Friday, October 24, 2014

Expect the best, get the best

By ABBY ECKEL, Herald Staff Writer | 4/9/2014

Though the volunteer requirement for her class at Ottawa University has ended, Alissa Heilman still volunteers at Lincoln Elementary School twice a week.

As part of her developmental psychology class last fall, Heilman had to volunteer with Communities In Schools, she said, but knowing how important consistency meant to the students she helped, she decided to stick around after her class was complete.

Though the volunteer requirement for her class at Ottawa University has ended, Alissa Heilman still volunteers at Lincoln Elementary School twice a week.

As part of her developmental psychology class last fall, Heilman had to volunteer with Communities In Schools, she said, but knowing how important consistency meant to the students she helped, she decided to stick around after her class was complete.

“I enjoyed it a lot and I love kids, so seeing them every other day was pretty cool,” she said. “I didn’t want to stop because, at the time, I worked with kindergartners, and they’re pretty cute.”

When she first started volunteering at Lincoln, Heilman said, she was tutoring kindergartners through the ABC Club, which gets students extra help learning letter names and sounds.

Now Heilman, a sophomore at OU, is working with third- and fourth-graders helping them learn multiplication, she said.

Lisa Rivers, Communities In Schools site coordinator, said she can see a difference in the students Heilman works with each week.

“The students often ask ‘Is this a day Ms. Ali is coming?’ And so we’re always able to say if it’s her day, ‘yes,’ because she’s so consistent,” Rivers said. “We have seen students who, when Ali arrives, they really put on their best and they know that she expects their best and that they want to do their best for her.”

While many college students use a break in their class schedule to do school work or relax, Heilman said she’d rather be spending time with the kids.

“I work with a lot of kids who I feel don’t have really someone they can rely on 100 percent and coming in and seeing them every other day, I can tell it just kind of makes their day,” she said. “I come in and they’re so excited I’m here and it’s only for like 45 minutes a day, so just the fact that I can make their day just by coming in for 45 minutes is pretty cool.”

Heilman’s consistency and her willingness to go beyond the call of duty sets her apart, Rivers said.

“She has been so consistent and recognized from the beginning that one thing students need most is just consistency. They need someone who, when they say they’re gonna be there, they’re there,” Rivers said. “That has been Ali from the get-go. Not only that, but she’s gone above and beyond with connecting with the students and then doing things like coming to their music programs — even though she was already on break, she would still come so the student knew she cared about them. It wasn’t just whether or not they knew that four times four is 16, but that she really cares and is investing in their lives.”

Having never before volunteered, Heilman said, she’s happy to see the difference she’s helping to make in the students’ lives.

“In the third-grade classroom, there’s one specific child and he pays more attention when I’m there and I think he has started doing that in everyday things, not just when I’m there, or at least that’s the hope,” she said. “So far I’ve seen pretty good improvement.”

A native of Great Bend, Heilman said she’d never heard of Communities In Schools before, but now has a greater appreciation for the organization and what they do to help students.

“We didn’t have [Communities In Schools] when I was in school, and I’d never heard of it until I came to Ottawa,” she said. “I think it’s a good program to have in schools so you can focus on the kids who aren’t getting the extra help they need or the attention. Communities In Schools focuses a lot on attention and academics, and I think it’s a great program to have in schools for that purpose.”

At one point in her college career, Heilman said, she thought she wanted to be a teacher, but changed her mind and is now debating on law school or going to graduate school to work in higher education.

“Working with kids is something I’ve always been interested in,” she said.

Heilman said she remembers the people who worked with her when she was in school and how much it meant to her. She hopes the work she does with the students will make them want to continue to do well in school even after she’s gone, she said.

“I know when I was a kid, if we ever had somebody in school, I remembered them,” she said. “I hope that I can make that positive effect and they will remember and continue to do [well in school] just because they remembered how much it helped hopefully.”

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