Addy is a volunteer with the Brown Elementary Afterschool Mentoring Program (BEAM), a Swearer Center community partnership that facilitates after-school programing activities and mentorship between Brown volunteers and students at William D’Abate Elementary School in the Olneyville neighborhood.
At 3:15pm, these empty halls of D’Abate Elementary School fill with the clamoring footfalls and lively shouts of young students charging out of classes as they end their school day. Armed with snacks and teaching supplies, and donning our distinctive blue T-shirts, I and other Brown volunteers herd many of these students back into classrooms for an afternoon of BEAM clubs.
On any given day, these classrooms might contain homemade lava lamps for demonstrating chemical reactions, mock-election polling booths and protest signs for teaching the democratic process, or murals for painting images of students’ aspirations.
I am one of over 100 Brown students who volunteer and lead BEAM after-school clubs each semester. “Without the program, kids might be sitting at home, waiting for parents to return from work,” says Alex Cogut ’17, a volunteer in his fourth semester. “BEAM creates a unique space for them to keep learning and playing within their families’ schedules.”
Through BEAM, we volunteers design our own curriculums for academic enrichment in subjects ranging from math to English, social studies to the visual and performing arts. This opportunity is not only unique for us, but also for the students, who contribute their voices to their BEAM curriculums in ways not possible in school.
“This semester, we’re doing an around the world club where we teach different lessons about different places,” describes Alex. “At the end of each class, we ask the students what place we should do next, and they’ll all tell us about where they’re from and why we should study that place. We’ve gotten to hear a lot about their stories and backgrounds.”
Hearing stories, truly getting to know our students, is one of the greatest joys of this work. BEAM is more than simply the sum of its academic programs. “The relationships with the students have been one of the most rewarding parts of BEAM,” says Emma Schrager ’16, one of the coordinating fellows this year. “Seeing kids year after year, watching them grow up before my eyes, has been such a unique experience.”
These relationships are a two-way street. One of my own students, Laura, a fifth-grader who’s participated in BEAM for six years, tells me why she loves clubs. “Club teachers understand us,” she says. “Even though they’re older, they’re not that much older, and so they’re like us and we can identify with them and talk to them about our problems.”
Hearing Laura’s words is an assurance I didn’t realize I needed until this moment. Placing myself in the lives and communities of these young students has not been seamless. At times, I question my own positionality as a Brown student. I wonder if our activities are relevant to our students’ cultures, if our mentorship provides genuine support not found elsewhere, if our work is helping our students in any tangible way. Laura’s words and subsequent hug are welcome reminders that relationships are always vital and listening is always key.
Relationships between students and volunteers—volunteers and their community—are central to BEAM’s philosophy about meaningful service and empowering education. At 5:30pm, after a packed afternoon of hands-on activities and tutoring, our clubs disperse and D’Abate’s hallways empty once again. I wave goodbye to Laura. Students return to their families and homes; Brown volunteers trek back to campus. But the connections between us carry on—to next week’s clubs, to future semesters, and throughout the years as students and volunteers work, play, and grow together.