Recently, corps members across the country had the opportunity to share the City Year story with President Obama. In these letters corps members told the President about why they served as well as how their service has impacted both their students and themselves. I was one of the corps members lucky enough to be given such a gratifying opportunity and I took a long time to reflect on what my service actually means. I would like to share my letter with all of you, hoping to give you some insight into why some of us serve and what our impact can look like.
My name is Ryan and I am a 23 year-old college graduate from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. I was lucky enough to have grown up in a zip code that had a high median income so, when my father’s alcoholism destroyed my family, the community and school around me did not allow me to fail. If I had not been given the resources that came attached with my birth place, I could have easily fallen behind and been forgotten. Last year, after my college graduation, I made a life changing decision to join City Year in an attempt to make a tangible difference in the lives of students whom, I feel can too easily fall through the cracks in our education system. This decision placed me in Seattle, Washington where I now serve at the best school in the world – Roxhill Elementary.
Roxhill Elementary is a small, but remarkable school in southwest Seattle. With 76% of its students on free or reduced lunches, the socioeconomic climate that surrounds the school is less than perfect – there’s no denying that. However, the statistics are just simply numbers. When you walk into Roxhill, you feel an incredible sense of community and empowerment. It is a community that includes a diverse array of cultures, including African American, Hispanic, Somali and Vietnamese. These communities often come together on various cultural nights, parent coffee hours or to take free English language classes. Administration takes its role in promoting the best educational environment possible seriously, providing students and parents with a variety of afterschool programs and, my personal favorite, Saturday Academy where a select group of scholars come to school on one of their days off.
It was easy to get swept up in the community atmosphere of Roxhill, but what made it even easier is how unbelievable the students there are. Every day, I wake up knowing that the second I open the door to school there will be a kid rushing up to give me a high five. Pretty quickly, I picked up that the intensity of these greetings multiplied when it was a Monday or Friday because many of these students love school – it is an escape from their home lives. So on Mondays, our students are so grateful to see our red jackets back in their lives, and on Fridays they are sad to see us go. None of these interactions was more important than when we returned from the winter break. After entering school, the first student that saw me immediately dropped her lunch box and backpack, full-on sprinting over to me giving me the best hug I have ever received. This student, who is by all measures challenging and often acts like she could care less about me in school, could not wait to see me. In that moment I realized the impact that we have on our student’s lives is very real and permanent.
This impact is not always immediately visible but in one of my students in particular, I saw an almost instant change. Lucia is a nine year old girl in my third grade class who is incredibly shy. My first few days in class, I observed that she was able to skate by without doing anything. She would not ask questions when she did not understand. No one would approach her because they just assumed she knew what she was doing, but she was often falling behind. So, I made it a point to start talking to her, just simply saying “hi,” and making sure she was okay. After the first week, she began finding ways to sit next to me in class. At recess, she would follow me around like a shadow – not standing next to me but always close enough to me that I would know she was there. At the end of each day, I would place notes on her folders, reminding her to do her homework. In the first month of school they had their first writing project due. The girl who, at the beginning of the year, was writing four words and calling it quits, had now written four whole pages. Her reading level had jumped two levels and teachers had thanked me, telling me how much more confident she seemed in school. She was raising her hand in class and talking to other kids on the playground. To this day, it is rare to hear her talk to me about anything other than her three parakeets at home (Blue, Green and Jet), but her Mom often goes out of her way to tell me that I am all her daughter talks about at home.
Mr. President, it is because of powerful people like you who support service projects like ours that Lucia’s life may be changed entirely. Since City Year was placed in her school, she has a group of seven young idealists who adore her – constantly checking in on her, making sure that she understands her work and is doing it to the best of her ability. My story is just one small one, there are thousands more of these changes both bigger and smaller that occur in our students’ lives on a daily basis. Constantly now, lives of Americans are changed because of AmeriCorps, I thank you a tremendous amount for your support of our cause and for other national service organizations across the country. Every moment AmeriCorps projects are functioning is a moment that anyone who supports it should be proud that they do, both indirectly and directly you are making the lives of young people better through your commitment to service work.
Again, thank you.