By Aïda Rogers
Ask Honors junior Emily Fisher about the highlight of her week, and she doesn’t even have to think about it. It’s her volunteer work with the Waverly After-School Program.
“I very much want to work in a school with high-risk children living in poverty after I graduate,” says Fisher, an English/psychology major who is co-executive director of the program. “Volunteering with Waverly is the perfect segue.”
In operation since 2003, the Waverly After-School Program pairs USC students with children living at St. Lawrence Place, a family shelter, and Pinehurst Park Community Center, a state-run facility that provides after-school activities in low-income neighborhoods. The basic premise is for the college students to mentor the school-age students, providing individual attention with homework. Improving reading and literacy are its big aims.
But Fisher and her comrades—she’s been a Waverly volunteer since her freshman year—aren’t satisfied to help only with homework. They’ve established more programs to help their young charges. Those programs include buying them Halloween costumes and collecting books. In two years the volunteers collected 1,750 books to create a children’s library at Pinehurst and to build their personal libraries at home. Biochemistry major Abigail Knowles, Waverly director of initiatives, conducts science experiments with the children; other volunteers make them worksheets and flash cards. With the help of USC sororities and fraternities during Greek Week, the volunteers organized a basketball tournament. Earlier in the semester, SCHC ambassadors helped the volunteers present Olympics-style games for the children.
There are plans for even more initiatives. Two are on-campus collaborations to provide college and job preparation for teens and training Waverly volunteers to be mandated reporters. But now may be a time for them to stop and celebrate: The Waverly After-School Program received not only USC’s 2018 Outstanding Student Service Organization Award but also the statewide South Carolina Student Service Achievement Award. Fisher, a Summerville native, traveled to Winthrop University to accept the award in April.
“Waverly students have a huge impact on our after-school program at St. Lawrence Place,” notes Special Projects Coordinator Laura Stokes, LMSW (’14 MA social work). “This year in particular they have shown even more of an interest in engaging with our organization. They asked me to come to one of their meetings to answer their questions on how to work best with the children. Because our kids come from tough backgrounds, they can be more difficult to work with if you do not have experience with it.”
He would put his head down and cry
With that knowledge from Stokes, the Waverly volunteers weren’t thrown off-balance by children with behavioral problems. They learned to have conversations with those children and then get back to their assignments. Fisher remembers one kindergartner who would just put his head down and cry. A year later, he’s in first grade and getting through his homework sessions without isolating himself. Gratifyingly, he is reading on his grade level.
“I’ve developed more empathy and patience and understanding and become a better listener,” Fisher reflects. “I’ve learned to validate their emotions and have them feel they’re being heard. That’s important for children, too.”
Stokes recalls one “particularly difficult” first-grader who was struggling in school. “One day her teacher called me and said she had seen drastic improvements in the child’s confidence, concentration, and reading skills. One of the Waverly volunteers had been working specifically with that child every week, and the teacher could definitely see a difference in the classroom.”
Since 2013, more than 310 USC students have volunteered 4,474 hours with Waverly. This year, 40 student volunteers have each spent at least one hour a week at Pinehurst or St. Lawrence Place, collectively 1,002 hours.
“It speaks to the compassion of our students because they’re not getting anything out of this per se,” says Catherine Flowers, SCHC service learning coordinator. “This program is powerful because it allows them to pour their hearts into something that doesn’t have anything to do with their requirements.”
‘I’ve gone through the shock’
Still, for Teaching Fellows like Fisher, experience with underprivileged children is invaluable.
“If you’re a first-year teacher in the Corridor of Shame and you grew up with all this privilege and then you work with children undergoing things you can’t fathom anyone can experience—that’s a hard transition,” she reasons. “Because of Waverly, I’ve gone through the shock of learning every kid didn’t have the life I had and they go home hungry and don’t have a mother to read to them because they have multiple jobs. It’s hard to come to terms with that. It’s uncomfortable. You don’t want to think you had this lovely childhood and there is this child who didn’t.”
There’s no question the younger students and their mentors get attached. “They have a hard time understanding when we’re sick or on spring break, and they interrogate us when we come back,” Fisher says. The volunteers have learned to be happy when they don’t see the same children at St. Lawrence Place again; that means they’ve found stability, she explains. But still, they miss them.
“I was talking to one of my favorite children at St. Lawrence Place,” she recalls. “Instead of asking ‘how was your day,’ I ask a different question: ‘what made you smile today?’ And he said, ‘you did.’ A lot of these children need stability and consistency. They haven’t had that, so we want to provide it. My heart is much bigger for the cause of helping children who are at risk and need someone to love them and support them, and have a mentor in their lives.”