During a March 2015 School Meeting, language department chair Joyce Lang invited students to participate in a new community service opportunity: tutoring Spanish-speaking children in nearby Newton, New Jersey. Fast forward three years, and La Conexión—the aptly named club that connects Blair students with elementary-aged children of recent Latino immigrants—is thriving, and Mrs. Lang couldn’t be more pleased with the many ways students have taken ownership of the activity.
The club’s focus is helping youngsters—many of whom are just learning English and whose parents are non-native English speakers—to understand and complete their homework. Each Wednesday afternoon, about a half-dozen or more Blair students travel by van or bus with Mrs. Lang to the Diocese of Paterson’s Migrant Ministry office in Newton, where they work one-on-one or in small groups with the children who come for help. And, once the homework is done, there is always time for conversation, learning games and fun.
“The idea is to create enthusiasm around homework and let the children know there are people outside their immediate family circle who care about them,” Mrs. Lang said. “But the actual direction we take each week with activities and games depends on our students, and that’s a beautiful thing.”
Noting that Blair volunteers need not speak Spanish in order to participate and that each one “brings something different to the table,” Mrs. Lang described some of the ways students have shared their enthusiasm, ideas and talents with their young friends. Tys Sweeney ’17, a regular participant during his Blair years, purchased textbooks and storybooks that ignited kids’ imaginations. Daisy Kahn ’19 has brought games like bingo and Bananagrams into the mix as a fun way to promote the learning of numbers, vocabulary and spelling. Last year, several Blair students created handwritten and illustrated storybooks especially for the children they’d gotten to know over the weeks of tutoring, and many volunteers bring a big brother/big sister approach that makes for smiles all around.
Students have also taken on leadership roles and helped La Conexión grow as a Blair activity. Emily Choi ’17, one of the first Newton tutoring volunteers and a passionate advocate for Latino immigrants, took the initiative to make the activity an official Blair club, christened it La Conexión, and expanded its membership during her junior and senior years. Her sister, Irene ’18, and Kenza Fernandez ’18 picked up the leadership baton this year, and both have become ambassadors for the program among Blair’s student body. They make announcements at School Meeting, attract fellow students to the program and assemble a group of volunteers each week. Meanwhile, Daisy and Elizabeth Negvesky ’20 are waiting in the wings to take over as next year’s La Conexión leaders, with ideas to potentially incorporate English lessons for the elementary schoolers’ parents into the weekly sessions and share the program’s successful model with other Mid-Atlantic Prep League schools.
Irene was initially drawn to the club as a sophomore by her sister’s excitement, but her own enthusiasm grew by leaps and bounds as she saw the children’s smiling faces every week. “The best part about being a leader of La Conexión has been seeing kids I’ve known for three years grow up physically and emotionally, and knowing I’ve been a part of their lives. I truly care for and adore each and every one, and it is just so much fun tutoring and coloring with them!” she said. As she prepares to graduate next month, she encouraged Blair students to join the club: “La Conexión will teach you so many life lessons and bring you joy and love. I can promise you, it will be an amazing experience that you will never forget.”
“It has been wonderful to see our students' positivity and optimism around the tutoring program,” Mrs. Lang observed. “When we talk in the bus on the way to Newton, it seems that their thinking has no limits. They really love the kids, and they’ve put a great deal of energy into La Conexión to make it a stable, successful activity.”