When Elise Schroeder was a first grader, she had no idea what a college or university was.  Now, our March “Volunteer of the Month”–a senior at the University of California, Irvine – never misses an opportunity to tell our first graders about the importance of a college/university education.

“It’s incredible that these young children are already learning at KidWorks about college and being told that they can pursue higher education,” Elise says. “For example, one lesson I assisted with for first graders was about college. Cesar Ledesma, a program leader at the Dan Donahue Center, and I both talked about our personal experiences of going to college and encouraged these bright young students that one day they could go as well. When I was in first grade, I didn’t even know what college was!  It was so inspiring and heartwarming to see these first graders already talking about going to college.” 

Elise is especially impressed with our College Success Initiative™ (CSI), launched over two years ago. This exciting program serves students from “Pre-K to B.A.,” making an 18-year commitment to each student at KidWorks. Because of CSI, our students are on the path not only to graduate from high school—but also to enroll and graduate from college or university and go on to meaningful careers. 

Elise also thanks Rachel Cervantes, Program Leader at our Dan Donahue Center, who also oversees KidWorks University workshops.  “When I volunteer online, I appreciate what an amazing teacher and mentor she’s been to me and to the students.”

 Our March Volunteer of the Month believes so strongly in education that she plans a career as an educator. Elise is majoring in education sciences and minoring in history and psychological science.  Her goal is to become a high school history and psychology teacher.

At UCI, Elise is furthering her path towards becoming an educator by serving as a board member on a campus club named Teachers of Tomorrow.

“I connect and collaborate with other students who are interested in teaching, as well as with teachers and professors,” Elise says. “At our meetings, club members have often asked about how they can get involved in the field of education and make a difference. My answer to this question is always KidWorks.”

“Elise made a six month commitment to volunteer and nearly two years later and almost 100 hours logged with KidWorks, she continues to make an impact,” says Gerardo Magaña, our Sr. Director of Volunteer and Leadership Development. “Her positive attitude and warm demeanor are such gifts to all who get to interact with her. Elise is always willing to step up and take on leadership opportunities and fill gaps where needed.”

Adds Gerardo, “The staff speak highly of her and recognize the value she brings to our students and programs. Her love for the students she partners with is genuine and sincere.”

Elise shares a story that perfectly reflects Gerardo’s description of her genuineness and sincerity.

“One memorable and poignant example from my time volunteering involves a first grade boy that I really bonded with and feel I’ve had a special positive impact on,” Elise says. “I first met him in Cesar’s first grade class in 2019. While other students would come to class full of excitement, this young boy would often come to class with a frown or in tears. He frequently kept to himself and did not sit or talk with anyone else. I immediately felt drawn to him. I strived to form a bond with him in which he felt cared for by me and could trust me.  

“During snack time, I began to sit next to him while he ate each day and helped him open his milk carton and food wrappers. During homework time, I invited him to sit with me and a small group of his classmates as I helped them with homework. During free time, I gathered pieces of paper and markers and encouraged him to color with me.  I still have many of his drawings.

“After several weeks of consistently making an effort to make this boy feel loved and included in our classroom community, he began to feel comfortable not only around me, but around his classmates as well. His transformation from a student who came to class in tears and sat by himself to one who was filled excitement as he walked through the door and called out to me and his classmates was a heartwarming experience in which I felt that I was truly making a difference in a child’s life as a volunteer at KidWorks.”

Elise was an in-person classroom volunteer prior to the pandemic, and now participates with on-line tutoring help.  She’s also helped at our summer break program during the year before the pandemic. 

Her resourcefulness is demonstrated by the way she’s learned how to be just as encouraging to students with a “high five” in the classroom as in creative ways virtually.

“While  positive feedback can in some ways be more challenging to do virtually, I have utilized some of the features on Zoom to encourage and motivate students,” Elise says.  “For example, I love using the reactions feature on Zoom to encourage students and show them how proud I am of them. When students get an answer to a problem right or read a book to me out loud, I encourage and motivate them by clicking on the clapping, thumbs up, and party hat emojis!”

Anyone who has helped out with our youngest scholars will tell you that one of the highest compliments paid to a volunteer is when a student draws his or her picture.

“As I got to know students in person throughout the year, they would tell me about aspects of their lives outside of school, such as their family members and their hobbies,” Elise says.  “Some kids would even draw or color pictures for me, which I still keep in a folder today so I can always look back at them and remember my sweet first graders.”

When not focusing on her studies or volunteering at KidWorks, our busy Volunteer of the Month makes sure she makes time for fun. 

“My hobbies include reading (my shelves are currently overflowing with books!), watching TV and movies and playing video games,” Elise says. “I also enjoy outdoor activities such as taking walks, swimming and going to the beach. I have also gotten more into baking during the pandemic with my twin sister, Marianna, plus spending quality time with my family and playing with my dog, Sammy.”

Elise encourages high school and college students to experience the joy she feels as a KidWorks’ volunteer.

“Volunteering at KidWorks is rewarding whether a person is planning on working in the field of education or not,” Elise says. “It’s such a fulfilling and life-changing experience to be a part of these kids’ lives and to give back to the community as a volunteer. Being able to serve as a positive role model for these children is incredibly rewarding.”

Just as our students are blessed to have such a wonderful teacher in Elise, we know that each student she teaches during her career as an educator will be equally blessed each time they are in her classroom.

 By Glenn Leibowitz, volunteer writer