Building Brains for Community Gains
When you think about who holds power in society, you probably do not envision sweet little hyper kids from low-income families, but rather CEOS at huge corporations and popular political figures. That said, through my community engagement project, I worked with Brain Builders—a subdivision of Stafford Junction—in an effort to change these perceptions and redistribute power and resources to low-income kids by providing reading time, homework help, and a patient helping set of hands and ears. Stafford Junction is a faith-based non-profit organization that was formed in response to an assessment completed by the Stafford County Sheriff’s Department in a high-crime neighborhood in Stafford County. The report included several challenges such as poverty, domestic violence, substance abuse, unsupervised children—which is especially relevant to Brain Builders—and high rates of non-English speaking Hispanic and refugee families. As a result, Stafford Junction was formed to improve the lives of low-income youth and families through programs like Brain Builders that were focused on education, nutrition, and healthy living.
To start off, Brain Builders is a school-year long program that seeks to foster intellectual achievement and help kids develop tools for success in their educational careers and lives. The program reaches 6 schools in the area, from kindergarten to 12th grade; it just recently expanded to include Old Forge High School. There are currently about 115 volunteers of all ages, but there is a great need for even more help. It is my hope that after reading this paper and listening to my presentation, several of my peers will be compelled to volunteer their time to helping this immensely worthy cause.
As far as the community I targeted, worked with 20 kindergarteners and first graders at Falmouth Elementary School, which is about a 12-minute drive from our campus. A typical day began with the volunteers arriving about 10 minutes before schedule to set up snacks and look through books to find some at the appropriate reading level for our kids. Then, the students arrived at 4 p.m. and we got them signed in and distributed snacks. After about 10 minutes, they would clean up and we would transition into homework and reading time; for kids who wanted alternative things to do, we had math and crossword puzzle worksheets. Depending on the day, the weather, and the general behavior of the group, they often got some time to go outside for a little while as well. Lastly, a few minutes before 5 p.m., we would get them lined up and ready to be picked up or walked over to the bus.
Now that I have given you an idea of this community and the program I worked with, I will address the power structure and flow of people and organizations within it that allow it to operate smoothly. At the top, with the most power, is Carrie Evans, the Stafford Junction Executive Director; she runs all of Stafford Junctions’ programs and makes sure each of the respective leaders within them are on task and making the right kinds of progress. Next, Brain Builders Program Manager Tegan Aguiñaga—who was especially kind and flexible in getting me started volunteering—falls right below her, with the authority to direct Brain Builders, check in on a regular basis, and manage the day leaders, who are next on the list. Michelle Vasquez and Lester Gabriel were the day leaders for Tuesdays and Thursdays, respectively. They gave the volunteers instructions each day and made sure we were spending time with the kids effectively. Since a consistent meal was a key factor in keeping the kids interested in the program, the local charities and churches that donated that food also wielded significant power. Finally, the volunteers are right above the students, as we worked together to develop critical thinking and reading skills to help them succeed, and they determined how the day turned out with their levels of attention and focus.
Since I have just described the dynamics of the power scheme, I will now explain some of the key issues of power within the greater community that create the need for this program. The kids we worked with lack certain resources that allow their more affluent peers to thrive, such as having the luxury of a stay-at-home parent to teach them to read and spend time developing their homework skills; kids on the other end of the socio-economic spectrum tend to spend much more time alone, as their parents often work long hours or multiple jobs to make ends meet. As a result, their peers who come from more wealthy families end up with an unfair advantage for success in grade school, but also in the future when applying to college and for jobs. On top of that, upon realizing that their classmates understand things more quickly or do better on tests and assignments, their sense of self-worth and self-confidence diminishes, which was unfortunately very evident in the group I worked with; several students were embarrassed to admit that they “could not read” or felt that they were “stupid.” While this language gave me a heavy heart, I was grateful to be there to discourage these thoughts and reassure them that they were all intelligent and all capable of doing anything they worked to accomplish.
After realizing the need for drastic, meaningful change, the goal of my project was to enhance their reading and homework skills and help improve their sense of self in order to redistribute power in the long term. First and foremost, I went into each session with my mom’s philosophy about how to help kids prosper and grow: always treat them as equals, so that they feel the respect and ability to rise to the challenge and achieve more than they ever would have imagined otherwise. I also shared my knowledge base of hints and tips for pronouncing words and using context clues while reading and helpful tricks for doing math problems and other activities. In that way, I was able to give back from my position of resources in the academic world and transfer that power to these kids. Additionally, presenting and writing about this project and sharing it with our class will hopefully compel more students to work with Brain Builders to help meet their need and reach even more young people.
As far as the role of Brain Builders in affecting our broader community, it works to resolve inequality on a small-scale, but one that impacts future generations worldwide: the children that we are helping to develop these skill sets will be the future major power-holders of our society. Furthermore, this program bridges the gap between the generations in that several older people volunteer their time after retirement and are able to reach out to the younger populations. Both generations end up impacting each other in ways they may never have expected. All in all, the most meaningful takeaway for me with Brain Builders and Stafford Junction was their mission to “connect lives, build relationships, and foster understanding across socio-economic lines.” I sincerely hope I was able to contribute to this profound goal by helping the children realize just how important and capable of success each one of them is through the development of their critical thinking, reading, and deductive skills. Potential power lies in all corners of the world, we just have to seek out ways to distribute it evenly and make sure it ends up in the hands of people with the greater good in mind.