Writing a New Chapter as an AmeriCorps Volunteer

Carolyn Robbins-Chipkin

After I retired from a challenging and rewarding career as a writer and editor at The Republican, I wondered, like many of us of a certain age: “What next?”

As I looked back at a newspaper career spanning four decades, I realized that I felt most fulfilled when I wrote stories about local people and institutions dedicated to improving the quality of life in the region— especially in the city of Springfield where my husband and I raised our family and where we still live.

Like the passionate people I celebrated in those stories—from advocates for the homeless to the often unheralded neighborhood activists trying to make their neighborhoods safer and more beautiful—I wanted to do something concrete to advance social justice in the community.

Although I continue to do occasional freelance writing for the paper, I decided it was time to shed my role of full-time observer to become more of a doer. It was time to embrace the Jewish call for tikkun olam—to help “repair the world.”

Opportunity came knocking last summer in the form of a newspaper classified advertisement seeking literacy tutors for the federally funded AmeriCorps program, (formerly known as VISTA) through Springfield College.

The ad said the program was looking for young adults interested in a career in education or allied fields — and for older people looking for post-retirement opportunities—to serve as literacy tutors in city schools.

There was a modest “living stipend” and a chance for partial college debt forgiveness. For older folks, that perk could be applied to college debt of a child or a grandchild.

Through the program, tutors serve in Springfield schools and early education centers to facilitate interventions targeting risk factors among 3- to 5-year-olds that lead to dropping out of school, poor early literacy skills, low attendance, behavioral/disciplinary issues, and failure in English and math.

Springfield College provided a weeklong training session last August prior to my deployment at the Edward P. Boland Elementary School, giving me extensive support to carry out evidenced-based practices and interventions in education and literacy. The program was designed so that members have a meaningful service experience that positively impacts the academic success of children in high-needs neighborhoods.

I learned that two-thirds of fourth grade students do not read at proficiency and that the problem is more acute for those living in poverty, children of color, English language learners and children with disabilities.

Children learn to read between birth and grade 3, and they begin reading to learn in 4th grade. Promoting early literacy is a cause all of us should embrace. It’s one reason I have re-enlisted in AmeriCorps at Boland for the new school year.

Working with the children has been a joy. They are eager, inquisitive, lively, funny and loving.

In the course of the 10-month school year, I have watched my young charges grow by leaps and bounds. I feel privileged to have played a role in helping them on a path to becoming good readers and learners.

They are learning their ABCs, letter sounds and how to be kind to their friends and responsible students.

And I have learned that opportunities to repair the world can be accomplished close to home. For me, it’s working with children in an inner-city preschool classroom.



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