Although I spent my teenage years participating in volunteer projects at church and school, the story of how I became a passionate advocate for volunteer work didn’t begin until I was a young adult.
In 1995, at the age of 24 my place of employment offered any interested employee the opportunity to spend three hours of the work week tutoring children at nearby elementary schools. I jumped at the chance partly because I enjoyed working with children, but mostly because it was three hours I could spend away from the office.
I was assigned to a third grade class at a school in a low-income neighborhood. I remember clearly how nervous I was walking in to a classroom full of students. Their inquiring stares and not-so-hushed whispers curious to know about this stranger in their midst, only served to make me more nervous. My mind raced with thoughts, “What was I doing here? What had I gotten myself into?” I was introduced and immediately assigned a student to take into the hall to begin tutoring. As third graders are apt to do, they will either be full of questions (what I was banking on) or they would be absolutely quiet.
I will never forget Jose. He began our conversation by telling me he had just celebrated his ninth birthday and then asked my age. When I told him I was 24, he responded, “You’re the same age as my mom.” As if his words had punched numbers on a calculator, my head did the math and figured out that his mother was all of 15 when he was born. I tried not to look shocked, moved on, and we continued to get to know each other. Before either of us knew it, our time was up and it was time for me to head to work. Jose hugged me goodbye and made me promise that I would return.
It was three days before I was able to return but in that time I couldn’t get the age of Jose’s mother out of my head. At 24 I couldn’t imagine having a nine year old, and that life, that situation was so foreign to me. It was in those three days between visits that I knew, those kids needed me. I didn’t know why, but I just knew that they needed something that I had to give.
As I continued to visit I got to know more children, most whose names unfortunately I can’t remember. but whose innocent faces stay with me until this day. They each came with a story, and I was able to somehow get past the walls they had built to get them to share them with me. In our time together they shared their hopes, their dreams, and I in turn fell in love with each and everyone of them.
It is now 15 years later and it’s shocking to think that they are now all about the same age I was then. I think about them and wonder what became of them. Did they go to college? Did their childhood dreams come true? Did Jose become the fireman or policeman he wanted to become. I wonder if they remember me and if I made and impact, however small, in any of their lives and though I never actually got to the tutoring part of my assignment, I wonder if I taught them even half of what they taught me.