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EIU 360

EIU 360

The Good Kind of Chaos

EIU students touch lives of children, community.

Every Thursday, Rebecca Gordon and Jessica Nolen walk through the doors of the Ashmore Community Center armed with a smile and a determination to address the “chaos” before them.

The chaos is 30 anxious students, who, after a long school day, are ready for homework help, guidance and a little fun from Eastern Illinois University students. As they stumble into the center, the children run toward Gordon and Nolen with hugs and math problems in hand, creating a whirlwind of laughter and energy.  

The EIU students’ help is part of the Partnership for Lifelong Active Youth (P.L.A.Y.) initiative from the Office of Student Community Service at EIU.

The initiative, which officially started in the fall, brings EIU students to lead and assist at programs geared toward kindergarten through eighth grade students every day of the school week.  Gordon and Nolen volunteer at Homework Help, part of the Ashmore Mentoring Program.

As they embrace the chaos before them, Gordon and Nolen are learning leadership skills, gaining hands-on experience, and are learning to give back. More importantly, they are touching lives.

A Call for Help

Billie Melton, director of the Ashmore Mentoring Program, said the program would not be possible without help from students like Gordon and Nolen.

The Ashmore Mentoring Program started three years ago to provide children in Ashmore and the surrounding community a safe place and new opportunities.

The program includes Homework Help, offered to kindergarten through fourth grades students after school on Wednesdays and Thursdays, and a Friday program, open to children of any age to provide free entertainment on the weekend.

“We wouldn’t be able to do the program without the Eastern students whatsoever,” she said.

In the beginning, the program started with six children with Melton and the occasional community member volunteering. Now, the program has 30 students.

After the first year, Melton realized that she couldn’t run the program by herself. That’s why she reached out to the Office of Student Community Service at EIU where she started to get some helping hands.

Through the P.L.A.Y. initiative, Melton knows that a handful of volunteers like Nolen and Gordon will arrive at the community center every week.

In the first half of the program, children break off in groups with Gordon and Nolen and other EIU volunteers to focus on homework. They then play a game and eat snacks until parents pick them up.

Melton relies on EIU students to lead the homework sessions and, ultimately, be a positive influence in the children’s lives.  

“It means a lot to these kids,” she said. “They (EIU students) are heroes as soon as they walk into the door.”

Heroes of Chaos

As the children walk through the doors of the community center they are not afraid to throw their book bags aside and hug Nolen, a special education major, or Gordon, a sophomore family and consumer sciences major.

Nolen’s and Gordon’s influence is more than a friendly smile and a hug. They are making an impact in the classroom, too.

“It (the program) has improved the kids’ grades,” Melton said. “I have nothing but positive input from the teachers.” Ashmore teachers have gone so far as to promote the program at teacher conferences, especially if a child is struggling in the classroom, Melton said.

“I have had a couple of teachers tell me that the kids asked for extra homework on those (Homework Help) days,” she said.

For Melton, the impact of EIU’s involvement is personal since her two daughters attend the program. Her youngest daughter has selective mutism, an anxiety disorder that makes speech communication difficult. With the consistency of Nolen and Gordon showing up every week, her daughter has started talking with the volunteers.

“Whenever it’s the same volunteers, you build this relationship and it seems more structured,” she said. “The kids have already figured out where the line is, and they don’t push their luck.”

Melton said the volunteers are not afraid to get down on the children’s level in one-on-one sessions. Melton recalled the students pretending to operate a restaurant. “It was funny seeing an Eastern student pretending to eat a hamburger,” she said.

‘Their Kids’

Both Gordon and Nolen volunteered at other events through the Office of Student Community Service before applying to co-lead the program in Ashmore.

Gordon said she was surprised at how hands-on the program is. On a normal day in Ashmore, it isn’t unusual for three to four children to circle around her as she helps them with spelling words or addition problems.

As she started her first day, Gordon remembers a second grader who ran away from her during the homework session.

Now, after a short period, the student grabs her by the hand to the books instead of away. Nolen experienced the same as Gordon with another student who initially didn’t want to play, but eventually came around.

Both attribute the children’s behavior to the consistency of being there every Thursday.

Each day, they leave behind their stress and give their 100 percent to their ‘Ashmore kids,’ Gordon said.

As a family and consumer sciences major, Gordon was taught that not every child has the same experiences as each other.

“Every child is going to be unique,” she said. “It’s about getting to know the individual by themselves.”  Nolen agreed. “You need to judge the individual person,” she said.

Both students want to work with children one day — Nolen as an educator and Gordon in a non-profit.

As of now though, Gordon and Nolen are learning those skills with ‘their kids.’ They’re also learning that giving back might not always be easy, but well worth it.

“It’s chaos, but the best kind of chaos,” Gordon said. 

For more information about the P.L.A.Y. initiative, go to http://www.eiu.edu/volunteer/.

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