Fruitvale Volunteers The Lead in Oakland
It is all too easy to give and not receive. At least, this is the case for Veronica Jones, Meghan Freemoor, Alexei Cisneros, and Roger Rutgers: four graduates from Fruitvale Elementary School.
It was not too long ago that they were students in those seats, walking those halls. “I still remember the smell,” Alexei said. “It brings back nostalgia.”
Now these students walk the hall for another reason—to give back to the community in which they belonged. All four former Panthers are now part of a program called Reading Partners, one-on-one volunteer based tutoring for elementary school students struggling with reading. What appeals about the program to these four volunteers is not just its effect on improving students’ literacy levels. “I just love that I’m able to give back to my old school!” said Veronica. Her eyes glittered at the student testimonials lining the Fruitvale walls. “It’s really terrific, because I know I was in their shoes once.”
Reading Partners Site Coordinator Eli Schwartz is now in his second year leading the program at Fruitvale. “To have tutors come back who used to be students—that really shows the roots of this school are strong. We have an incredible team of educators.”
Eli’s passion is to make illiteracy defunct for every Fruitvale Elementary School student. “Our tutors are the backbone of our literacy program,” he said, “and the message is even more meaningful when they can say: ‘Yeah, I was a Panther, too.’ It makes it feel like it’s coming from a peer, not just any other adult. The kids know this person already has their best interests in mind because they are all Panthers, all connected by the same story.”
Roger Rutgers, the eldest of the four Fruitvale veterans, says his purpose for volunteering with the early literacy program is because it combines two of his greatest passions—helping kids and reading books. The fact that he can help students from his alma mater, and do so by reading together…this, he said, is a win-win.
“There’s just no volunteer program as strong as Reading Partners. You just show up, read through the curriculum with your student, and the kid gets back up to speed with grade level. It’s incredible.”
Veronica and Meghan first began volunteering because it was required for their high school Community Activism classes. What started off as a “checklist requirement,” Veronica said, “turned into one of the greatest joys of my week. I had no idea I’d grow so close with my kid.”
Meghan, feeling similarly, also added: “Yeah, and I got a friend out of it. Veronica and I didn’t even know each other until joining Reading Partners. Now we found out we also both went to Fruitvale. Such a small world.”
Whether connecting vowel sounds or connecting tutors, Eli says he’s been happy with his experience as a Reading Partners AmeriCorps member. “You’re doing something for your community—sure,” he paused to adjust a student’s progress sticker on the wall, “but ultimately, it’s about doing something for the world. If you can read, you can do anything. I couldn’t ask for a better mission, and having people like Veronica, Meghan…all the Fruitvale grads…to come alongside me, just makes the journey all the more meaningful.”
— Jenna Philpott is a literacy enthusiast and supporter of Education International’s research team on early literacy best practices across the globe. She can be reached at: email@example.com.