Students cultivate community with area youth

At the Williamstown Youth Center where I work, dodgeball is a big deal.

Williamstown Elementary’s proximity to campus means that students there are accustomed to visitors from the College. (Photo courtesy of wlschools.org).

I’m not talking about your standard, run-of-the mill dodgeball, either. At the Youth Center, which runs an after-school program for kids in the area, they take it to another level. There’s survival dodgeball (the perennial favorite), gladiator dodgeball, doctor dodgeball, gladiator-doctor dodgeball, multi-team dodgeball – I could go on. Odd as it sounds, knowing the local dodgeball culture is one of the things that makes me feel like a part of this community.

Usually, when we talk about community at the College, it’s an abstract concept. But for students like me and the many others that work or volunteer at local schools and community centers, it’s grounded in experience.

The work that students do with local kids may be one of the most significant ways in which we engage with the community – according to Human Resources, about 100 students regularly serve as some form of tutor in the local community through the federal work-study program, and there are more that participate through volunteer programs, including those organized by the Center for Community Engagement and Lehman Council as well as regular Winter Study courses focused on working with the schools.

Miles Horton ’14 has gotten to know another part of the community through one of these programs. At the community center at the Mohawk Forest Association where he volunteers, the game of choice is called “Around the House.” This game, which is much like it sounds, involves an “it” that chases the others around the center, the goal for the others being to make it thrice around. The game originated in part because of the limitations of the center’s location, which has a parking lot but not a designated area for the children to play outdoors. In “Around the House,” children stay close to the building, but they also get to blow off some steam.

Horton and his friend Carl McPherson ’14 have been visiting the center once a week since the beginning of the school year, having heard about the program through friends. “I thought it might be nice to spend two hours a week or so not totally involved with myself,” Horton joked. A typical evening with the kids, who range from seven-year-olds to teenagers, involves playing games, chatting and working together to cook a nutritious snack.

“There’s lots of mixing and cutting with plastic knives,” McPherson said of cooking with the kids. “I’ll use the stove. It’s simple meals – pasta, salad. The thing they like making the most is mini pizzas.”

Youth come from the local housing complex, so attendance can vary from week to week as it’s up to the kids whether to come. Nevertheless, many of the students come frequently. As a result, McPherson and Horton have had the opportunity to see the kids bond. “It’s something they look forward to. They have fun, and it really builds a group of friends,” McPherson said.

The group visiting Mohawk Forest once attracted six students in one week but has dwindled lately to just Horton and McPherson. Meanwhile, at the Youth Center here in Williamstown a typical day draws anywhere from two to five college students that assist the three staff members with the 20 to 40 kids that typically show up, helping with everything from homework to art projects to – of course – playing dodgeball.

Working with kids in the community may be all fun and games for those of us at the after-school programs, but for the more than 100 college students who work in local schools, the job requires at least a little bit more focus. In some classes, college students work one-on-one with their younger counterparts, while in others they assist the teacher with lessons.

Katy Carrigan ’14 participated in a program last semester individually tutoring a student at Brayton Elementary in North Adams, her alma mater. Having the opportunity to meet with her mentee over an extended period allowed her to really understand the child. “It was just really nice to see when that light bulb went off – when they weren’t so much replicating what you were doing,” but actually understood how to do it themselves, she explained.

As a local, Carrigan also felt that student involvement was valuable on a broader scale. “It represents our college really well to the community,” she said.

It’s not only good for the College as a whole; it’s a valuable experience for the individual students. Patrick Aquino ’12 had never worked much with children before coming to the College and was assigned to Williamstown Elementary for his campus job, where he has worked as a classroom assistant in several different grades.

“Before my freshman year, I really had little idea that I would be interested in teaching, especially elementary and middle school children,” Aquino said. “But I feel like working there has definitely helped me realize how much I really do enjoy it and how it’s something I’d love to do after Williams.” He admitted that he may be better adapted to work with kids than most people: “I’m also a little different because I often go to lunch and recess with [the kids] at the school, but considering I have the maturity of a 12-year-old, I have a ton of fun!”

Aquino recognizes that there’s value for the kids in having college students around, too. “Especially once they get to know you a bit, they really seem to trust you for help,” he said. “Also, for some of the kids, it’s like their best day ever when they realize they’re taller than me or when they beat me in basketball, which happens a lot.”