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Hannah Whittier '23, a childhood education major, wants to change the city of Elmira, one child at a time, and she believes education is the key to making that happen. Informing her beliefs are the experiences she's gained volunteering, and now working as a part-time director, for the Elmira Neighborhood Transformation Center.
Whittier began volunteering at the Transformation Center as a first-year student after meeting Jeremy Cranmer, the director of the Center, at an Elmira College Community Engagement Fair. For her, the chance to work with young kids aligned well with her academic and career pursuits. Whittier is majoring in childhood and special education with a concentration in biology. Her original intent was to go into teaching, but now she's weighing some loftier plans.
"Now I'm thinking I would like to start up community schools across the country and build community centers," she said.
Community schools are places that focus on filling in gaps for kids and families who live in economically disadvantaged areas. According to the National Education Association, community schools are meant to integrate the community into a child's learning while also being a place that addresses their basic needs before, during and after school. They provide free healthy meals, health care, tutoring, mental health counseling, and other tailored services
"I'm a huge believer in equity over equality," she said. "The cycle of poverty means my kids are usually starting from less. Their parents didn't have many educational and economic opportunities and so the kids have similar gaps when they get to school. There is a poor literacy rate, they often don't have many role models or much support with homework."
At the Transformation Center, Whittier and her fellow EC peer, Rachel Callaway '23, help fill those gaps. Callaway assists Whittier in running the afterschool program. They reach out to teachers to see where the kids are lagging and where they are excelling and then build lessons and programs to address the needs of each student. The Center attends to basic needs as well, partnering with the Food Bank of the Southern Tier to provide dinners. Whittier and Callaway help raise funds for school supplies and clothing all year long. And for the holidays, Whittier is hoping to give students an awesome Christmas. She and Callaway are collecting money to purchase toys, clothes, grocery store gift cards and more (See below for how to contribute).
It's a lot of work but with big rewards. For example, Whittier has seen how her consistency and persistence over the past three years benefited a particularly troubled child.
"He came into the Center a rough and tumble kid," she said. "He didn't trust women given the history he has with his mom. He would fight me and do everything he could to get away. But I built a connection with him."
Now, when the child comes to the Center, he is happy and kind. Whittier knows she can ask for his help and rely on him because of his strong affection for her. And the behavior didn't only improve for Whittier. His grandmother, who is raising him, and his school teachers have all seen the transformation.
Building these types of relationships inspired Whittier to partner with the Elmira College athletics teams. She started a mentorship program and brings the kids from the Center to team practices. Members of the athletics teams also come to the Center to engage with the kids in activities. Recently, members of the EC Men's Basketball team participated in a dance program.
"They were being good role models," said Whittier. "It shows the kids how we are all there for each other and one, big happy family."
Whittier explained that sports are a positive outlet for the kids, who often carry a lot of anger. And while many of them wish to play sports, they often don't have the money to buy the gear and struggle to get to practice.
When the basketball team members were at the Center, she noticed one boy who often acts out bonded quickly with them. The boy told the EC students that they are now his friends and should come to see him.
It filled Whittier's heart with joy.
"I want people to know what we are doing here and how important it is for these children," she said. "It changes lives."
Click here for more information about how to donate to the Neighborhood Transformation Center and help ensure the kids have a special holiday.