ROCHESTER — Reading scores in Kari Plandowski’s second-grade class are on the rise.
And that’s in large part due to the support her students are receiving from University of Rochester students serving as reading tutors in her bilingual classroom at John James Audubon School No. 33.
The tutors are members of the university’s chapter of Students Helping Honduras. They decided that serving children in the local community would be part of their work in addition to mission trips to the Central American country, explained Vanessa Cedarbaum and Maria Salas, who founded the UR group.
"I absolutely love this program," Plandowski said. "It helps a great deal, (especially) the one-on-one attention."
With 27 students and only one other teacher in the room, the support from the UR volunteers who tutor three times a week is having a great impact, Plandowski added.
"They can come in and work with them and help them focus," she said. "Kids love it. They run up to them with books in hand and hands in the air (to get picked). It really works. They (tutors) are doing a beautiful job with the kids."
Kiara Vega, 7, is one of those students who said that she enjoys working with the tutors and that she has moved up several levels in reading.
"It’s fun because we get to talk and read at the same time," Kiara added. "I like to ask a lot of questions. Because when you ask questions, if they know the answer, you get to know. … If they don’t, it’s a mystery."
Or, she said that those answers can be found in other books, which also helps improve her reading skills in Spanish and English. Kiara was born in Puerto Rico and moved to Rochester at age 3.
"The more you read, the more you read faster," she remarked.
Kiara certainly had a lot of questions about wolves as she read a book Los Lobos with tutor Michael Cheung during a Dec. 9 session. Cheung chuckled as he tried to answer all of her questions about whether wolves eat people, whether they would be eaten by a bear, if there are any wolves on a tropical island and how it’s possible that a mama wolf has 11 pups at a time. That last fact she classified as "weird."
Cheung, a senior, began volunteering last year after hearing about the program from his sister, who was Cedarbaum’s roommate. He also had studied Spanish in high school and wanted to put those skills to use, he said.
Senior Talya Mailin said that she joined the club after learning about it at the university’s activities fair and feels she has gained as much from the tutoring as the students have.
"It’s an amazing experience," she said. "It’s a total change of pace (from college). … and it makes a difference."
Making a difference is exactly what the group hoped to do when it began looking for a local volunteer opportunity, several of the members said. Salas, who was born and raised in Mexico, had ties to the Mexican community in Rochester, which led her to School 33, she said. The club members began volunteering there in April 2012. She also has made contacts at the Rochester Latino Rotary Club and Latinas Unidas, Salas said.
"We focus on anything related to the Hispanic community, which is why we contacted them (Latino groups) and how we’ve been able to expand our network," she added.
That community support has been helpful, as the club also holds several fundraisers leading up to its service trips to Honduras, Cedarbaum said. The UR students also collect clothing and school supplies to bring with them for the village children, she added.
Students Helping Honduras, which was founded by college students in 2006, has created its own village of 40 homes, orphanages for boys and girls, and a volunteer lodge where the students stay, Cedarbaum explained.
Cedarbaum, a junior, first became involved with Students Helping Honduras in her high school in New Jersey and went to the organization’s Honduran village in her senior year. The experience left such an impression that she decided to create a chapter when she arrived at the University of Rochester, she added. Since all service clubs must include a direct and local service, Salas, also a junior, connected the UR’s chapter to tutoring students at a city school. The two have been working on the UR chapter since their freshman year.
Salas said that the trip to Honduras is open to any UR students, and the club offers financial assistance to those students who volunteer during the year through fundraising, participation on the executive board or tutoring at School 33.
Cheung’s language skills have been put to the test not only as a School 33 tutor but also when he traveled to Honduras with the UR chapter earlier this year, he said.
"It was probably the best time of my life … giving to others and the opportunity to make some kids happy," he said.
Making the trek to the village was an also eye-opening experience for Kiara Medina, a junior from New York City. She helped families with cooking, worked on the construction site of a school in a nearby village and played soccer with the children.
"It is one thing to be here (in Rochester) and understand they’re in need of different things," she said. "But the trip pushes you to want to do more. I’m just ready to go back. I’m excited to just continue helping."
Cedarbaum said that the volunteers also are excited when the children they work with in Honduras remember them upon their return.
"I don’t know how, but it’s one of my favorite parts," she said of the children’s reactions. "I’ve never felt so special in my life."
"Literally, it felt like they (the children) were waiting for us all year," concurred Medina.
EDITOR’S NOTE: For more information about the University of Rochester’s Students Helping Honduras chapter, visit http://studentshelpinghonduras.weebly.com.