25 November 2005


UNM Service Corps: A thoughtful program

Volunteers in Albuquerque's schools - mostly high school and college students -
help low-income kids with tutoring and extracurricular learning tools like playing chess or making puppets

Shayrice Meade has been on the honor roll ever since she can remember. As a fifth-grader at Kirtland Elementary School, she attributes her grades to hours spent off school time.

Since second grade, Shayrice has attended Kirtland Korner, the after-school program run at the school.

"It's very fun," said Shayrice, now 10. "You can tell the leaders are having fun working with us."

Those leaders are part of the Albuquerque Community Learning Centers Project, formed in 1997 to help youngsters in the city's "pocket of poverty" neighborhoods - federally designated, low-income communities. Each of 12 sites enrolls as many as 100 elementary and high school students.

Among the paid and volunteer leaders are 70 high school and college students, said Moneka Stevens, a graduate assistant for the Office of Community Learning and Public Service at the University of New Mexico, the department that runs UNM Service Corps. Service Corps members are involved under the umbrella of AmeriCorps, a network of local, state and national service programs.

Each leader brings a personal touch to help youngsters like Shayrice, Stevens said.

At Barelas Community Center, acting site facilitator and yearlong UNM Service Corps member Stephanie Rivera is interested in the arts.

She has recruited a friend, a puppeteer, to come in on a regular basis to help students make puppets and put on shows.

Last month, students made sugar skulls and masks while learning about D!a de los Muertos, the Mexican holiday that celebrates the death of loved ones.

About 15 minutes away at Thomas Bell Community Center, Marquez Simmons, a UNM engineering student, has taken students on a tour of Eclipse Aviation, a local company that builds personal airplanes. He has helped them build robots and hopes to have them build motorcycles with help from Chick's Harley-Davidson/Buell.

Farther east, students at Kirtland Elementary School made displays of State Fair exhibits, learned about the health benefits of pumpkin and discussed the city's tricentennial with the help of a portable computer lab, said site facilitator Dee Lucero.

"It's kind of cool, because basically everybody brings their talents to the table and you take it from there," Rivera said. "The cool thing is that it leads to a variety of things."

Leaders discuss ways they can give back to the community and take action.

When Hurricane Katrina hit, students at each site participated in a penny drive to raise money for victims.

Students at Thomas Bell Community Center raised $700 selling popcorn at a Lobos football game, Simmons said.

"When I was growing up, I didn't have a program like this," said Simmons, in his fourth year with the program.

Simmons said several students he has worked with return to mentor in high school and often become Service Corps members in college.

"It's kind of like a revolving door; kids don't want to leave the program," Simmons said.

Diana Dorn-Jones, a volunteer at Dennis Chavez Community Center, has been involved with the program since its inception and has seen it grow from three to 12 sites.

Dorn-Jones said the killing of a young man just out of high school in the South Broadway area, where she grew up, inspired her to work with youth nearly 15 years ago.

"He got hooked up with the wrong crowd," Dorn-Jones said.

On the day of the funeral, she said, she realized something had to be done to prevent others from the same fate.

"I went back to the neighborhood and said, `We've got to be sick and tired of being sick and tired of this,' " Dorn-Jones said.

She worked with Michael Morris, administrator in UNM's College of Education. He founded the project, developing one of the first sites at the Dennis Chavez Community Center.

Originally, the plan was to help increase elementary students' test scores, Dorn-Jones said.

Over the years, the project evolved, with programs incorporated as the neighborhood saw fit.

"University students come in and teach neighborhood literacy," Dorn-Jones said. "They teach the values and norms of that community."

Michael Lujan, who coordinates the project through Albuquerque Public Schools, said fliers are sent home from school to parents, inviting them to bring ideas to the program.

"We invite parents to come to the table and tell us what they want their kids doing, so we can tailor the project to what they want," he said. "That's what sets us apart from say the recreation center alone."

The program reaches out to students who have been identified by teachers as children who need help or a place to go after school, Lujan said.

Evan Overton, 20, attended the after-school program at Thomas Bell Community Center when he was 11.

"It helped more getting me out of trouble versus education," Overton said. "A lot of times, the only thing to do was to get into trouble."

Now a UNM student, Overton visits the center as a member of the UNM Service Corps.

"Giving back to the community is really important. I'm a big believer in that," he said.

Overton would like someday to work as a site facilitator, overseeing the project at one of the centers.

"My goal would be to just make some kind of positive impact on the community," Overton said.

Megan Arredondo
November 24, 2005,2565,ALBQ_19854_4262638,00.html


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