that is 45 percent low-income, where 40 foreign languages are spoken at home, and that includes many individuals with special needs, a history of trauma, and/or other barriers to achievement. Strong evidence shows that “Just by showing up week after week, the relationships forged and the time and attention volunteers give pays off for the students,” Fries said. And, she added, “it’s meaningful to the volunteers as well.”
Making a good match between new volunteers and individual students is a significant first step in the CSV approach. And so, immediately after pizza and dessert, the participants broke into two groups—those ready to volunteer in one of Cambridge’s 12 elementary or 5 upper (middle) schools and those planning to join a Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School program. “We’re going to meet in small groups, so we can do the introductions and the paperwork and then really get to know you,” Kasey Appleman, Director of K-8 Volunteers, quickly informed her audience.
Appleman then introduced three long-time volunteers, who each spoke about “the successes and challenges of this very enriching experience,” as Donna Tesiero, a literacy program volunteer at the Graham & Parks School, described it. Melissa Shakro, who volunteers in CSV’s Intergenerational Math Program, where participants learn the latest ways that elementary math is being taught, joined other speakers in emphasizing the importance of listening to students: “To echo what has been said, kids love talking about their new hat or science experiment, or what they did that morning.” And Efren Bonner, a Harvard Law student who is a CSV Learning Center tutor at the Putnam Avenue Upper School, highlighted the ways in which “Even though you are working with just one student, CSV volunteers have the entire school as a resource.”
Meanwhile, upstairs at Cambridge Rindge and Latin, Deandra Williams, CSV’s new Director of High School Volunteers, led the orientation session, where three panelists were highlighting similar themes. “Our Tutoring Center is one of the magical places in the High School,” said Rene Meshon, who manages the program, “and it has become a model for other school systems.” Each semester, Meshon continued, the Center’s magical work begins anew as, “We find the perfect match between our students and you, the volunteers.”
J.R. Dreyer, another high school panelist, has brought his “passion for human rights and civil rights and race relations” to the Tutoring Center since 2001. A language teacher who has a doctorate in education and has lived in eight countries abroad, Dreyer says that volunteering for CSV “keeps me young and energized,” as does the conviction that he is “making a difference in these kids’ lives.” Dreyer also told the new volunteers that their primary goal “is to listen.” He recommended: “As soon as you meet them—find out what’s going on, what’s rough in their lives, what’s easy…. Give them the lion’s share of the time. You will learn their learning style, even their thoughts on love, and what they think of their future.”
Charles Wyzanski, a distinguished Cambridge-based attorney, former Massachusetts Assistant Attorney General, and faculty member at Harvard and Boston University law schools, serves as a long-time College-Readiness tutor and, now, as a member of CSV’s Board of Directors. Also speaking on the high school panel, Wyzanski attested to the powerful impact that volunteers can have as they share their own personal and professional experiences with students to support them through the college application process. “It’s good for these students to have an adult in their corner, one who is not their parent or their teacher, and who comes from a different walk of life, brings his or her life experience, and makes a commitment to the process every week.” At the same time, Wyzanski said, “As we get involved in helping them to fashion their personal essay, it’s both a challenge and a privilege to learn about these kids.”
New volunteers attending the CSV Kickoff Orientation also expressed their eagerness to make a difference in students’ lives, through both one-on-one relationships and more widely. Said Luisana Duarte, who is pursuing a master’s degree in children’s literature and will volunteer in the CVS K-8 program, “I’m most excited to have the opportunity to get to know and work with children and teens in the classroom again. I really enjoy this kind of volunteering, which can be very rewarding, as well as giving back to the community.”
Cambridge School Volunteers continues to seek new volunteers throughout the academic year. New volunteer orientations are held weekly, with most sessions scheduled at the CSV offices at Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School. For more information, contact CSV at (617) 349-6794. Or, sign-up directly to volunteer with any of CSV’s K-8 or high school programs here: https://csvinc.org/for-volunteers/how-to-get-started/.