Janet Souter, Senior Corps-RSVP Member – It’s lunchtime at Jane Addams Elementary School in Palatine. In the cafeteria, kids munch on pizza, call out to friends or chatter about weekend plans. In the library, some of the fourth, fifth and sixth graders quietly study math and English with a group of Senior Corps-RSVP members known as the Lunch Buddies. These volunteers guide students who are trying to understand the complexities of multiplication and long division or the mysteries of grammar and spelling. The students may be falling behind in their studies, not because they’re not smart, but because they need some guidance in approaching a problem or understanding a complicated chapter.
Senior Corps-RSVP members David Jacobson, Judy Liles, Anne Wall, Lucy Yester O’Connor and Cynthia and Walter Riesing each volunteer an hour once or twice a week, providing the students with critical help that their teachers can’t due to their own busy schedules. With only forty minutes of class time, or less, for instruction, some students can have problems absorbing information or staying on task.
For many of these students, English is their second language, making the learning curve that much higher and challenging. In addition, parents often work two jobs and have little time to give their children needed support with homework. Yet this is the critical period for students in their education; the elementary grades form the basis for future studies.
One Lunch Buddy enjoys working with the students and comes by this experience naturally. “Once a teacher, always a teacher,” the former math teacher of thirty years at Prospect High School explains. After he retired, he found that he missed being around kids. Now he looks forward to Mondays and working with the students.
His greatest challenge is getting the students to focus because their friends are outside. Still, he found that some kids did come back week after week. “They must be getting something,” he said. “Because they could be going to recess.”
A former retail clerk volunteers twice a week at the school, tutoring fifth grade reading on Tuesdays and fourth grade math on Thursdays. She sees the overwhelming need for more instructors to help the students who may be falling behind. “I would expect that the teachers are doing the best they can with the resources in their control,” she said. “Mentors or tutors are a resource that can and should help the individual student that needs the one-on one attention to move forward.”
Most tutors have found that the math learning process today is quite different from the ones that they learned decades ago, but say that they can still show the students other ways to arrive at the same answers. Sometimes kids learn by “mental math.” When one Lunch Buddy started tutoring, she ran to the library to find the new world of math and found it was like putting a puzzle together.
For students whose native language is often the only one spoken at home, tutors work on English pronunciation, then lead them to the next step in understanding. In order to explain nouns, verbs and other parts of speech, tutors sometimes use books from a library’s children’s section to help kids understand basic grammar, or find online worksheets and simple crossword puzzles.
While there are many challenges in working with fourth, fifth and sixth graders, tutors agree that the rewards are well worth the hours they put in. As one volunteer explained, “Most satisfying is seeing the kids grow in self-confidence, learn more and build a connection with the other tutors and me, which moves us from tutors to mentors. One boy came in with a really bad attitude and left at the end of the semester as a leader who helped the other boys learn.”
Another Lunch Buddy said, “The gift from the children really comes when you see a glow in their eyes or a wide smile on their face when they now understand a new concept in math or a new sentence structure in writing. These are gifts we cannot put a price on in any way.”
Although special training is not required to be a Lunch Buddy, a basic knowledge of English and math is important. Each school determines how much training is necessary and which resources the tutors may use. Tutors are given guidelines on ways to handle behavioral problems and when to report them in addition to confidentiality concerns. Volunteers receive a success kit at the beginning of each semester. HandsOn Suburban Chicago/Senior Corps-RSVP staff are also available to answer questions or address issues. Tutors with teaching experience assist volunteers who may feel uncomfortable teaching math concepts that are different from, say the 1960’s and 1970’s.
Most important is the tremendous need for people who can give their time and energy to these kids. As one volunteer so eloquently put it, “We as tutors have the chance to open new doors for these students. I believe if each person could help one child dream a little greater than they might have before, anything might be possible. What greater satisfaction can we achieve for ourselves?”
This year, thirty-one tutors have worked with a total of eighty-one students at Jane Addams and Plainfield School in Des Plaines, the only schools which offer the program. In 2017, Euclid Elementary School in Mount Prospect will be a Lunch Buddies school, but will focus on mentoring and is eager to recruit volunteers.
Teachers say the Lunch Buddies tutors are a valuable asset to their teaching schedule. One sixth grade instructor observed, “They have developed a positive connection with our kids…our students look forward to working with them weekly. The teachers and students truly appreciate their time and dedication.”
For more information on the Lunch Buddies program and other tutoring opportunities, please visit our website and apply.