For the last 28 years, volunteers have been working with students at elementary schools teaching health and wellness, STEM concepts, social and emotional learning (SEL), and more through the Hands On Atlanta Discovery program.
To learn more about this impact program, I sat down with Candice White, Discovery Program Manager, to learn more about why Discovery is so important (now in 11 Title 1, public schools covering from Smyrna to East Point, serving nearly 1,400 students - almost 90% of them receiving free and reduced lunch) and how volunteers, like you, can get involved.
TIM: For starters, 11 schools, 1,400 students… how do you manage to get it all done?
CANDICE: Well, we’ve added 6 new schools this year and honestly, it’s been a whirl wind! I love it! It’s been a lot of fun, and we’ve received a ton of support from the staff at the schools, our awesome AmeriCorps members, and of course the volunteers who come out each week are fantastic. We have some great School Captains (the point person at each Discovery school) and Grade Captains (running the actual sessions with the students, implementing the curriculum) working hands on in the schools.
TIM: That’s awesome. [High five!] What do the students learn at Discovery?
CANDICE: Our curriculum varies from school to school, crafting each program to meet the unique needs of the students. We touch on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math), Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) which are essential life skills and how the students interact with themselves and each other, as well as health and fitness. We don’t have a ton of time with the kids each Saturday (just a couple of hours) so, it may be a quick experiment learning how an airplane flies or a challenging team building project to create something brand new.
We know that across Atlanta literacy is a huge issue, but we try to be really mindful to not make it like sitting in a classroom for the students. Discovery is a fun addon to weekly learning! It’s also a time to build meaningful relationships between the volunteers and the students.
TIM: I like how the students are learning in fun, creative ways, but Discovery offers more than just the curriculum, right?
CANDICE: Correct. We provide a breakfast and take home snack for the students - mostly fruit or breakfast bars. One day, last year I noticed 1 little girl trying to take more than we are supposed to pass out. At first I didn’t realize what was going on but then it was 3 girls and then more and more. They were just hungry. Then I noticed some of the students coming in with torn shoes and clothing. It was a shock for me and it’s a often a little unsettling for some of our first time volunteers to experience some of the poverty levels these students and families are facing. So Discovery schools are part of our wrap around services we provide to help enrich students’ minds and bellies.
TIM: This sounds like a great program for the students, but also like a really meaningful opportunity for volunteers to get involved.
CANDICE: Most volunteers come for the first time to just see what it’s all about (it’s challenging to explain the “secret sauce” it’s like Disney, you just have to experience it) and they end up having a great time, making connections with the students. We encourage volunteers to come back, because the connection is reciprocal and even if it’s just once a month or a few times a year, the students look forward to seeing the familiar, friendly faces of our volunteers.
If you’re looking to mentor and enjoy making an impact on youth, while also learning something new from them, I think Discovery is the way to go. I think it’s important for people to understand the needs and challenges these students face, as well as getting to know someone that’s a little different than you. No matter where we come from we’re all a part of the greater Atlanta community and we have to support each other. I feel like it really does take a village to raise each and every child and why not be a part of that village?
TIM: So, you have 2 daughters, do they attend Discovery?
CANDICE: I have 2 that are ages 10 and 6 with another on the way! They always give me feedback and they love going to Discovery. Once I can get them out of bed, they really do look forward to going. This year projects they do in Discovery are even coming home and we get to continue the learning and experimenting!
TIM: After 28 years of Discovery, what’s next for the program?
CANDICE: Richard and Debbie Goldsmith kicked things off 28 years ago and still serve at Discovery today! The success of the program is largely due to the incredible support and energy of people like them to help keep it going. As we expand into 11 schools this year, we’re also launching at the Centers of Hope, an after school program at C.T. Martin Recreation Center, implementing some of our curriculum with a big focus on literacy. A lot of the students need help with homework and with reading, so that’s what we’ll be supporting. Again, our AmeriCorps team has been great, stepping in and leading this experiment.
TIM: Well, I’m sold on Discovery. How do I get started?
CANDICE: I thought you’d never ask! Volunteers can get started by signing up to serve for Hands On Atlanta Day. For the first time ever, we’re going to have all 11 schools participating in Discovery on the same day. There are plenty of opportunities at most of the schools and we’re hoping for a big turn out.
Send Candice your baby name suggestions and any questions or ideas you have for Discovery at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you’d like to help support the meals and materials for Discovery, consider making a donation to Hands On Atlanta.