Students Learn From Volunteers Who Used to Be Just Like Them

As Ginger prepared to volunteer for Junior Achievement at Federal Heights Elementary School in Denver, Colo., she was nervous. She wondered if she?d be able to keep the fifth graders' attention, much less effectively teach the JA lessons. When the morning finally came, she summoned her courage and packed her supplies, unaware that soon, she'd have a powerful experience, one that would replace her self-doubt with determination to make a difference for the young people she wanted to serve.

A few steps inside the school's doors, Mr. S greeted Ginger and the rest of the volunteer team. He was warm and grateful, and he offered them an eye-opening perspective regarding the challenges faced by the students they would teach: 100 percent were on the free-and-reduced lunch program. Many of them were struggling English speakers and could not read or write at their grade level. Additionally, a large number of the children were being raised by single parents. Others had never known their parents at all. Several had even seen their parents shot or arrested. As the team listened, they were deeply moved and resolved to give the students their very best.

"I taught the first lesson to the class, looking into the eyes of 30 strangers," wrote Ginger. "By the end, not one of those incredible children was a stranger to me." At the conclusion of the lessons, the volunteers decided to offer the students more encouragement--their own stories of getting into college, including details like how several of the volunteers had grown up in single parent households and lived below the poverty line. As the students listened to stories that sounded like their own, they began to ask questions. The essence of many of their questions was this: is college really a possibility for me? Each volunteer, using their own lives and experience as evidence, reassured the students that their college dreams could come true.

As Ginger and the team said good-bye to the students, they received hugs, high-fives and words of thanks, but they felt like they'd received much more than they'd given. With the power of the JA experience enhanced by their personal stories, they had helped the students realize they could build better lives, a critical first step towards empowering them to own their economic success.

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