Making a Difference, One Child at a Time

At Hands On Charlotte’s volunteer project, Study Buddies – South Charlotte, kids get to practice their reading skills, they get helped with homework, and they also make connections with others so that they feel supported and empowered to succeed. Learning Help Centers of Charlotte provides one-on-one support for kids in Title 1 schools as well as a place where the kids can make friends with others who share a passion for learning.

Each week, the students begin the evening outside playing soccer and other games, and then they come together inside for a group activity and snack. Volunteers at this project are then paired up with one kid and together they work on homework or reading improvement. One regular volunteer at the project, Gray Davis, says “It is rewarding to see kids have the ‘aha’ moment when they get something that they have been trying to learn.” Gray admits that at first he was reluctant to sign-up for a tutoring project, but now he says “Volunteers should not let their lack of experience with tutoring kids keep them from trying this.”

Each week, regular volunteers are matched up with the same students if possible, which helps the two to work together better. This program strives to make a difference in kids’ academic lives, but it is also about mentoring and connecting with the students. Everyone has something to offer, even if it has been many years since they were in school.

Photo from: http://www.lhcclt.org/

Gen’s Story: Math is Fun!

I sure wish I’d had a math tutor like Gen Mezinskis when I was young. Gen is a Volunteer Leader for HomeWork Hounds at Sugar Creek, and we recently sat down over breakfast to talk.

Gen, short for Genevieve, has been involved with Hands On Charlotte for over 10 years. She was immediately drawn to the flexibility of the program, both with the variety of projects offered and the schedule of times available. In her first year volunteering, she tried a range of activities to see what she liked, including bingo and Special Rollers. She found she was drawn to tutoring, and she became a Volunteer Leader when an opportunity arose the next year. She’s been helping Charlotte-area students ever since.

Gen tutoring a student at Sugar Creek Library

At her project volunteers tutor children who range primarily from kindergarten to 5th grade. The project averages ten to 15 students per session, and Gen tries to ensure one-on-one assistance to the kids whenever possible. The project could always use more volunteers, and Gen recommends it to those looking for a first-time HOC opportunity, provided they like working with kids and are OK helping with homework.

It’s easy to see why the children would be comfortable working with Gen. She’s obviously smart, but manages to explain concepts in very understandable terms. The same children often attend tutoring year after year, a tribute to how valuable they and their parents find the program. As one of the benefits of being a long-time volunteer, Gen says it’s been great to see some of the students grow up through their continued involvement in the program.

For years, Gen was the only Volunteer Leader for the weekly project, and she’s thankful to now have a co-leader. Since she enjoys it so much, she often volunteers even when she’s not leading the event, ever committed to helping kids become more successful in school. Now that she has a co-leader, she says she may even try out some different HOC projects again this year.

I asked the Ohio native how she first became interested in volunteering. She went to a camp earlier in life where she found the counselors to be very helpful, making all the campers feel important and cared for. She wanted to help make others feel the same way, and started volunteering at an early age with projects like being a “candy striper” at a hospital.

As to why she chose to volunteer as a tutor, Gen says she’s always done well with math and science. After attending a week-long computer camp for youths, she was hooked. She earned a college degree in computer engineering, which helps in her role managing consumer data in a marketing department for one of Charlotte’s big banks. If she weren’t working at the bank, Gen would like to create software to help people manage chronic diseases.

I asked Gen what she does for fun when not working or volunteering – it turns out, a lot! She’s an avid runner, now having finished 4 marathons. She did the first with her father, an inspiration – he plans to do a marathon in every state, and is already up to 11. She runs every morning, even in the winter cold. Someday she wants to do a marathon with her father in Hawaii, which sure sounds a lot more pleasant! She’s also a skier. She and her long-term boyfriend have tackled some of the toughest ski mountains out west, though they also enjoy local skiing whenever they get the chance.

Gen’s also a world traveler. She recently went to Italy for two weeks with friends, and got to meet some of her boyfriend’s extended family. She has a brother who lives in Latvia, where her father is originally from, and plans to get back there soon. New Zealand is also on her wish list.

As a fellow Volunteer Leader, I asked Gen for any tips that have helped her long-term success in that role. First, she said, is to make sure the volunteers feel comfortable. Sometimes they aren’t sure how to solve a homework problem, so Gen can help them work out a solution as part of a team effort. Second is to help the students build confidence that they can do the work. Kids will occasionally want the tutor to solve the problems for them, which obviously doesn’t aid the student for the future. By showing they can learn to do it themselves, the kids feel encouraged to tackle more problems on their own. Last, she always asks volunteers for feedback, especially those who are new to HOC. That helps her ensure they’ve had a positive experience, and that she can continue to improve in her role.

As someone for whom math was not their strongest subject, I sure wish I had sought tutoring help from someone knowledgeable when I was young. Lucky for the kids of Charlotte, Gen and the volunteers she leads are there to help. To have a Volunteer Leader as smart, committed and worldly as Gen, Hands On Charlotte is pretty darn lucky, too.

— Ryan Sullivan, Volunteer Leader for Saturday Morning Live

Partner Agency Spotlight: Reaching for the Stars Tutoring Program

Dee Camm is the President and co-founder of The Sky Is the Limit Community Development Corporation. Both Camm and her co-founder, Emanju Zinnah, were working for the City of Charlotte when they created The Sky Is the Limit CDC. Since, furthering education is the goal of the corporation, Camm remarked, “We knew that we wanted to provide high quality tutoring services to the at-risk community free of charge.” The Sky Is the Limit CDC has created a mentoring program, a free tutoring program at two locations, as well as a North Carolina AAU divisional football and cheerleading league.

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Dee Camm

Camm explains the mission of The Sky Is the Limit below.

“The Next Generation Mentoring Program connects professional men and women with at risk boys and girls. The mentor provides guidance, career advice, support, and encouragement throughout the duration of the mentoring relationship. The children within this program come from neighborhoods that have a high concentration of violence, teen pregnancy, and high school dropouts.

The Reaching for the Stars Tutoring Program takes place at two free tutoring locations here in Charlotte, NC. The locations were strategically placed in neighborhoods that have a significant amount of at-risk youth. The free tutoring services are provided to grades K – 9 throughout the entire academic year.

For the 2016 academic school year, Reaching for the Stars received a laptop based literacy grant through Habitat for Humanity. The literacy software provides each child with a customizable learning experience based on their current literacy level and learning style.”

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HOC Volunteer with Reaching for the Stars student

In the early days of The Sky Is the Limit, Camm and her team had already gathered educational resources, such as a laptop-based literacy program and EOG prep curriculum, but what they really needed were volunteers. Thankfully, there was another nonprofit waiting to partner with and support Camm’s fledgling organization. Hands On Charlotte specializes in volunteer recruitment and management for other nonprofits. Camm remarked, “We were in desperate need of volunteers who not only had a desire to make a difference in the community but that also cared about the future of children. After meeting with Doug, the Director of Programs, we immediately knew that Hands On Charlotte was the missing piece to our Charlotte mission.”

Camm is pleased with the work her organization and HOC have accomplished together. “The Hands On Charlotte staff (Doug in particular) is very supportive of our goals, mission, and the overall success of the tutoring program. They have invited me to orientation sessions to allow me to directly recruit volunteers and they always keep the lines of communication open. The volunteers for Study Buddies at West Blvd Library are friendly, professional, and helpful.”

The Sky Is the Limit CDC aims to provide volunteers with the opportunity to make a difference in a community that is in desperate need of their assistance while also having fun. When asked what she wants volunteers to take away from the experience, Camm replied “I want the volunteers to walk away knowing that they made a difference in a child’s academic future. I want them to know that their hours of volunteer work have decreased the dropout rate of an at-risk youth.”

Study Buddies - West Blvd

Reaching for the Stars student with HOC tutor

Camm thinks the best part of her job is making a difference in someone’s life daily, such as hearing reports from parents about their child’s increase in academic and behavioral performance. “Helping people is my calling in life. It’s what I was placed on this earth to accomplish. There is no greater feeling than knowing that you are operating from a higher calling. Attending a graduation, watching a child go from failing to honor roll, putting a smile on the face of those in need…there is no greater feeling than that.”

  • Breannon Wills is an aspiring author and creative enthusiast who hopes to one day start a creative children’s non-profit organization.

Emily’s Story – Uplifting Children, Youth Tutoring returns Sept. 12!

Twenty-five year old Emily McGrane, an Email Marketing Specialist at Direct Digital volunteers with Hands On Charlotte because she has always been interested in helping others. She found HOC through a Google search.

Emily has been volunteering for the Homework Hounds project for over the past three years tutoring elementary and middle school students. The project takes place at Beatties Ford Road Library. She has volunteered over 86.5 hours with Homework Hounds and is now a Volunteer Leader for the project.  When I asked her why she choose the project she responded “I love kids and that is the first project I went to after orientation. I loved it so much I just stuck with it.”

Emily McGraneEmily McGrane

“I love the kids who come to this project in particular because they’re all so sweet and have a genuine curiosity about everything and a desire to learn” Emily replied when asked why she enjoyed volunteering with children. Emily wants to brighten a child’s life and make that child’s self-esteem grow. She is dedicated to this project and enjoys being a part of it. She thinks HOC has done a good job making this project is available at various libraries throughout Charlotte which is convenient for volunteers.

In Emily’s own passionate words about why people should volunteer “The kids at this project are the sweetest kids ever. They genuinely WANT to learn but they have many roadblocks. Some of the children have parents who don’t speak English. Other kids can’t afford school supplies or have dropped out of school and are looking to come back. You definitely see a little bit of everything at this project. Something that I really enjoy is that the majority of kids during the 2015-2016 school year came every week so you really got to build a personal relationship. There’s a girl who has been coming to the project every week for the past three years. This year, she made the honor roll for the first time and her dad was teary he was so proud. The parents who bring their kids to tutoring are really good, involved parents so it’s also a pleasure getting to know them as well.” 

Emily wants the kids that come to her project to learn and grow as individuals. She wants them to take away a sense of comfort from Homework Hounds. She feels good about helping but also feels sad when she thinks about how much more there still is to do. She wants more people to volunteer in order to make a positive difference in the lives of children. Children are the future and by her compassionate volunteer work she is helping the whole community. She would recommend HOC because it has been a great way for her to volunteer. “Doug does a great job training everyone and making sure that everyone feels comfortable. I’ve also met some great friends along the way,” Emily explained. Emily is another example of how volunteering can impact our lives positively. She uplifts the children by helping them learn but in return is uplifted.

  • Breannon Wills an Aspiring Author and Creative Enthusiast, who hopes to one day start a creative children’s non-profit organization

 

 

Josh’s Story

Very often as volunteers we can feel overwhelmed by all the projects and causes that need our attention, it’s easy to get discouraged. This happens with organizations such as Hands On Charlotte, we lose sight of what it is we’re doing and why. With that in mind I decided to start talking with some of the people who make Hands On Charlotte great and ask them why it is they do what they do. I’ve been with HOC for just under two years now and wanted to know others experiences out there doing a little bit of good at a time.

My first stop on this adventure was the University area of North Charlotte to meet a young man named Joshua Gatlin. It’s really easy to like Joshua; he’s a laid back and super friendly guy who works for the Sheriff’s Office. At 22 years old Joshua has been with Hands On Charlotte since last October and he’s made it very clear where his interests in volunteering lie: “I think it’s really important that kids now a days have a positive reinforcement in their lives, that they have someone helping them and encouraging them” he tells me as we order lunch. Joshua volunteers with HomeWork Hounds at Beatties Ford Road Library and helps kids understand the basics of reading and math. He also volunteers at CPCC tutoring adults trying for the GEDs. I could tell he’s passionate about helping others beat the odds “So long as you’re trying then I believe you should get the help you need to better yourself” he stated as we wondered where our waitress went.
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However the biggest question that we’re all asked is “Why?” Why is it we donate thousands of hours of our time every year to help absolute strangers? Joshua had a good answer for this one: “You feel better about yourself, you get to know that you’re making a difference and that you matter to someone at least. It’s a great feeling.” I can certainly agree with his sentiments there, volunteering gives us a means to show that we’ve made a small difference in the world and that’s a strong feeling. As a Criminal Justice major it’s obvious Joshua has a strong desire to give back to the world and to help those in need. “I’d like to work at the jail downtown and try to help some of the guys there get their lives together and make something positive, maybe change the direction that got them locked up” he tells me as we wait for the fries I ordered twenty minutes ago. Tutoring kids and adults working on a GED is one thing, but reaching out to criminals? Maybe a lofty goal but not one I see as being outside this young guys reach. He’s certainly got the drive and skills for it as evidenced by his work with Hands On Charlotte already.

One question I get asked a lot about Hands On Charlotte and that I posed to Joshua is who we are and what we’re all about. Joshua smiled as he thought about it before answering “What you have to do first is decide why you’re doing this. If you know the why then you know who you are.” He explained that Hands On Charlotte’s greatest strength came from the diversity of its volunteers, hundreds coming together with no other thing in common than a desire to help. Our reasons for volunteering, don’t matter, what makes Hands On Charlotte great is that we’re all here to do some good. I thought on that for a moment and realized he’s absolutely correct, as a volunteer leader myself I get to know my volunteers as best I can and I can’t attest to any single common denominator other than they showed up to help. I suppose Hands On Charlotte is a reminder that we’re not alone in the struggle to make this world we live in a better place. People from all walks of life are out there giving up what precious free time they have to make it all work. I’m very grateful I had this chat with Joshua, it helped remind me of why we do this, even if the waitress never did get our orders right.

  • Ben Burton is a Hands On Charlotte Volunteer Leader for The Relatives project.

Everyone has a Role in Ending Domestic Violence

“Domestic violence has no impact on my life. This issue only affects people in low-income areas, and not my neighbors, family, co-workers or friends.” Nothing could be further from the truth.

“There must be a simple solution. Just leave the abuser: case closed.” Like most things in life, it’s not that simple.

Society continues to blame victims of domestic violence. We don’t blame people when their car is stolen, unless they left the keys in it. But we continue to blame victims of domestic violence because we think it’s so simple to just leave.

Over the last few years, I’ve had the opportunity to attend several workshops and learn more about domestic violence. Domestic violence victims blame themselves for the abuse, I found this fact most disturbing. Again, makes no sense. We all saw the Ray Rice video, how do you blame her for getting knocked out? Yet we do. Looking more into the issue, I began to understand how abusers control their victims over time and lower their self-esteem and confidence.

We started a new tutoring program at Safe Alliance. This agency manages a comprehensive shelter for survivors of domestic violence and their children. We started our tutoring project last week. The project looks exactly the same thing as any other tutoring project except for the setting. The children are eager to learn and appreciate the attention.

I don’t have the answers to solve all the community’s issues but I know it’s not ignoring them or waiting for someone else to help. Even if we don’t improve any children’s grades at the shelter, at least we’ll help model positive adult behavior and show them that we care.

For more information about various events check out: Domestic Violence Awareness Month Calendar of Events.

A great resource to help men understand the issue: A Call to Men. 

  • by Doug Macomb, Director of Programs, volunteer for Tutoring at Safe Alliance
HOC volunteers after completed domestic violence training.

HOC volunteers after completed domestic violence training.

Where a child (and their parent) meets the village

Kindergarten isn’t what it used to be. Or, it isn’t what I remember it to be.

I recently discovered this as I struggle to keep up with my eldest son’s social calendar, school fundraisers, class projects, extracurricular activities and homework. He’s five years old, a kindergartner. An 8-hour school day followed by homework!?

The kindergarten I remember was comprised of circle time, free play time and naps. The school day was four hours long.

I have no doubt the reading and writing skills my son is honing early in his education will help him succeed well into high school and beyond. My wife and I are very pleased with his teacher and the public school he is attending.

But Kindergarten has been an eye-opener on just how involved a parent must be in their child’s education. All too often, students do not have the full support of their family. Educators believe the lack of parental support is a key reason why nearly 20% of all North Carolina students don’t graduate from high school.

When parents are struggling to provide basic needs for their children, like food and shelter, it’s easy to understand why they may not be focused on what’s happening at their child’s school. Language barriers also isolate parents from their school communities.

Hands On Charlotte, along with several partner agencies, is working to eliminate these hurdles and engage more parents in their child’s education through a new initiative, the Coalition for Albemarle Road Elementary School (CARES). The coalition opens the school on two evenings each month and invites adults and children to come to the school for a free dinner. The meal is followed by educational clubs for students and life-skills classes for parents, including Healthy Living, English as a Second Language (ESL) and CMS Parent University. CARES also provides childcare for younger children.

CARES borrowed the Family Night concept from a similar program at McClintock Middle School. Since its inception in 2007, McClintock Partners in Education (McPIE) has seen a decrease in student absenteeism and higher scores on standardized tests. Like CARES, the efforts at McClintock are a collaborative effort involving a church, the neighborhood and the school’s faculty and staff.  

Educational achievement is only one measurement of success for Family Night. Kamille Pickens, one of three AmeriCorps VISTA members who help Hands On Charlotte manage the CARES initiative, said instructors have given parents some potentially life-changing advice: a mother who was able to get a scholarship from the Susan G. Komen Foundation to pay for a mammogram after finding a lump in her breast, and several ESL families who learned their rights when stopped by law enforcement, clearing up some common misconceptions.

Through these relationships and by establishing networks of support, volunteers can help children succeed in school and improve the lives of their families. It’s an investment of time and money. Grants from the City of Charlotte, the Teen Impact Fund and the Annie E. Casey Foundation help cover expenses, including meals, program materials and childcare providers. Donations from individuals and partner agencies will be crucial for sustaining the Family Night program.

Opportunities abound for volunteers who wish to bolster the work of Charlotte’s educators in other ways. Hands On Charlotte’s project calendar includes several tutoring and mentoring events every month, through partnerships with Central Piedmont Community College and several Mecklenburg non-profit agencies.

When our community shares its talent, time and resources, every child has the ability to succeed in school and establish a foundation for a successful life.

Mark Boone

Board Member and Communications Volunteer

Hands On Charlottte

Find your passion: HOC Flexible Calendar

Choices, choices, choices, sometimes too many options can be overwhelming. For volunteering, Hands on Charlotte’s variety of volunteer projects provides limitless opportunities for volunteers to find their niche. Ashly Kirkpatrick is one of many HOC volunteers that has experienced this variety through attending more than 20 HOC projects since June 2011.

A three-year Charlottean, Ashly is a Lead Donor & Client Support Specialist with the American Red Cross in Charlotte. After a quick internet search for volunteering, Ashly located HOC’s website and was drawn in by the numerous opportunities to volunteer. “It makes it so much easier to volunteer. There’s something for everyone!”

Ashly began her HOC journey at CPCC’s Harris campus, tutoring adult students working toward attaining their G.E.D, “It was amazing to see the progress they made over the semester.”

Ashly decided to continue volunteering with HOC because, “Not only were the days and times a perfect fit for my schedule, but after my first project I felt like I really helped someone and it was just overall a rewarding experience. “Her favorite project so far is working with Hawthorne High School students. She explained, “I enjoy interacting with the students there and not only are they learning from me, but I learn something from them after every tutoring session.”

Ashly highlights, “HOC is a wonderful organization and it’s very easy to get started volunteering.” She encourages new volunteers to experience projects in multiple areas.  “I would just like to say thank you to everyone at HOC for giving me the opportunity to volunteer and making the entire process (from orientation to signing up for projects) so easy!” 

We thank Ashly and all of our HOC volunteers for their continued service. If you’d like to learn more about Hands on Charlotte’s many volunteer opportunities, visit us at http://www.handsoncharlotte.org/.

Carmen Silvia

Hands On Charlotte

Communications Volunteer

Editors note: This is the first of five entries during National Volunteer Week. If you appreciate the work of Hands On Charlotte to keep volunteer opportunities accessible to you and the entire community, please signify that appreciation by donating to our spring fundraising campaign.