03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Use Your Volunteer Time Wisely: Help Often, One Kid At A Time

At 826LA we strive to support students in the development of their writing skills, and teachers as they help students discover the power of the writing process, both in the classroom and at our centers in Echo Park and Venice. With our in-school programs, we bring our trained volunteers into classrooms all over Los Angeles to provide one-on-one support to students working on anything a teacher assigns, whether it's a college essay, a book review, or a manifesto. We're passionate about helping break down the ratio in classrooms where teachers often have over 30 students. Can you imagine what it must be like for teachers in classes that large to give their students the individualized attention needed to help them develop their writing? I know firsthand what it can be like, since I was a teacher for eight years in San Francisco. In fact, that's how I initially became involved with 826.

Back in 2002 I was teaching at the Galileo Academy of Science and Technology-- an inner-city high school with many of the same problems many large schools face: overcrowded classrooms, fighting, hall-walkers, budget constraints, and a high turnover rate of teachers (I'm proud to report that since that time, Galileo has become one of the top three schools in San Francisco, thanks to dedicated teachers and administrators, most of whom are still there doing incredible work).

I remember hearing about a new nonprofit in town called 826 Valencia that provided in-school support for teachers as well as a host of other interesting writing opportunities for youth. I began corresponding with 826 co-founder Ninive Calegari who immediately connected my students to her new volunteer force at 826 Valencia. I remember our first collaboration being a verbal history of immigrants. My students were mostly first-generation Americans and many spoke English as a second language. I recall the intense joy (and astonishment) that filled me when over 20 volunteers visited my classroom to help my students with the writing process.

What really struck me about having more than 20 new adult faces in my classroom were the reactions of most of my students. At first they seemed uncomfortable that all of these strangers were coming to their school to help them--discomfort that usually only lasted the five minutes before genuine conversations took hold. There they were, the same students who at times would fall asleep during one of my lectures or who would regularly spend more time talking than working, were now engaging with an adult, explaining their work, and taking on new, self-confident personae. It was amazing. And it was then that I realized the power of one-on-one support. No matter how great a lesson, or how effective a new teaching technique, there's something enormously powerful about getting students in front of a new audience.

Now I'm in Los Angeles leading an incredibly dedicated staff at 826LA. We have over 1,200 registered volunteers, partnerships with close to 50 schools across LAUSD, and just last year served more students -over 3,400- than the previous two years combined. But even with such success, we need more volunteers than ever, both in schools and with the after-school tutoring, workshops and field trip programs that take place in our Venice and Echo Park writing labs. We make it extremely easy to become a volunteer. All you need to do is attend one of our orientations -- held weekly on both sides of town -- and one training where we review our volunteer handbook, our approach and method to working with young people, and set you up for a background screening, which we can now provide free of charge. And, unlike many other nonprofits, we don't insist that folks commit to a certain number of volunteer hours-- we gladly take whatever we can get. We realize this is not the perfect solution, but understand that especially in Los Angeles, getting to our centers or to the schools we serve is not always easy.

That said, we certainly want to encourage folks to give us as much time as they can because we are most effective and most impactful on the lives of students when we are consistent. Students need to trust their tutors, and that takes time and effort. In the end, what really helps the young people we serve is one-on-one attention. Students don't get enough of this in their regular school day in classrooms that might see a forty-students-to-one-teacher ratio. If we're going to level the playing field for students attending public schools, it's essential we recruit more committed volunteers to fill the gaps in the schooling of at-risk youth. As one of our veteran volunteers, J. Ryan Stradal, puts it, "As an 826LA volunteer, with whatever age group I'm working with, I like to think, 'What would I want to learn at that age, and how would I want to learn it?' 826LA is my own second chance at the learning experience I was hungry for."

But 826LA is just one of many nonprofits all over Los Angeles in need of more volunteers eager to help young people achieve artistically and academically. Projects like L.A.'s Best, Para Los Niños, L.A. Works and many more are constantly in need of generous and eager volunteers. It was only 9 months ago that our new president made a call to renew volunteerism, and just this past June, his administration launched in order to collect the stories of volunteers across the nation. As a result, 826LA, along with many of the nonprofits with whom we collaborate, saw a spike in the number of people willing to volunteer. Folks seem to be really excited about the vision for America laid out by President Obama, and I hope this continues.

The one thing I hear all the time from volunteers is, "I wish I had something like this when I was growing up!" I usually respond by saying we have a chance today to make things much better than they were for us, and that hopefully the young people we connect with now will inspire the next generation to volunteer and be active in their communities, too. And, at the end of the day, if a student gets all his or her homework done, and maybe a bit of reading and storywriting, and has a little more time to spend with family and friends, we feel we've accomplished a lot at 826LA.

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