Warning that we would be overwhelmed with good stories, Richmond Councilman Vinay Pimple urged the Standard to pay a visit to Richmond High on Wednesday for the final day of the school year for the WriterCoach Connection program.
“You’re going to meet some really good people,” Pimple said.
It’s an amazing program that’s always looking for volunteers, he persisted.
We decided to give it a try and became immediate converts, with our experience mimicking the fates of so many of the program’s volunteers (we decided we should sign up and volunteer, too). We could never have been fully prepared for the number of touching moments that are involved.
The WritersCoach Connection, which began at Berkeley High in 2001, brings residents from all walks of life into schools including Richmond High and Kennedy High with the purpose of providing underserved kids with individual, undivided attention.
The program has existed in the West Contra Costa Unified School District since the 2010-11 school year. It was inspired by a similar program on the East Coast that reported dramatic gains in language arts SAT scores. The program has also expanded into Oakland and is poised to travel nationwide in response to decreased school budgets.
At Richmond High, an environment where students from low-income families may not always appear at school, dozens showed up for the last day of the WriterCoach Connection. There was little sense of the summer itch or senioritis. Students accepted community members into their classrooms with open arms and listened intently as they discussed writing, from novels to poetry and even hip hop.
When students and their coaches parted for the last time before summer, the hard exterior common in any teenager faded from view. There were hugs, near tears, and one teenage boy looked straight into the eyes of his coach — a good, long, genuine gaze — in order to say a sincere “Thank you.” If we melted, imagine how the coaches felt?
“It’s a great way to have faith in the world,” said Kirk Foster, a retired carpenter who has volunteered at multiple schools. “The kids are wonderful and you really get a sense that the world is in far better shape than a lot of people would lead you to believe.”
Ginger McCleskey describes the experience as an easy way to have a big impact.
“The hours requirements per month are so low, it was something that even I as a busy self-employed person could sign up for,” McCleskey said.
Volunteers show up once or twice per month for up to two, two-hour sessions with students, said Dr. Lynn Peters of Hausrath Chiropractic in Richmond.
The ah-ha moments come as often for the coaches as they do students.
“I had this one kid, I was teaching him how to do compound complex sentences, and after we did one he got the concept,” said Jeanne Parks of Pinole. “It was just so cool to say, Yes! You got it! You got it! It’s really gratifying.”
The program also works to bring community members into the school in order to break down the unjust stereotypes these students endure.
“What I like about WriterCoach is we bring the volunteers from Richmond, people who live in the community, into Richmond High School to get to know what Richmond High School is all about,” site coordinator Karen Larson said. “To be able to see all the great students, the great teachers. All the people who are doing the right things, coming to class, working hard. So it’s very valuable.”
Volunteer recruitment coordinator June Pangelinan said myths are broken when community members visit the school and meet the kids.
“Individuals get to see the students are smart, they’re driven and trying their best,” Pangelinan.
The program is always seeking volunteers. Coach training is coming up in June in advance of the next coaching sessions set for fall.
“I think it takes a lot of effort to squash a kid,” Foster said. “It takes less effort to let them blossom.”
To find out how to volunteer,visit writercoachconnection.org.