Harriet Long has the full attention of her reading buddy.

United Way RSVP Volunteers Make a Difference

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Thursday April 18, 2013

Each week, a dedicated group of South Burlington senior volunteers donates their time as RSVP volunteers at Chamberlin School, providing students an opportunity to read and/or be read to by adults outside of the traditional classroom setting. For over 11 years United Way of Chittenden County has partnered with Chamberlin School to improve literacy and provide mentor opportunities through RSVP, a federally funded program sponsored by United Way. The program is a free personalized matching and referral service for people age 55 and up. In 2012, 263 RSVP volunteers served more than 19,000 hours across Chittenden County in 90 different non-profit agencies, providing a service valued at $394,000 (based on the Vermont average hourly wage) to our communities.

Chamberlin School and its students have not only developed a lasting relationship with the dedicated RSVP volunteers, but principal Holly Rouelle notes a marked impact in literacy achievement in students who take part in the program. “We’re working with five volunteers through RSVP,” said Rouelle. Mary Bonneau, Eva Diner, Shirley Giroux, Harriet Long and Elsa Polworth contribute on a weekly basis to the success of their young mentees. “Senior volunteers provide a grandparent role model, an adult who can be there just to focus on the student.” Rouelle adds, “It’s not always our struggling readers; volunteers who work with our advanced readers, reading books together, have great discussions about literature.” Rouelle sees literacy mentoring equally as important as classroom time because it’s an opportunity for children to connect with an attentive adult who is invested in them.

The feedback from the experience seems to be universally positive, both from the staff, students, and contributing volunteers. “Students love the one on one attention.” said Julie Graham, Literacy Coach at Chamberlin School. “Some of these volunteers work primarily with one team of teachers, or specific age groups, but some of the volunteers work with specific students to support reading throughout their multi-year span at Chamberlin. The reaction has been very positive and most of our volunteers feel like they’re getting more out of the experience than they’re putting in.”
South Burlington resident Elsa Polworth, a dedicated RSVP volunteer, echoed that statement.  Polworth spent a career as a Radiologist, working first at Northeastern in Boston before returning to Burlington to finish her career at the Champlain Medical Center. She has been an RSVP volunteer at Chamberlin School from the beginning of this partnership and has consistently dedicated 1-2 hours a week.  “I’ve worked in the same classroom, with one teacher, throughout my entire time working at Chamberlin,” said Ms. Polworth. “The teacher will assign the student a project for that day and we’ll work on it together.” She is quick to recognize the areas in which her mentees excel. “Usually the projects are reading based,” she goes on to say. “For some reason, all the students I’ve worked with have been pretty good at math. They’ve even taught me a thing or two!”

Polworth notes her background as a clinical instructor has been helpful, but she also adds, “It’s so much more fun working with the younger students. And as far as what I get out of it, it’s just the satisfaction of helping children. The teachers tell me I’m making a difference. I just enjoy making all these little friends.” She also recognizes that some students may not necessarily have the supports in place to help them succeed at school and in the community, and feels happy that she can provide a measure of consistent and reliable support to students. “I think it’s important for students to know that they have someone on their side,” she says.
Retired school teacher Harriet Long, a South Burlington resident, is another member of RSVP. After teaching for 33 years in New Jersey, as well as in Vermont at Orchard School, Long has also spent the last 11 years working as a volunteer at Chamberlin School and believes that the program’s positive impact is helping students both in and out of the classroom. “I’ve worked with all different age-groups, and students with a variety of needs, including students in the special education program, as well as English Language Learners (ELL) students,” said Ms. Long. “The teacher will often leave us with projects to work on, but the kids I work with also have the opportunity to develop their own curriculum and study things that interest them. Currently, I’m working with a student who’s very interested in space, so we’ve been doing a lot with the planets and the universe. We’re starting a study of the Big Bang next week.”

Long was awarded The Governor’s Community Service Award for her volunteer contributions at Chamberlin School. She sees the impact she’s making at Chamberlin School as the true measure of her efforts. “Kids are very enthusiastic,” she says “I’ve never had a student who didn’t want to come and do the work with me. It’s so much more than about academic work. It’s about providing kids with confidence, a friend to talk to, encouragement; and for older students to start talking about developing goals and thinking about planning ahead which will help them down the road for their lives.”
“RSVP provides a connection to the community, both for senior volunteers and students,” said Rouelle. “Often, these connections can extend throughout a student’s career, and some volunteers build connections with their students at Chamberlin that last long after their school experience is over.”  

The work being provided by RSVP volunteers at Chamberlin School is just one example of the wide range of work that RSVP volunteers are doing to meet critical community needs while supporting healthy aging. RSVP is open to anyone over the age of 55 who is interested in volunteering their skills and time to a non-profit.

United Way of Chittenden County promotes and recognizes the value of the work and the impact that volunteers have in improving our communities.  As National Volunteer Week -- April 21st-27th -- approaches, United Way encourages organizations to recognize their volunteers and their contributions.   Chamberlin will celebrate all its volunteers and give a big “thanks” to the RSVP volunteers in their school. “Our RSVP volunteers love what they do here at Chamberlin,” said Principal Rouelle. “I’ve had people tell me that if they’re sick, or for some reason miss one of their scheduled volunteer days, they’re truly missed by the students here at Chamberlin.”

The United Way is actively looking for volunteers to become involved in RSVP. For more information or to get involved, visit www.unitedwaycc.org or call the United Way of Chittenden County Volunteer Connection at 860-1677. 

SOURCE: Peter Culkin, Correspondent