Centre College’s commitment to prepare students for lives of learning, leadership and service cultivates citizens who take a hands-on approach to bettering their community. In fact, more than 85 percent of Centre students engage in community service on a regular basis—and in every corner of the globe. Many people, however, aren’t aware of the impact that one special organization has on Centre students and the children they serve in the Danville and Boyle County communities.
The After School Program (ASP), now in its sixth year, is a completely Centre student-run endeavor that seeks to teach and mentor students from grade school through high school. The program serves nearly 50 students, and more than 60 volunteers give their time per term.
The program, which meets Tuesdays and Thursdays from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m., originally began when Centre students volunteered in the local school district and saw that English as Second Language (ESL) students were often behind their classmates. Currently, the program uses the Chowan building on Centre’s campus, where they have desks, donated computers and a place to store supplies. They also use nearby athletic space and other areas. Soon the program could expand to more than 60 students and more than 80 volunteers.
The impact of the program on the ESL students is vital. Not only do the mentors (one or two per student) help them learn basic academic principles and develop social skills, they also aid in navigating social challenges in high school and applying for college. To date, three students from ASP have graduated, which is inspiring, because many of them are first-generation students.
In addition to the complexity of regular schoolwork, life outside of school can be difficult, as many of the parents work third and/or multiple shifts. Kendra Montejos ’14, former volunteer, past director and a founder of ASP, has personal experience with such challenges, because her family relocated to the United States from Lima, Peru, when she was young.
“I can honestly say that the mission behind this program has been a part of my entire life,” Montejos explained. “I knew what these children were going through because my family had gone through similar struggles as well.”
She said that the stability that ASP provides is critical for the students and reaps huge rewards.
“To see the joy on a child’s face, who is looking at a person who genuinely cares for them enough to help them become student body president, or simply confident, is absolutely inspiring,” she said. “I want to make sure they are succeeding, because they have every potential to be successful.”
Additionally, the program makes college accessible for students who might not otherwise have pictured themselves in higher education by enabling them to visit Centre’s campus twice a week and interacting one-on-one with college students.
“Little did we know these children would impatiently wait for their 20-something-year-old ‘best friend’ to come in the door!” Montejos said.
The life-changing experiences don’t affect only the students but the volunteers as well, inspiring them to high levels of commitment. Matthew Klooster, director of community service at Centre, is continually awestruck by the dedication of the Centre students.
“They’re teachers, fundraisers, mentors, orchestrators—you name it, they do it,” he said. “It’s an exceptional learning experience; it may be one of the greatest things we do on this campus.”
Elizabeth Penn ’16, the program’s current director, got involved as a first-year when she signed up at the annual Activities EXPO, where Centre organizations, service agencies and local businesses and organizations share information and recruit new members. She is also a member of the Bonner Program and was invited to make the ASP Leadership Team her Bonner site.
“It is amazing to watch the students’ confidence and social abilities soar when they realize they have a mentor who is committed to their success and genuinely cares about them,” Penn said.
She also commented that the program not only taught her incredible leadership skills but also how to effectively deal with adversity, the importance of putting the needs of those you are serving first and standing up for what she believes in. The hands-on nonprofit work has directly informed her career plans, and she is grateful for ASP and everyone who is a part of it.
“The After School Program has been the defining experience of my time at Centre College,” she explained. “I would not be who I am today without those people and this amazing program that they created.”
Importantly, ASP gives Centre students an exceptional opportunity to run a nonprofit organization, including hiring their peers as tutors, writing grants, working with administration and balancing the budget. They are in constant communication with schools, parents, transportation organizations and tutors.
The program also serves as a Community Based Learning site where students from the College, including those in the Spanish and education programs, can practice their language skills, learn more about Spanish culture, gain teaching skills and learn about the educational system itself. In conjunction with Centre students, Associate Professor of Spanish Genny Ballard is the organization’s faculty advisor and regularly puts more than 20 hours of work per week into the program.
Additionally, Centre clubs and organizations—everything from sports teams to the Japanese Club—are regularly invited to do activities with the students. The symbiotic relationship gives Centre students a chance to practice their skills and volunteer, and exposes the ESL students to things they might never experience otherwise. The community is also involved, with the Danville and Boyle County schools offering transportation to and from the program and Centro Latino, a local nonprofit organization that offers services in education, healthcare and social justice for the Latino population, working in conjunction with ASP. It’s a strong bond and an important service that keeps the community healthy and the volunteers returning year after year.
“We invest so much time and effort into it, because we love these kids and believe in their future,” Penn said, “not because we need service hours or a resume booster.”
The effects of the program are long-lasting, for both the students and the mentors. Montejos plans to dedicate her career to ESL children and their families, seeing herself in a major leadership role that involves education, policy, immigration reform and activism.
“Their success and access to opportunity is my fight,” she explained. “Their voices should be heard, and it will be my mission to aid them alongside others who also feel passionate about these issues.”
Penn cannot stress the importance of the program enough.
“The After School Program completely embodies the mission of this college,” she said. “We must take whatever steps necessary to ensure its sustainability.”
by Elise L. Murrell
October 22, 2015