A Foundation of Appreciation

Guest post by Katherin Castillo | Afterschool Corps VISTA, Duke Community Service Center

This semester I have been working as the Afterschool Corps VISTA with America Reads America Counts, a program in the Duke Community Service Center that focuses on tutoring students in K-8 in math and literacy at 16 sites in Durham. In addition to working with tutors, a big component of my role is coordinating the Learning Juntos program, which focuses on educating Latino parents on resources that can be utilized to help their child succeed in school. These sessions are in Spanish and are facilitated by Duke student volunteers. We are currently serving 2 sites, George Watts Elementary and Club Boulevard Elementary.

If I have to express this past semester with one word, that word would be: “appreciation.” I have learned to appreciate that this position has challenged me to overcome obstacles that have come my way. I have learned to appreciate the skills that I am learning and utilizing each and every day. I have learned to appreciate the volunteers, students, staff, and parents who have an interest in bettering their community.

The first few weeks on the job, I was set to learn the ropes of both programs. I got a grasp of the history, the events hosted, and the partnerships that were previously formed with local programs. I entered my service year right when the program was in its most important stage of recruiting students. Being new to this position, how was I going to accomplish this task?

One of the main components that I have learned in this process is that community organizing cannot be done alone. It requires the efforts of a whole group to come together to meet certain goals and to achieve greater outcomes. This program requires the participation of Duke student volunteers, school coordinators, and parents of students in the Durham Public School System. I believe that face-to-face communication is very important, so rather than communicating over the phone or though emails, I wanted to meet everyone involved in person. This has allowed me have a strong personal connection with the students, school administrators, and parents. This structure is important because it grants the opportunity to develop trust, it provides the chance to have a shared mission, and it recognizes an understanding of each person’s role in the partnership. In my opinion, these three factors serve as the foundation for community outreach.

In the process of recruiting student volunteers, I realized they all had one thing in common. Every student was specifically looking to get involved in the Durham community and help underserved populations. Some students were even able to share a similar experience with the program. One Learning Juntos volunteer reflected, “when I was growing up, my parents and I knew no English at all which made navigating education in the US significantly harder; I’m glad a program like this is being implemented in Durham and I hope I can be part of it.” These students were able to grasp an understanding of the mission of the program and an understanding of what their part in the program would be. I honestly believe that if I had not met one-on-one with each of these students, I would not be able to have the relationship that I have with them now. I am fortunate to have a dynamic group of 12 passionate students this semester giving back to the Durham community.

Since the program already had a partnership with George Watts, it was very easy to meet in person with the coordinator to effectively plan the session details. I also had the opportunity to work with the principal at Club Boulevard Elementary. In establishing this new relationship, it was important to be able to fully explain what the mission of the program is, who it will serve, and what we expect to come out of the program. Utilizing this information, the principal was happy for Learning Juntos to be a part of the Club Boulevard community.

Last but not least, I needed to recruit the parents who the Learning Juntos team would be serving. One thing that I made clear was that I wanted to become a part of their community. I began to show up to educational community events and began to see a lot of similar faces. I had the opportunity to gain the trust of parents and explain to parents what the Learning Juntos program represented and that the program works for their needs and does not assume them. The curriculum at Club Boulevard is very different than the curriculum at George Watts. Both of these communities have expressed very different needs, and with the help of Duke students, we work to provide them with the educational resources that would aid them in working with their children. Both sites have around 5-12 parents show up to the sessions and all parents seem to be engaged in the material presented. I am very happy to see the parents return to the workshops each month. “Gracias, es muy bueno saber que alguien le interesa trabajar para nosotras las mamas que hablamos español.” This statement was made by one of the mothers in the Learning Juntos session and translates to “Thank you, it is very good to know that someone is interested in working for us moms who speak Spanish.” Comments like these encourage me to continue with my dedication to the program and overall, it allows me to appreciate those around me who have worked hard to make amazing programs like this continue.