- Associated Press - Friday, October 31, 2014

CHARLESTON, Ill. (AP) - For Jazmin Smiley and Alberto Garcia, every interaction at Mark Twain Elementary is a learning opportunity.

And to get into that mindset means giving the kids some credit, Garcia said.

“If there’s an issue that they think is really big, we can’t just (say) “oh, that’s not really a big deal”… we have to find a solution for everything they have problems with,” he said.

Finding that solution is important — no matter what the situation, big or small, you can find the solution if you ask, he said.

“(A kid) didn’t want to eat his peanut butter and jelly sandwich because there was jelly on it,” he said. “I told him, “Hey, you know what you should do? You should scoop the jelly to the side of the plate.” He’s like, “Wow, I never thought about that!”

Smiley and Garcia are the PLAY (Partnership for Lifelong Active Youth) captains for the Mark Twain mentoring program. The two are responsible for gathering volunteers each week to visit the school for two hours on Friday; they also assist in the classrooms and at recess. Coming in to the classroom as a young adult has its advantages, Smiley said.

“They don’t necessarily see me as a teacher, or a parent,” Smiley said. “But they see me as someone older, a different role model, a role model that they can relate to.”

Smiley, a journalism student, said the children shouldn’t be looked at as inferior.

“They know as much as they know, and it’s your job to teach them even more,” she said. “If they’re asking, tell them.”

It’s about making sure you instill the right values in the children — and there’s a difference between fear and respect, Garcia, a family and consumer sciences student, said.

“I would rather respect my parents than have full fear of them,” he said. “Because then I really wouldn’t respect them as much.”

The mentoring program is just one of the several school activities across Coles County PLAY sponsors. EIU Student Community Service Director Rachel Fisher said the program now sponsors activities at the schools each weekday, most of which take place after school.

Many volunteers are studying kinesiology or early children education, but students represent departments across the campus, Fisher said. While students in most of the other programs make semester-long commitments, the volunteers Garcia and Smiley recruit to the Mark Twain Mentoring program can come to work a single week, she said.

“It’s a nice way to give everyone a taste,” Fisher said. “”Do you think you’d like to work with kids? Here’s a great way to try it out.” And then, “Wow, it really spoke to you?” Then we can give you some more options that can increase your responsibility and your leadership experience.”

The program isn’t insulated within the university; Fisher said she loves hearing feedback from the community and encourages residents to chime in with ideas.

“We don’t walk into a town and go, ‘Sit down. I know what you need,’” Fisher said. “We say, ‘Hey, what’s going on? How can we work together?’ We want to make it a partnership across the table between our communities and our students.”

Ultimately, it’s still in the early weeks of the semester for the student mentors — and Garcia said they will continue to learn and grow.

“I’m going to get better and better every day I interact with kids,” he said.

For more information on EIU’s volunteer program, readers can visit the program’s webpage at https://www.eiu.edu/volunteer

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Source: Mattoon Journal-Gazette and (Charleston) Times-Courier, https://bit.ly/1qTuTQH

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Information from: Mattoon Journal-Gazette, https://www.jg-tc.com

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