Tristin Harwell, 19, is a MSU student who volunteers as a mentor with Operation Homework.
By Tamara El-Khoury Watson
LANSING, MI -- It’s 8 a.m on a Tuesday and Tristin Harwell, 19, has the full attention of two 5-year-old girls at Willow Elementary.
“Who has the letter T?” Harwell asks the kindergarteners who have alphabet bingo cards in front of them. “What starts with the letter T?”
“TV,” said one of the girls.
In a school where 20 percent of the children are homeless and virtually all students are eligible for free breakfast and lunch, these two young girls face overwhelming barriers to academic success. They are spending their breakfast hour with Harwell, a sophomore at Michigan State University who is volunteering her time as a mentor with Operation Homework, a joint venture between Communities in Schools of Michigan and Capital Area Mentoring Partnership (CAMP), a program of Capital Area United Way.
“Coming to Operation Homework…gives them the extra love and support that they might not get at home just because of all that goes on at home,” Harwell said.
Operation Homework came about after Julia Cawvey, the site coordinator at Willow Elementary for Communities in Schools, determined a need for homework assistance for some of the school’s most vulnerable students. Communities in Schools is a nonprofit that places a coordinator like Cawvey in schools with a high-need student population to connect resources such as food assistance, clothing and academic help, to families that need them.
The students who participate in Operation Homework may not have a parent at home able to help them with their homework whether due to a language barrier or a parent working a second or third shift.
“When can we give students one-on-one or one-on-two academic support without having to pull them out of their classes?” Cawvey said.
Working with Fran Curry, CAMP’s coordinator who is housed at Capital Area United Way, Operation Homework came to fruition last year. During breakfast on Tuesday and Thursday mornings, volunteer mentors devote 30 to 45 minutes helping students with homework or playing academic games to reinforce what they learned in class.
“Homework goes from something that is boring to something that is fun and something they are good at,” Cawvey said.
The benefits to mentoring are numerous, including better school attendance, improved attitudes toward school and an increase in the likelihood of attending college, according to MENTOR, the National Mentoring Partnership.
However, the demand for mentors is far greater than the supply. Curry said there is a need for a mentors of all ages, particularly men, for various mentoring opportunities in the tri-county. CAMP – a coalition of 16 local organizations working to strengthen the capacity of mentoring services in the area – posts mentoring opportunities on Capital Area United Way’s Volunteer Center website. Those interested in volunteering can visit www.micauwvolunteercenter.org.
“Anyone wanting to be a modern day Transformer should step up, be active and become a mentor,” Curry said. “Mentors transform lives and students in the tri-county area need you.”
For almost 100 years, Capital Area United Way has served the residents of Ingham, Eaton and Clinton counties by connecting people in need with local resources. In this series, Tamara El-Khoury Watson, Community Resources associate at Capital Area United Way, will introduce readers to the people and programs of United Way working to improve our entire community.
Printed in the December 11 - December 24, 2016 edition.