This past weekend, Alpha Chi National College Honor Society hosted delegates from all across the country in the historic city of Baltimore, Maryland. I work part-time in the National Office, so I came on board to help with student presentations and social media during the convention. I spent much of the weekend in a hurry, constantly rushing around the hotel and running errands. I was looking forward to a short break after the sessions had ended, when I remembered that I had signed up to attend Alpha Chi’s afternoon service project with Reading Is Fundamental to take pictures for our social media outlets. I will admit that I wasn’t exactly looking forward to it. I was exhausted and looking forward to some down time, but I packed my gear and hurried to meet up with the rest of the group. Our group of 18 split up and took several cabs to an area that was close to our hotel in location, but worlds apart in atmosphere. We walked into the school and were instantly overcome by our surroundings. It was entirely different than the elementary schools most of us had attended growing up. We were guided into the cafeteria where the RIF staff briefed us on the order of events for the afternoon we would spend in the classrooms of Inner Harbor East Academy.
We gathered our craft kits, some books to read aloud, and a bundle of brand new children’s books donated by Alpha Chi undergraduates, graduate students, and advisers and we walked to our designated rooms. We were divided into smaller groups so we could split up between eight different classes ranging in age from kindergarten to second grade. One of the first things I noticed upon walking into the classroom was that each student was dressed in a school uniform. However, the neatly pressed blue shirts and polished khaki bottoms were an insufficient mask, and the weight of life experience was visible in each child’s eyes. Alpha Chi volunteers sat in front of each classroom and read a story to a noticeably captive audience, especially considering their young ages. The kids hung on every word and actively participated with contagious enthusiasm.
After story time, each child had the opportunity to work on a craft that correlated to the story they had just heard. Being the photographer, I had the privilege of moving from room to room and experiencing each of the different classes and age groups. Throughout the afternoon, I sat at several tiny tables across from children ages five to eight, and little pieces of their stories started coming out. I learned about parents, brothers, sisters, and best friends. I admired their handiwork. I told them how talented they were as I watched them create. One little boy held up his artwork and exclaimed, “Hey! Look at this!” I told him how lovely it was, and though we had just met, his instant reaction was wrapping his arms around my waist in a big hug. As I snapped one little girl’s photo, I watched her face light up as I acknowledged how beautiful she was. I couldn’t help by wonder how often they received that kind of affirmation.
Though I loved each aspect of the visit, my favorite part came during the book giveaway. In each classroom we spread out the various children’s books we had collected, and we invited each student to choose whichever book they would like. The kids lined up and asked where the checkout form was, so they could sign their names. You can imagine their elation when we told them that the books were theirs to keep. One boy in particular simply could not believe the book was his. “You mean, I get to
take this book home with me? To my house? It’s mine?” he said. In another classroom, I was sitting at a table helping organize and give away books. As each child approached the table, their teacher told us the child’s specific interests and favorite things. “He really likes cars! She loves shopping and all kinds of girly things! He likes spooky stories!” Each child was different, and she never said the same interest more than once. She had truly invested in her students and she knew each of them intimately. I tried to verbalize how impressed I was with her act of love, but my words didn’t seem to do justice. Her passion for her students touched my heart deeply. As one boy walked up, the teacher told me that he loved creepy crawly animals. “I think I have something perfect for you,” I told him, as I held up a book about reptiles. “This book has your name written all over it!” His smile grew wide and he said, “This book has my name everywhere!” He clutched it to his chest and hurried back to his seat with his newfound treasure.
My experience at Inner Harbor East Academy ignited a new passion for placing books in the hands of children. Books are powerful. They open up the world to kids who haven’t been told that the world can be opened up. After spending some precious time sitting at miniature tables with some very special kids, I recognize a significant need in our country. Because of my experience with RIF, I want to use my talents to help those Baltimore schoolchildren who reached into my busy weekend and captured my heart with their passionate eagerness to learn.
Heidi A.Tabor, March 24th
Arkansas Eta Member, Spring 2012