Big Friends/Little Friends Give Children the Chance to shine and Learn

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In and around the play area of the Valley View Terrace housing complex in South Scranton, Monday and Thursday afternoons after school and before dinner can get a bit noisy and chaotic.

Not that that’s a bad thing.

In one corner of the mottled asphalt on a recent Monday, a jump-rope contest was well under way, with 65 successive hops without stepping on the rope becoming the record to beat and at least three new competitors clamoring for the chance to prove their prowess and top that figure.

Two University of Scranton students twirling the ropes and counting the beats out loud somehow managed to maintain order.

As might be expected wherever any large group of school-age children congregates for some fun and games after a day spent in the classroom, a little chaos occasionally manifests itself.

But here, under the supervision of an on-staff teacher and a contingent of college-age and community volunteers, who represent The University of Scranton, Marywood University and the Friends of the Poor organization, every disruption also becomes a distinct teachable moment.

Sometimes the children even turn into the teachers.

“One hand,” said Matthew Walsh, 12, a South Scranton Intermediate School sixth-grader, to the quartet of spirited teammates half his size as he snagged the equivalent of a 30-yard pass in his fingertips, patted one wide-eyed friend on the head and got the game back on course.

Carolyn Huff, a sophomore occupational-therapy major at the University of Scranton, explains further.

It’s during these hours, when homework help, a meal and some group recreational time are offered in and around Valley View’s community center, she said, that these children get what they crave most.

“We just pay attention to them,” she said, explaining the student volunteers’ job is “just to be there for them.”

Each week, 40 to 45 students from the University and Marywood volunteer at Valley View, said Patricia Vaccaro, director of the University’s Center for Service and Social Justice – a number that helps match students and pupils one on one.

The students are part of a cooperative program called Big Friends/Little Friends, now in its third year, which ensures that disadvantaged pupils from Scranton-area elementary schools, most in kindergarten through fifth grade at McNichols Plaza, get at least two days per week on which they do not return from school to empty houses or perhaps empty refrigerators.

A late-afternoon meal is provided courtesy of the Weinberg Food Bank and homework help and supervised recreational activity courtesy of the student volunteers from Scranton and Marywood.

The program in its current incarnation is funded by a grant, written cooperatively by the University and Marywood. The grant pays for a teacher, Elizabeth Cooney, 32, who is a University of Scranton graduate and second grade teacher at John G. Whittier Elementary in Scranton. The program also is run in conjunction with the Friends of the Poor agency under the tutelage of Sister Ann Walsh, of the Immaculate Heart of Mary order.

On a recent Monday when a reporter visited the program, seemingly every youngster jostled for air-time have his or her story told.

Courtney Montian White II, 10, described himself as the “smartest person in his science class.” Ma-re Hill-Lovett, 9, announced she loves getting help with her homework from the University students as much as she loves poems.

Adriana Cardona, 11, a student at McNichols Plaza Elementary, who even asked to write her own statement in a reporter’s notebook: “I am very helpful. … I am very brave and courageous. One day I hope to become a teacher or a cheerleader. I want everybody to never give up on your dreams. Pursue them and never let anybody say that you can’t be whatever you can be! …”

“They do not shy away from the spotlight,” Cooney said, shaking her head and smiling. “Not one of them.”