Students volunteered in after-school program in New York
By Josh Tng
Photo caption: Kyle Chambers (left) stands beside her friend Nate during his high school graduation. The two of them met through Archbishop Carney Secondary School's buddy program, which sends Carney students to the South Bronx, New York, to volunteer in an after-school program for impoverished children. (Submitted to The B.C. Catholic)
Catholic high school students volunteering at elementary schools in New York’s poorest neighbourhood have found themselves forming lifelong bonds.
“For the past 10 years we have been leading school trips from Archbishop Carney to the South Bronx,” said Chris Seppelt, who teaches social justice in the school. The students are matched with “buddies” from the after-school program at St. Ann’s Episcopal Church, interacting with them through the school year before visiting them in the spring.
“The closeness of the bond is quite overwhelming,” Seppelt said. “They spend time volunteering in their buddy's elementary school and then continue at the after-school for the entire week.”
The interactions through the year and on the trip form lasting bonds well after the students come home from their volunteer trip. “We have had over 60 students return to the South Bronx to continue their connections with their buddies,” said Seppelt. “Some have maintained their connections for 10 years!”
Both Sabrina D’Sena and Kyle Chambers formed lasting relationships with South Bronx students through their experiences on the New York trip. “My relationship with the South Bronx began in 2012,” said D’Sena. “I had no expectations going into the service trip, and despite my aversion to big cities, I was excited to meet my ‘buddy/pen-pal’ on the east coast.”
Five years later, she continues to visit the church after-school program annually, leading classroom activities and supervising playground time along with her volunteer partner Marina Meredith.
“The reality of living in an inner-city is that these children are exposed to struggles and situations that many North Americans couldn’t fathom taking place in a developed nation,” D’Sena said. She remembered on her first trip a young girl asking her accompanying Carney buddy what she would do with $1,000.
D’Sena’s classmate said she would give the money to her mother, then asked her American buddy the same question. She answered, “‘I would buy a lamp for my room, because I don’t have electricity in my house and I can never see my homework pages. It’s ok though! I usually just sit in the hallway [of her apartment building] and use that light.’”
D’Sena found the girl’s innocent nature “truly heartbreaking throughout this interaction, as these children usually aren’t aware of how dysfunctional this reality is until the fourth or fifth grades,” she said.
Despite the discouraging environment, the after-school program provides students with an educationally enriching safe environment, D’Sena said. Children have small class settings that allow more individual attention from the teacher, culturally relatable events and celebrations, and even lessons on urban farming and healthy eating ... not to mention the Canadian buddy experience.
Chambers formed a connection in 2008 with a young student named Nate. “He wasn't my buddy but I met him playing a game of basketball and that's when we connected,” she said. “He would have been in Grade 5 when I first met him.” Before she knew it, they had formed what has proven to be a lasting friendship.
“I only met him once; it's weird how fast a connection can be made and its impact.” She never expected that relationship or how it would affect her. She returned to visit him at St. Ann’s, keeping in touch even after he left the program. “Nate is now completing his second year at Maryland University studying architecture.”
Chambers believes Nate’s success at rising from the poor neighbourhood to attend university stemmed from the St. Ann’s program. “I'm sure there is a combination of reasons he has done so well for himself,” she said. “However, if you ask him he would have said (it was because) his parents made sure to surround him with good people. He would say St. Ann's surrounded him with people who believed in him and cared.”