Asheville School prioritizes a purposefully-small community where every student is known, loved, and supported through their high school career. This year, a group of Asheville School students had the opportunity to create those same supportive connections with local elementary school students through a new service-based afternoon activity.
During the winter activity season, eight Asheville School students used their activity time to volunteer with Youthful HAND, an Asheville nonprofit run by Elinor Earle open to elementary school students who live in public housing. Youthful HAND provides tutoring, study skills and afterschool care, and a major aim of the program is to pair the elementary school students with steady volunteers to foster long-term, supportive relationships.
Last year, then Asheville School senior Serenity Harris connected with Youthful HAND through a project she completed in her Global Studies class. She organized a small group of Asheville School students to volunteer two days a week. When the class came to an end, the students involved knew they needed to continue Asheville School's connection with Youthful HAND.
Enter current seniors Kate McLemore and Nina Mendoza. The two of them were inspired by their work and wanted to see it both continue and increase so that the Asheville School volunteers had more time to make personal connections with the young students.
"When I started volunteering last year with Serenity, I realized what a big difference this made for the kids," said McLemore. "Being able to give these kids attention and build these relationships really increases their confidence. I wanted to be able to contribute to that."
McLemore and Mendoza decided to look into ways to keep the program going. They realized that making a service-based afternoon activity would allow them to travel to volunteer with Youthful HAND on a daily basis for an entire season.
They approached Dean of Academics Helen Plaehn to discuss the possibilities and begin the process of creating a new activity. "Nina and Kate made this happen," said Plaehn. "They wrote a proposal, planned it, and enacted something."
The official service afternoon activity launched for the 2017-2018 winter season, and it had a profound impact on the students involved.
"Youthful HAND is such an amazing program," said Isoken Omoregbee, a junior who participated in the activity. "We really got to know these kids—they are all so smart, but they are behind in school because of things outside their control. They were so excited to see us every day, and I could really tell we built a connection. It felt like this program makes a real difference."
"This has been transformative," said Plaehn. "It aligns with our values, and our students are addressing very real needs in our community that they don't often see. Our students have formed really close relationships with the kids they are tutoring."
Senior Sophie Zimmerman shared one poignant experience: "There is one kid who came in later. He was way behind in his reading level--he could barely read at all. I thought that maybe it was a confidence issue, because he would do anything he could to get out of reading. So I sat down and talked to him, because I had my own problems with reading when I was younger. I told him how it was for me, that I believe in him, that he's smart and he needs to know that. Afterwards, he started working really hard and was reading at home for the first time. He has improved so much! Knowing that helping these kids at such a young age will help them later on, and knowing I was a part of that –it's just amazing."
These experiences proved to be beneficial for both the elementary school students and the Asheville School students.
"I feel like I matured so much in this activity," Zimmerman said. "I taught the kids a lot and tried to help them out, but I learned a lot from them, too."
For McLemore, volunteering with Youthful HAND confirmed her desire to pursue a career in education. "I've realized the importance of telling kids that they matter," she said. "Proving to them that we care is important. We come back each day, and they feel more confident and they feel important. When I see that progress, I know that this is what I want to do."
Mendoza and McLemore hope to see the activity continue after their graduation and thanked the many faculty members who helped them ensure it could happen this year. "We were worried we wouldn't be able to go every day, but so many of our teachers have helped us with things like transportation," said Mendoza. "We're learning so much, and we want to continue this activity. We want to share how important it has been for us and for the students we worked with."
You can read more about Youthful HAND and the director of that program, Ms. Earle, in this 2016 article from the Asheville Citizen-Times.