Editor's note: Jane Schmidt had the idea for the new site, but was not the one who started the site. The article also originally said the volunteers communicate with public school teachers, but the site teachers are the ones who communicate with them. This article has been since corrected. 

University of Richmond senior Jane Schmidt is helping marginalized students in Richmond by pioneering the idea for Youth Life Foundation’s expansion to the southside, an area known for its large latino population.

At the heart of the organization is an individualized approach to learning. Mentors engage with students of low-income families in a one-on-one setting after school in a neighborhood learning center. Youth Life primarily operates in the north side, with three successful programs full of passionate University of Richmond student-volunteer mentors, among others.

Cassie Price, manager of community relationships and community-engaged learning through the Center for Civic Engagement, described the system: "[The site teachers] communicate with the public school teachers about where their children need remedial work, and they do individual education plans," Price said. "They customize the learning experience for their children based on where their children need extra help.”

Schmidt, WC '18, started volunteering with Youth Life as one of these dedicated mentors during her sophomore year as a part of the Bonner Scholars program. After teaching English in Nicaragua and also spending a semester studying abroad in the Dominican Republic, she is proficient in spanish.

One day, Schmidt was volunteering for Spanish class credit at E.S.H. Greene Elementary in the Southside of Richmond, a school with a latino population of 80.6%. Right away, she noticed something unsettling.

"I was in a kindergarten class and most of the kids there didn't know English yet and the teacher spoke English, so the kids couldn't learn," Schmidt said.

She wanted to help, and that's when she had the idea to start a Youth Life program for children in this area.

"One of my dreams when I first thought of the idea of a site there was that ideally the students and the families from that community would be the ones leading there and helping out with the site, so it wouldn't just be outside leaders all the time," she said. "They would be able to strengthen their community."

She then met with Heather Goodlett, Youth Life’s executive director and founder, and discussed the prospect of opening a new learning center.

"[Goodlett] said, 'not right now, but we're interested in the future,'" Schmidt said. "She contacted me a little while later and said, 'actually we're going to do that now, we're on board to help out.'"

Through Youth Life, Schmidt's vision of helping students in the southside is becoming a reality. The new site is called the Southwood learning center, because it’s based out of the Southwood apartments near E.S.H. Greene. There are currently 14 students in the program and 10 UR students registered to volunteer there, but Price hopes for more volunteers, since Youth Life’s model strives for one-on-one mentoring 4 days per week.

"It would be great to get more bilingual volunteers," Price said. “When students register to volunteer at a Youth Life center they typically choose one day, if you think about that and you think, 14 kids, 4 times, you need 56 mentors, and we have 10 so far."

In fact, student volunteers are needed at all four Youth Life locations across Richmond.

Schmidt emphasized the importance of this organization to students, both young and older, and to the city as a whole.

"I think [Youth Life] benefits the mentors because you get to see the city of Richmond as a whole, not just life as it is on the UR campus," Schmidt said. "I think people go with the thought they're going to help and that they're going to contribute but they're learning just as much from this community"

Volunteers are expected to dedicate at least one day per week from 4-7 p.m., and transportation is provided by the Center for Civic Engagement. Prospective volunteers are encouraged to attend the second Youth Life orientation meeting on Thursday September 21st from 5:30-7:30 p.m. in THC 346 for more information.

Contact features writer Robbie Kent at robbie.kent@richmond.edu.

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