Upon the arrival of Desert Vista High School students, a smiling second grader poked his head out into the hallway at Wilson Elementary School in downtown Phoenix to see the much-anticipated visitors.
When it was time for him and his classmates to find their high school buddies, they immediately went for hugs.
This joyous monthly reunion at Wilson was started by a volunteer club at Desert Vista known as Community Counts.
It pairs a Desert Vista student with a second grader to develop a friendship and working relationship throughout the year.
Each visit, high school students are assigned a folder of tasks to go over with their buddies, courtesy of Wilson teachers. They focus on reading and math skills, working on comprehension, spelling and basic addition and subtraction.
Wilson teachers Jennifer Sanchez and Kayla Yerk share in their students’ enthusiasm as they have seen firsthand the benefits of Community Counts in their classrooms.
“There are different impacts, behavior-wise it always gives them something to look forward to and strive to be a better student because they know Desert Vista is coming,” Sanchez said, adding:
“Academically, it’s just the one-on-one oral language which they don’t get a lot of at home, because most of them are second-language learners.”
In the mainly Hispanic community, many students need a helping hand in learning English.
Students who are monolingual are paired with bilingual students, ensuring that a Desert Vista student can teach in Spanish and help translate when a child is struggling.
“Because they are one on one, it is a confidence booster. They feel really good about themselves because they have someone who can help them at their level,” Yerk explained.
The Community Counts club’s founder Kathy Shamely, a now-retired teacher from Desert Vista is more than pleased that the mentorship program she started in 2005 continues to impact the Phoenix community.
The program originated out of a need to assist inner city schools with the added pressure to perform on state tests like AIMs.
She always used to tell her students that “poverty is only a 20-minute drive away,” reminding the older students that you don’t need to go far to make a difference and help other people.
This sentiment is embedded in the fabric of the club, and has inspired other initiatives that Community Counts has undertaken.
This month, Community Counts will bring Wilson students to Desert Vista to give them a tour and provide care packages with necessities and supplies that might be lacking at home.
Items including markers, crayons, shampoo and clothing are among the many donations brought in by Desert Vista students during the Community Count’s drive in January.
Alexa Horn, a senior and president of Community Counts recognizes that lack of resources is a challenge that can hinder the development of Wilson students.
“The hardest part is seeing how some of them don’t have all the resources that they need to be able to get to their full potential.” said Horn.
For many Wilson students the trip is a privilege that they wouldn’t otherwise experience.
Students are amazed by traveling on the freeway for the first time and by the size of Desert Vista. Wilson students also will participate in activities like glazing pots in ceramics, performing chemistry experiments, and visiting the dance and PE facitilites.
The Community Counts experience opens up the horizons of both parties, as Desert Vista students also get a window into the lives of children who are less fortunate then they are.
Despite the socio-economic barriers, teacher sponsors and club leaders insist that the experience breaks down those barriers showing kids that we are more alike than we think.
Teacher sponsors Tom Bristol and Judy Hoffman took over the club back in 2013 and for the past eight years have grown the program to an impressive 110 members, making Community Counts one of the most popular clubs on campus.
This large group of students allows for a rotating group to go on separate trips to Wilson each month.
Student leaders work behind the scenes to ensure that fellow students remember to bring their donations and come to club meetings.
Vice President and senior Tyler Tapia shared that her favorite part of the program is witnessing the kids growth throughout the year.
“They are always shy at the beginning. I mean they are second graders and when a bunch of high schoolers come it’s always hard for them to express themselves, Tyler said. “Being able to see that growth throughout the year, of them being able to confide in you and tell you things is so incredible.”