Rivers Students Build Community Connections During COVID

Rivers students typically embrace a number of community engagement opportunities throughout the year. But nothing about this year has been typical, with many nonprofits and other organizations unable to host or accommodate would-be volunteers. There’s one noteworthy exception, however: Since April, more than 50 Rivers students have volunteered with Immigrant Family Services Institute (IFSI), an organization that supports immigrant families.
And many students have been able to connect with IFSI because of, and not despite, the COVID crisis. They’re working remotely with the Mattapan-based organization, tutoring elementary-school students, organizing a book club, running an art class, and otherwise interacting with the American children of Haitian descent who make up IFSI’s clientele. Taking the experience online has allowed for greater access and more flexibility.
Another reason the partnership has worked so well is that IFSI and Rivers go way back. Kit Cunningham, director of community engagement, explains, “The initial enthusiasm came from two students who volunteered on their own, probably three years ago, and have since graduated. IFSI received a large grant from Rivers Givers [a student-run program that raises money, evaluates grant proposals from nonprofits, completes a philanthropy curriculum, and selects organizations for grants]….We started out by giving them money, but then we developed a relationship that has really connected IFSI with the school. On a lot of different levels, it’s been a real partnership.”
That partnership came in handy this year, when students in Cunningham’s interdisciplinary elective, “Systems Thinking for the Common Good,” needed to participate in nonprofit internships as part of their course requirements but could not go out physically into the community. IFSI was happy to welcome the entire class as tutors and mentors for the young students it supports. And many of the Rivers tutors found the experience so rewarding that they stayed on long after the course ended.
Abby Sikorski ’22 works with first- and second-graders twice a week through IFSI, tutoring students one-on-one or in small groups. Much of the time is spent reading, and, says Sikorski, “It’s joyous to see how much they enjoy reading and how excited they are, how much they love it.”
Sikorski didn’t just leave it at that. “Seeing how interested in and passionate they are, I thought of a way to add reading to their weekend schedule.” IFSI offers weekend programming such as art projects and coding classes; Sikorski and another student proposed a Saturday book club. IFSI readily agreed, and the project was launched about a month ago. “It’s been going great,” Sikorski reports. “They’re so happy and they want to be there; there’s a joyous vibe that just adds to it.”
To further support reading for the young students, Rivers also organized a book drive for IFSI in December. “It got a fabulous response,” says Cunningham. “I couldn’t count all the books we got, but it was way up into the thousands.”
Katherine Buckhout ’22 has also enjoyed her tutoring time with IFSI, spending each Thursday evening working with youngsters. She quickly got past her initial nervousness and has built relationships with her students. The experience has given her a fresh perspective: “I would say it has changed my outlook on life and the opportunities I’ve been given. I realize how every kid in there is super positive and excited to learn. It’s so interesting to see how excited they are each day,” she says, adding that their attitude helps her reframe her own schoolwork as an opportunity, not a chore.
For Kalyl Lindsey ’22, tutoring with IFSI offered a chance to connect with young students whose lives were relatable. Having attended Boston Public Schools himself, he says, “I know what it’s like to go to those schools. Every time I talked to [the IFSI students], I saw a little bit of my own experience in them.” The young students are at an age when they “still have a spark,” he notes, “and I hope that spark stays with them.”
Other Rivers students have also led art projects and dance parties, taking the initiative to go beyond tutoring. Cunningham says that’s one aspect of the program she’s particularly pleased about. “I’m proud of how our kids have started new initiatives,” she says. “Their work with IFSI has surpassed expectations.”