I struggle to hide my mirth from Tess as the lights of her pink running shoes flash purple with her stomp. She wants to play “Word Search” again, although time is up. I wonder “Where do seven year old girls get such an array of manipulative devices?” Her lash-fringed brown eyes are lowered but I know she’s watching my reaction to her demands, weighing whether tears might be more effective.
Forty-five minutes earlier, when I picked her up from her classroom, I was faced with a reluctant recruit wearing a pout designed to break your heart. She was missing swimming with her after-school program to read with me. Swimming – her favourite! Now I am being beguiled into another game of Word Search and will be late for an appointment. We compromise and play a short version.
My time tutoring Tess and other elementary age children in the five years since I retired has been richly rewarded by such exchanges. By contrast, I recall moments of trying to coax a bored, hyper-active child out from under a table. The constant is the realization that our tax-payer funded school system has many needs and there are not enough volunteers to support those needs.
No group knows this better than the Ottawa Network for Education. The goal of this non-profit organization, founded in 1985, is “to help every child finish school prepared to take on the world.” To that end they “partner with all four school boards and work side-by-side with teachers to meet the complex needs of our children and youth in both English and French.” Among their services are a school breakfast program, substance abuse counselling, career preparedness, leadership development and, of course, volunteer recruitment.
Their volunteer program “Ottawa Volunteers in Education” provides screened, trained volunteers to all the schools in Ottawa. I remember hearing from the two friends and co-workers I had cited as references when I applied to be a volunteer that they had undergone a good grilling about whether I should be set loose on students. We were all police-checked for criminal records, which is repeated periodically. The process is facilitated by the professional staff at ONFE who are grateful for the contributions of the volunteers. The requests they receive for support from schools are never-ending and there are not enough volunteers available. Last year this program filled 2,083 volunteer positions in 148 Ottawa schools.
Other education support services are offered by volunteers at Frontier College, Canada’s original literacy organization, dating back to 1899. I started my tutoring with elementary children with their after-school homework clubs in the Ottawa libraries before I went into the public schools. I was police checked to work with ‘vulnerable sectors’, a check which was good for the public school volunteering, and given a brief course where I learned that tutors are not teachers and how to coax the learning along.
In the last five years my weekly Frontier College tutoring hour has been in a library located in a part of the city where many of the new Canadians settle on arrival. Most of the families are Syrian or from other Middle Eastern countries. These parents are keen to give their children all the opportunities Canada has to offer so enrol their youngsters in French Immersion schools. The parents find it difficult to help their children with French homework so our free tutoring is well received. On occasion, a bond is formed with the hovering mothers in burkas who I enlist to look up words that have me stumped in my second language. Their eyes, so expressive when the mouth is covered, reveal their gratitute as we watch the progress of their bright young linguists.
When I was a working mother and involved in my children’s education, I was not aware of the holes in the fabric of our education system as I had the resources to hire tutors when required and to network on behalf of my children. I was privileged. I believe that education is critical to the future of our country and our world. I highly recommend that those who can volunteer, who have anything they want to share with the next generation, do so. You can contact Frontier College online at https://www.frontiercollege.ca/.
If you live in Ottawa, this is the link for the Ottawa Network for Education onfe-rope.ca. In other municipalities, there are similar organizations assisting volunteerism in local school boards.
It is not all altrusim. Every week, Tess gives me a performance rivalling those I see at the National Arts Centre! And watching the faces of children as an idea sinks provides a lot in warm, fuzzy returns.
— Dr. Carolyn Inch is a former veterinarian and director with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency living in Ottawa.