Junior Sarah Steppacher started working at the Youth Life Foundation with a second-grade girl at the beginning of her sophomore year. Now, her mentee is so attached to her that when other children ask Steppacher to be their mentor for the day, the girl firmly stakes her claim, saying, "But, she's my mentor."
Cassie Price, community initiatives and projects manager at the Center for Civic Engagement, said 77 students volunteered last semester with the Youth Life Foundation of Richmond after-school program. This semester, 65 students have registered. There are three sites to choose from: two elementary sites and one middle and high school site.
Students who volunteer with Youth Life are paired with a child to mentor, helping them with homework, reading and academic activities that teachers plan. They end their day with play time.
Steppacher started volunteering with the program through her Justice and Civil Society class, but she returned the next semester because she had made a connection with her mentee and enjoyed the structure of the program, she said.
"Although it was tough at the beginning to connect with her and have her listen, she eventually opened up to me and allowed me to help her," Steppacher said.
The foundation was founded by Heather Goodlett, a '94 University of Richmond alumna, in 2002. Goodlett said she wanted Richmond students to be involved from the beginning.
"Our first intern was a UR student," Goodlett said, "but the campus has done an increasingly better job through the year of getting students engaged in the community."
The first Youth Life center was in Highland Park, an area where the CCE sends many students to volunteer. Goodlett said the CCE liked the program in Highland Park so much, they soon also allowed students to work at the Delmont location.
If a Richmond student comes back to Youth Life more than one semester, the organization allows him or her to mentor the same child again. This is how volunteers such as senior Savannah McAmis have built three-year relationships with mentees.
Price said this was one of the reasons Youth Life is such a popular volunteer program for Richmond students.
"They can see from week to week and year to year the difference their efforts are making in the academic and socio-emotional development of the children they are mentoring," Price said.
McAmis is serving as a Youth Life liaison this semester as part of the Build It Action Group. This group meets once a month to discuss what is going on at its centers and to brainstorm ways to recruit more volunteers and improve the centers.
She is also working Thursdays at the center, which are elective days. Some more experienced volunteers run their own elective classes, during which they teach activities such as music or art.
The Richmond women's swim team has been holding monthly swim clinics at the Weinstein Center for Recreation and Wellness for Youth Life children for the past four years. This year, the women's soccer team will be hosting two on-campus soccer clinics for Youth Life children as well.
Steppacher said she would always remember how excited the children got when she and the other mentors arrive at the center. She said many of the children got out of their chairs and ran over to hug her or grab her hand to come sit by them.
"I can tell every time that I go there how happy the kids are to see us, and how much UR has helped to make a difference in these children's lives," Steppacher said.
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