When she first arrived on campus as a freshman, Gwen Hekman said she often felt that University life lacked a feeling of community.
“It’s strange only being with people your own age. I missed being with kids.”
As an LSA sophomore, Hekman discovered a more fulfilling niche in the Ann Arbor community as a mentor through Michigan Reach Out!
Reach Out! is a nonprofit organization that seeks to close the rift between University students and the surrounding community through mentorship programs that match student volunteers with children in nearby schools.
Currently, the program draws nearly 120 eager volunteers to its weekly programs, including University students, retirees and volunteers from local high schools. Now, as a senior, Hekman looks back on her experience with Reach Out!
“Leaving campus I gained relationships with people that were more rewarding. And the adult directors are all very supportive — there is definitely a family feeling,” she said.
Although the program is primarily intended to foster academic growth in discouraged pupils, its participants insist the most rewarding benefit of Reach Out! are the friendships that are generated from the community the program provides.
Reach Out! aims to provide a network of academic and emotional support for elementary students in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti. The program supplements weekly tutoring sessions with various career exploration projects. In the past year, the organization has sponsored career days and trips to Washtenaw Community College in order to expose students to a wide spectrum of educational possibilities.
However, Reach Out! does not exclude the value of pure fun from its agenda. Its programs are peppered with recreational variety, from in-class parties to weeklong summer camps.
While Reach Out! assists students in all academic subjects, the program has retained a special focus on revamping the science departments in nearby schools. Volunteers attempt to ignite enthusiasm in the classroom by introducing hands-on science experiments each month.
“Our goal is to help kids gain confidence with science and to realize that it can be fun and applicable to their lives,” said Deb Hamann, elementary program coordinator.
Currently, Reach Out! houses two mentorship programs. Those interested in working with elementary students have the option to volunteer weekly for one hour at the Pine Lake Village Community Center.
Those seeking a deeper involvement with the program may help out at Scarlett Middle School, where mentors meet with students twice a week, in addition to spending time with the students outside of school.
Participants of both programs are each matched with a student for the duration of a full year, and are strongly encouraged to make home visits with families of their students.
The primary role of mentors, according to Hamann, is to promote academic improvement by acting as an advocate for their students. Mentors ensure that their pupils turn in assignments on time and facilitate communication between teachers and students.
Hamann describes the role of volunteers as being “just someone there without an agenda — someone who can support the kids. Mentors are there to empower them to communicate.”
However, while the central focus of Reach Out! is educational, social and emotional issues often surface as relationships between mentors and students begin to form. Throughout the past three years, Hekman said she encountered many students from single-parent homes, where parents burdened by financial pressure were often unable to spend times with their children.
“Many of the kids don’t have consistent adult figures in their lives; mentors help by getting to know the kids and acting as a role model,” she said.
Throughout the course of each year, Reach Out! witnesses transformations in both students and volunteers. Senior volunteer Julia Power claims that her volunteer experiences exposed her to educational inequalities within the Ann Arbor school district and have further inspired her to pursue a career in educational policy.
Power praised the reciprocal rewards of the mentorship program.
“You get to build a one-on-one relationship. When you are a role model, you think about yourself differently. You want to be a better person for them,” she said.
Power also added that Reach Out! has helped forge relationships between University students and Ann Arbor families.
“The program gives us the chance to show that University students are excited to help with the community and that we want it to be as nice of a place as they do,” she said.
Michigan Reach Out! is currently in the process of trying to replace graduating mentors with new volunteers for next year. Those interested in the program can access www.reachoutmichigan.org to find out more information.