Tuesday was my first day volunteering with the "reading partners" program at my neighborhood public elementary school. Every week I get to go in and read with the same two children for a half an hour each in the school library.
Because it was my first time meeting the students, part of the half hour was spent getting to know each other. I found out that the kindergartner I'll be working with likes pizza, the color green, pirates, sports and dinosaurs. We read a book together about tugboats before he went to lunch.
I had a blast, and hopefully it was a fun learning experience for him too. I highly recommend volunteering with young people, whether they are as little as a kindergartner, or as old as a college student. I find it helps keep life in perspective.
If you'd like to find an opportunity to work with young people, check out Dave Eggers' Once Upon a School site, which was built in response to his TED Prize wish. Users are encouraged to find volunteer opportunities, and to post stories about their volunteer experiences on the site.
In 2002, Eggers co-founded a writing center for young people, 826 Valencia, in San Francisco. Today, 826 has chapters in New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Seattle, Michigan, and Boston. You can find more information about the various chapters and how to volunteer with them at www.826national.org.
You can also find volunteer opportunities at your local public school by contacting a school district, a school, or a teacher and asking how you can help. If you're a parent, the local PTA may have ways for you to get involved as well. Some cities have organizations that can help you find a school volunteer opportunity. For example, in the Bay Area we have San Francisco School Volunteers, and Berkeley School Volunteers.
There are also tons of nonprofit organizations, like Streetside Stories (where the book cover image above is from), that work during the school day, and after school to supplement the schools' curriculum. Organizations like these teach everything from sports, to science, to the arts, to girl empowerment. You can find volunteer opportunities using sites like VolunteerMatch, Idealist, Social Actions, Network for Good, 1-800 Volunteer.org, Servenet.org, Volunteer Solutions, and GuideStar, or just look on the site of an organization that interests you.
A couple things to know about working in the public schools. If you are working directly with young people, you'll most likely have to get a TB test, and they may do a background check to make sure you're not in the sex offenders database. You'll probably need to go to some kind of orientation. Also, expect the unexpected: substitute teachers, sick children, field trips, special assemblies, and half days can all change the way you thought your day as a volunteer was going to go at a moment's notice. Be flexible.
Finally, if your schedule doesn't allow you to volunteer at a school, you can still support public schools with a donation through DonorsChoose. You can help fund everything from Gardening Club Supplies in Brooklyn, to a computer for a classroom in Alabama, or new recess equipment for a school in Indiana. Your donation can be of any size, but if you give $100 or more, you will receive a "thank-you" package in the mail with hand-written cards.
Even though the school year is almost over, find out now what you'll need to do to volunteer in the fall. That way, you'll have your TB test, background check, and orientation out of the way so that you're ready to go in September!
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