Volunteers at St. James School keep students’ spirits high and curiosity piqued

The small chapel of the St. James School’s former church building, which hosts the morning meeting for 16 fifth-graders, features a civil rights poster, a whiteboard explaining the anatomy of Beethoven’s symphonies, a display on Algeria, and a sweet potato, for the Vegetable, Herb or Fruit of the Week program (last week, oregano took the stage).

The intensive and diverse staff-managed curriculum at this West Allegheny middle school on Clearfield Avenue, now about halfway through its inaugural year, is evident. But at a Thursday morning gathering for school staff and supporters, the crucial roles of several dedicated volunteers were also obvious.

Just up the hallway from the chapel, next year’s sixth-grade classroom is overflowing with the efforts of Marge Devlin, the St. James School’s Volunteer Library Donations Coordinator: to date, her efforts have helped to net the school a library of about 4,000 donated books – this year, that’s 250 books for every student.

Filling a literary void 

“This is the best endowed library I know of for a school this size,” Devlin says. She credits simple networking for the astonishing flow of good-quality books. She contacted other Episcopal churches “from City Line to Paoli” to ask if their youth groups would be willing to help collect books or alert possible donors of the search, and the books rolled in.

“Some of these kids had never read a book before,” said Rosalee DiIulio, another volunteer who serves as Enrichment Program Director, managing a literature-based enrichment program for some of St. James’ brightest students. “Some of them have never had a book of their own.”

That’s why, in addition to running a program in which kids interact with books, poems, plays and puzzles (she arrived at Thursday’s meeting clutching Island of the Blue Dolphins, a Shel Silverstein volume, some new young adult fiction by Dave Barry, and a book of Mensa riddles), DiIulio makes a point of letting her students keep their books when the lesson is finished, encouraging them to build their own libraries. While her work with two other local schools involves funding for these gifts, the money for books that St. James students take home is coming from her own pocket. Between enrichment programs at three schools, she estimates her weekly volunteer time commitment at ten hours of classroom time on top of fifteen hours of prep time at home.

A strong volunteer base 

The students, who engage in a range of interactive literature-based projects, have begun to revel in the shelves that line the small school’s main hallway – school Executive Director David Kasievich has been pleased to notice the students’ growing literary appetites, as they begin to ask Devlin for specific titles and authors.

As DiIulio’s own children grew up, she felt a continued desire to interact with kids who needed her. “I wanted to nurture other children as I had nurtured my own,” she said. Fellow volunteer Betsy McCarthy, a tutor at St. James, was drawn to her work for a similar reason, and relishes not just the opportunity to support the students’ academic success, but to offer a listening ear to students who need it, regardless of the topic.

“Just having those extra words with someone can make such a difference,” she said.

Douglas Marshall, a St. James board member and volunteer tutor, also enjoys the chance to help underserved kids. Upon arriving in the Philadelphia area for his retirement, he noticed what he calls a major benefit of living in the area.

Versus some other U.S. cities and communities, “living here never allows you the luxury of being oblivious to poverty.” He began his retirement with a determination to find new and useful roles: “How am I going to be of some service in that world?”

Unlimited exposure to people and places 

St. James’ volunteer support is not only academic: Urban Blazers Executive Director Eric Dolaway was also on hand to explain the benefits of Friday field trips made possible by a partnership between St. James and the nonprofit Urban Blazers, which promotes positive development among disadvantaged kids through outings like hiking, camping and rafting. At St. James, these physical adventures have included a hike along the Wissahickon and rock-climbing. Dolaway touts not just traditional academic skills in math and literacy, but the value of “soft skills” like teamwork, leadership and communication that emerge through adventures beyond the classroom. Dolaway hopes future St. James trips will include skiing and canoeing.

“Instead of working all the time we can get out and get active,” says 5th-grader Lashay Smith of the program. Fellow student John Taylor also pinpoints the value of getting outside the classroom with his peers.

“We open up to each other more, help each other learn, and learn new things about each other,” he said.

Kasievich celebrates “the power of volunteers”. He says that while St. James has an excellent staff, it’s good for the kids to interact with as many people as possible. “The exposure to different people that our students have is essential to their success in high school and college,” he said, looking to the years ahead. From the library to field trips to math tutors, St. James is always on the lookout for more community volunteers.

Especially in a neighborhood plagued by gun violence, where poverty levels soar above the national average, Dolaway says that upon hearing about the volunteer-supported programs that St. James kids enjoy, you might think that these kids are lucky.

“These kids are not ‘lucky’,” he insists. “These kids are getting what every kid deserves.”

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