On a hot Tuesday in early September 2017, Lincoln-Irving Elementary 5th grader Johnathon walked into the teacher’s workspace and slowly placed his lunch tray down at the semi-circle scattered with teacher supplies. Although he was told he would be a part of a mentor program to spend time with adults, he was quite unsure about what was about to take place. He only understood that today he didn’t get to sit with his friends at lunch, today he would sit with a few “grown-ups” and share his lunch. He didn’t expect that soon Tuesday would be his favorite day of the week.
Lincoln-Irving Elementary School in Moline, IL, proudly serves grade school students from the Floreciente neighborhood. Lincoln-Irving is also the only bilingual school located in the Quad Cities. Students grades Kindergarten through 5th grades attend the school and are taught in both English and Spanish for their core curriculum classes. The combination of languages provides youth the opportunity to develop social skills and strengthen their conversation abilities. The bi-lingual experience is enriching for the youth and as Lincoln-Irving Principal, Blanca Leal believes, pertinent to their development.
However, for few students, speaking with their peers, is the only communication they have with parents work two and three jobs so bed time stories are not an option.. Mrs. Leal took notice of how this situation impacted students’ communication skills and looked for a way to allow students to interact with adults and talk about their days in a non-threatening atmosphere. In the summer of 2017, Mrs. Leal reached out to Flourishing Communities to discuss opportunities for collaboration during the upcoming school and the need to start a program for these youth who needed more engagement with adults. After brainstorming a variety of ideas, Flourishing Communities and Mrs. Leal decided on a mentor program for the youth to take place one day a week during lunch time. Four to five youth would meet weekly and engage with adults, play games, and talk about their daily happenings. Mrs. Leal had one concern which was imminent to the program – the recruitment of volunteers. With many parents working during the day, the volunteers had to be available during the day or have the flexibility to leave work and assist. Flourishing Communities identified this as an ideal opportunity to engage volunteers from John Deere, especially after the John Deere Foundation requested more options that did not require manual labor. Flourishing Communities submitted the volunteer opportunity to the John Deere Foundation for including in their “Power for Good” opportunities list. Volunteers were requested to meet with students each Tuesday for 40 minutes during their lunch period to simply talk and let the students just be kids. It provided an excellent opportunity for volunteers to engage in a mentor program that did not require advanced training or weekly preparation.
Two John Deere employees quickly signed up to volunteer and met with Flourishing Communities, Mrs. Leal, and a teaching assistant to discuss the program. In mid-September, both volunteers met for the first time with four youth and the mentor program was off to a start. Weeks of conversations passed in which students talked about their days at school and their favorite activities, and even played a few games that extended into rematches the following Tuesdays.
“At the beginning, my friends made fun of me for coming to this because I was a bad kid, but now I think I’m a good kid” – Lincoln-Irving Student participant
Johnathon’s nerves began to subside week after week, as he became more comfortable and thoroughly enjoy his time spent with the volunteers. He even started inviting his friends to join in the weekly lunch meetings. The youth would talk about their day, share stories of last week’s recess, and if lunch was eaten quickly enough there was time to beat the adults in a game of cards or build a castle with the Legos.
In early October, two more John Deere employees signed up for the program so Ms. Leal identified more youth were able to join the program. At the end of the year before holiday break, all the volunteers noted their enjoyment of the experience and the positive impact and change of the youth over time Since not all the volunteers will be able to return in the new year, Flourishing Communities re-submitted the opportunity to John Deere in hopes of encouraging new volunteers to get involved until the end of the school year. These interactions, simple in time and effort, make a tremendous impact on the youth.
“I enjoyed getting to know the kids and learning their hobbies. It was also nice to see them step out of their comfort zone and become more confident in their interactions with the mentors […] as we got to know them more, they began telling us more about school, their extracurricular activities, and their families without us having to ask.” - Leah Newell, John Deere employee
On the final afternoon of the mentorship program before winter break, one volunteer was running a little behind in heating up his meal for lunch. One youth eagerly waiting asked, “Hey, where is the John Deere guy?” Following a quick turn with cards in hand, the 3rd grader ready to play, saw the volunteer walk in, they smiled at each other and the student exclaimed, “There he is!”
Funded by the John Deere Foundation through August 2018, the Flourishing Communities program is working in Floreciente to create long-lasting, community-led change by organizing residents and business owners to participate in community development decisions affecting their neighborhood. For more information on our programs in Moline, Illinois contact firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.globalfloreciente.org.