By Garima Verma
When I was in elementary school, education was my life, not my choice. Going to school every day was all I knew; it was my everything. Yet, there are students every day making the choice to leave our education system, to drop out of school because it is too much to handle, because they are not getting the help they need to succeed.
For UCLA Volunteer Day 2012, I was matched to be a Project Leader for Arlington Heights Elementary School in the Los Angeles Unified School District. The plan had been to have volunteers paint a wall, paint a mural, and interact with the students through reading, arts and crafts, and a variety of physical activities. We were all meant to leave the school better than we found it, and be comforted by the fact that we made a difference. I truly admire what was accomplished on that day, but as I spent the summer corresponding with the principal and learned more about the school, I realized that I could not stop there. I could not just ignore the fact that these children were in a flawed education system that was quickly leaving them behind. I could not just stop after one day.
The principal told me of the extreme budget cuts that had taken away so many of their programs; she even had to assume the role of the janitor because the school could hardly afford teachers, let alone additional staff. She told me of the English language barrier that broke students down until they just finally gave up, nearly 1/3 dropping out before high school and 50-60% in grades 9-12. Despite her best efforts to keep the students motivated and the school afloat, the large proportion of English Language Learners, now 41% for LAUSD, combined with the lack of language education support resulted in serious repercussions for the students.
After all of this, I knew that I had to do something. I spoke to the principal about continuing service at Arlington Heights throughout the year and potentially providing English language support and UCLA mentors to help and support the students throughout school. I was fortunate enough to be able collaborate with the Community Service Commissioner at the time, Anees Hasnain, and begin the process to start a volunteer site at Arlington Heights Elementary School with one of the Community Service Commission’s incredible service projects, Project WILD (Working for Immigrant Literacy Development).
Working with Project WILD and the Community Service Commission has truly been a blessing. Project WILD’s directors took me in, worked with me on bringing the project to Arlington Heights, and welcomed me as a volunteer at one of their current sites, Temple Elementary School in the Garvey School District. Over the past year, I have been given the chance to work with some of the most passionate and dedicated people that I have ever met. I have been given the chance to develop relationships with students and see them grow, as well as to witness the tremendous impact that Project WILD makes on children’s lives each and every day.
Beginning in fall of 2013, Project WILD extend its services to Arlington Heights Elementary School in hopes of changing the lives of these students just as it has for many years in the Garvey School District. I encourage every student to continue their service after Volunteer Day. While one day can have an impact on the lives of these students, continuous service can make a world of difference. Take your Volunteer Day experience and turn it into something that can bring about a lifetime of change. You could be the reason a child works hard in school. You could be the reason that they get to experience the impact of education. You could be the reason that they push forward despite everything. You could be the reason that they do not make that terrifying choice to leave school behind.
For more information on Project WILD, please visit http://www.studentgroups.ucla.edu/wild/.
To look for other inspiring service organizations, visit the Community Service Commission’s website or the UCLA Volunteer Center’s Campus Service Opportunities list. There are volunteer experiences for everyone, addressing a variety of issues from education and mentorship to health, poverty and homelessness, special needs, and more. No matter what focus area you pick, getting involved will make a difference in our community.
Project WILD and CSC have truly defined my UCLA experience. Find your passion. Make a difference in someone’s life and it will change your own. I promise; you won’t regret it.