As I drive up Kawana Springs Road from the freeway each day, I am often struck by the dramatic juxtapositions in our neighborhood. The biggest of the big box stores huddle together, cars lined up for cheap gas, shoppers pushing their hauls of discounted goods bought in bulk out on flatbed carts. All this consumer bustle happens in the shadow of Taylor Mountain—green, peaceful, rich with wildlife and natural resources. Tidy tracts of single family homes are organized along streets with the names of precious metals and gemstones, bordered by neat lawns and clean sidewalks. A few blocks away are trailer parks and rundown apartment complexes where multiple families might be shoehorned into one bedroom. And of course, our beautiful campus, with its gleaming, high-tech buildings and bucolic setting, sits on a hill just a stone’s throw away from two of Sonoma County’s most underserved schools. In many ways, our little corner of Santa Rosa is a microcosm of the modern world, illustrating the challenges we face in the 21st century: income inequality, environmental stewardship, insulation, integration.
When we moved from the Luther Burbank Center to our current location in 2008, we realized we had an opportunity to more fully embody one part of our mission: to “engage with the surrounding community.” At that time, our Connections program had undertaken service projects that addressed a number of different needs over the years: providing services for the elderly, working on environmental clean up and habitat restoration, volunteering at a food bank, and more. But as we moved into the new campus and learned that the two closest elementary schools, Kawana Springs and Taylor Mountain, could benefit from our help, we decided to revamp our Connections program and partner with these two sites.
At Kawana and Taylor Mountain are two of Sonoma County’s most underserved elementary schools. Over 80% of students at each school qualify for free and reduced lunch, and over 60% at each school are English language learners. In the absence of robust fundraising and parent support, the schools do not have access to the kinds of parent-funded extras that other schools do. Our Connections program was built around the belief that we could lend a hand, providing enrichment activities for fifth and sixth graders on Wednesday afternoons. In small groups, our juniors teach classes like music, dance, robotics, theater, and more. We also release two of our teachers, Humanities teacher Colin McNamara and STEM teacher Dan Karbousky, to teach academic classes at Kawana and Taylor Mountain twice a week.
The young children in the Connections classes benefit from learning new skills and having fun at school, but our students gain just as much from the experience. As one junior said yesterday, “these kids had me re-examining who is the student and who is the teacher!” Mentoring and teaching younger students helps our juniors build confidence, practice empathy and patience, and reflect upon some of the opportunities they may take for granted. It’s always good to have a chance to act as a role model, and a number of our alumni say they discovered a passion for teaching as a result of the Connections program.
At this Wednesday’s Community Meeting, we were treated to a visit from the students from Kawana Springs and Taylor Mountain. Each group shared a presentation about what they had been working on together, and the grand finale was a performance by the music students, who learned to play a song on the ukulele. It was fitting that the song was “We’re Going To Be Friends” by the White Stripes, an ode to the simple joys of elementary school. It was obvious as we watched the elementary students with their SA mentors that these workshops were about more than just learning new skills. The little ones and the teenagers had forged real friendships.
Last year, we celebrated the arrival of our first student who had been an elementary participant in our Connections program. Hearing about the lasting impact of the program on his academic life validated our hope that our work in the community is making an enduring difference, in big and small ways. Perhaps one of those students in the bleachers at Community Meeting yesterday will sit there again as a Coyote one day!