- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 2, 2016

BLOOMINGTON, Ill. (AP) - As Damaree Wilson, 10, worked on a story map after reading a book about hurricanes, Treyveon Faust, 9, studied his spelling words. Seated between them was “Mr. T” - 75-year-old Terry Shea - who provided quiet coaching and encouragement when needed.

They weren’t alone. Scattered throughout several rooms at Western Avenue Community Center, 600 N. Western Ave., Bloomington - which is marking its 90th anniversary in March - volunteers ranging from college students to older adults provided homework help to 45 kindergarten through sixth-graders in need.

Homework help, reading and math enrichment, arts and crafts, free play including basketball, prayer time and healthy snacks, were on the agenda at Western Avenue’s After School Club, as they are every weekday. The After School Club is among several Western Avenue programs.

“When people help me with my spelling, I end up with As and Bs,” Faust, a Sheridan Elementary School fourth-grader, said proudly.

“I’m a reading lover because every day that I read, I learn more than I used to,” said Wilson, a Sheridan fifth-grader.

“It’s a fun after-school program for kids,” Jaque West, 9, a Sheridan third-grader, said after arts and crafts. “It’s helped me in math and reading.”

What wasn’t on the agenda was the most important thing that was happening: relationship building. Several After School Club participants said their favorite part was making new friends with the other kids and the volunteers.

“The relationships being built with the adults make a huge impact on the overall atmosphere,” said Lisa Barton, Western Avenue academic program director. “Mentoring is important to give the kids a picture of what opportunities are out there. We encourage them to discuss their dreams.”

“I think it’s really great,” Faust said. “I have a lot of friends here.”

“I think it’s a great place because I learn more and get help from the tutors and that makes me want to come here every day,” said Wilson, who wants to be a meteorologist. “When the tutors help you, you help them too.”

Shea agrees.

Retired from the insurance industry, the Normal resident began volunteering at After School Club once a week six years ago and soon became a daily volunteer.

“So many of these kids come from single-parent families,” Shea said. “They need to be told that they got four right, not that they got six wrong. The sad part is some of them are so beaten down by life.”

“The majority of our kids come from what’s considered at-risk situations,” added Barton. “Our families care because they want their kids to have extra support and they value a connection to the broader community.

“But when you’re a parent working multiple jobs, or you’re a single parent, you may not be able to provide that academic support,” said Barton, who said After School Club costs $25 per semester per child. “It’s not that you don’t want to, but your time is focused on work and providing for the family.”

Each of the 45 children has an individualized lesson plan, said Barton, who oversees those plans, trains volunteers and has permission from parents to communicate with students’ teachers.

Western Avenue Executive Director Amy Cottone said the club could serve more than 45 children. But Western Avenue decided it can better serve by having a greater impact on fewer children.

“This program is very intentionally focused on helping these kids to succeed in school,” Cottone said. “It’s having a deeper impact than if we just packed ‘em in here. We’re going for quality rather than quantity. These kids are going to grow up to be more successful academically and well-rounded citizens.”

“The kids suck you in by responding,” Shea said. “You see ‘em grow, you see ‘em change. You see that quiet girl turn into an outgoing young woman. Their potential is mind boggling.”

“This is the best paying job I’ve ever done in my life,” he continued. “I’m paid with satisfaction, smiles and hugs. When some of the older kids come back or when you see the kids in the store and they say, ‘Hi, Mr. T.’ You can’t put a value on that. Those relationships - that’s what life is all about.

“I can’t image my retirement without Western Avenue. My wife and I have 12 grandchildren. I have 50 more here. I’m a more patient grandfather for having been here. I’m a better human being for having been here.”

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Source: The (Bloomington) Pantagraph, http://bit.ly/1QuKgvI

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Information from: The Pantagraph, http://www.pantagraph.com

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