AmeriCorps volunteers help students achieve at Stonewall

Stonewall Jackson Middle School sixth-grader Jenaya McNeil writes definitions of words from her science class with help from AmeriCorps mentor Michael Austin.
AmeriCorps mentor Scott Souza helps sixth grader Keith Samms with his social studies work at Stonewall Jackson Middle School.
Dale Johnson is the supervisor of the AmeriCorps program at Stonewall Jackson Middle School and serves as the school’s psychologist.
Ronya Erwing, one of the AmeriCorps mentors at Stonewall Jackson Middle School, said mentoring students at the school has been a “humbling experience.”
AmeriCorps mentor Tonya Edwards, right, hugs sixth grader Hanna Townsend before helping her with schoolwork on her iPad.

One of Tonya Edwards’ students at Stonewall Jackson Middle School has straight As — and eight brothers and sisters who live with her in a local shelter while their mother works two jobs to try to afford their own home.

When asked to talk to a boy who wouldn’t respond in class, Scott Souza learned he had been picked on for his weight. Souza has since learned the same boy has a beautiful singing voice, and the student was encouraged to join a school choir.

“He should be on American Idol,” said Ronya Erwing, beaming.

Michael Austin has seen it several times since September — students he’s never met have approached him, asking for guidance.

Edwards, Souza, Erwing and Austin aren’t teachers at SJMS — they’re AmeriCorps volunteers who are part of a mentoring program newly implemented at Stonewall Jackson at the start of the school year. They’re also part of a proud tradition in West Virginia, which ranks fifth among all 50 states in the number of AmeriCorps members it produces, according to the Corporation for National and Community Service, the federal agency that administers the AmeriCorps program.

“AmeriCorps members make a powerful impact on the toughest challenges facing our nation,” said Wendy Spencer, CEO of the Corporation for National and Community Service. “Building on West Virginia’s strong tradition of neighbor helping neighbor, AmeriCorps members from the Mountain State will improve lives and strengthen communities across the nation. I salute the AmeriCorps members from West Virginia for their dedication, and thank our outstanding partners who make their service possible.”

AmeriCorps is a nationwide program that coordinates more than 75,000 volunteers at nonprofits, schools, public agencies, and community and faith-based groups across the country. Since AmeriCorps was formed 20 years ago, West Virginia has produced more than 11,000 AmeriCorps members who have given more than 17 million hours of service to their country and received nearly $27 million in scholarships.

Dale Johnson, school psychologist for Stonewall Jackson and site supervisor for the AmeriCorps program, said the volunteers, who collectively mentor about 130 of the school’s 600 students, have made definite improvements in the attitudes and outcomes for many of their students.

“We’re located in an area with a high level of poverty, and a lot of things trickle down from poverty — crime, teenage pregnancy, drug abuse — you name it. Those things exist in an impoverished community,” Johnson said. “A lot of our students may not have eaten the night before or gotten a good night’s sleep.

“They may have a lack of support at home from their parents, who may have mental health issues or who may be incarcerated,” he said. “This provides another supportive, caring adult for these students.”

Austin, who previously worked for the state, said he’d joined the mentoring program expecting to focus on students’ academics, but quickly found that sometimes other issues had to be addressed before math or science.

“A lot of it was gaining trust when we first came in,” he said. “At first, it was just meeting them where they were ... but eventually, the relationship changed, and now, they come looking for us when they need help.”

Edwards, who has a six-year-old son of her own, said joining the program has been not only rewarding, but eye-opening.

“I never really had a mentor — my parents were the people I went to, and me and my sisters talked. I just thought it would be really cool to be able to help somebody,” she said.

“It’s not like when I was growing up; things have changed a lot. That’s not to say that all the kids here experience that, but there’s that number who really need outside support.”

For Erwing, serving as an AmeriCorps mentor has given her a fresh perspective on the struggles some children experience both in and out of school.

“It has humbled me,” she said. “You have to try to understand where they’re coming from and try to relate to what they’re going through to be able to help them.”

Johnson said he hopes the program will be able to expand in the years to come, and said the feedback he has received from students has been largely positive: students surveyed about the experience wrote that their mentors “kept them out of trouble,” “helped their attendance” and said they would recommend the program to a friend who was struggling.

“Having a mentoring program here, in this community, is important because it could really mean the difference between a student who is really engaged in school and progressing through it to one who says ‘I don’t feel like I can do this,’” Johnson said. “It comes down to support, and mentoring programs in communities like this definitely help give them that support.”

Reach Lydia Nuzum

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