Over the last couple years, Atlanta has claimed rank to some of the top nationally recognized lists. We’ve been named one of the Best Places to Live, Best Places to Work, Best City for Being a Filmmaker… the lists of accolades go on and on.
Another list we find ourselves sitting on top of is, The city with the highest income inequality rate. Meaning for some folks, things are really good, but for others, they are some of the worst in the country. At Hands On Atlanta, we’re focused on the latter, partnering with Title 1 schools to support the academic, social, and basic needs of Atlanta’s most vulnerable students.
More than 98% of the students we serve are considered economically disadvantaged, (qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch) with many of our students also facing life-threatening problems like homelessness and food insecurity.
With so many kids hungry and experiencing homelessness, it’s no wonder only 25% of the students we serve can read proficiently by the 3rd grade - a critical stage in development where students stop learning to read and start reading to learn. Students who cannot read at grade level by the 3rd grade are four times more likely to drop out of high school then their counterparts, and students who do not complete high school are likely to continue the cycle of poverty. Sadly, 3rd grade reading scores are often used to predict the number of prison beds a state will need…
So, what’s the solution here? How are people helping these students who have infinite potential, yet little control over their situation, demographics, or financial position?
One solution we’re focused on is the Hands On Atlanta Discovery Program - an extended learning opportunity offered every other Saturday from 9:00am to 12:00pm at different Title 1 schools throughout Metro Atlanta.
Here’s how it works: Hands On Atlanta AmeriCorps members and community volunteers lead students in grades K-5 in enrichment activities like literacy and math tutoring, STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) curriculum, health and fitness lessons (stretching, yoga, etc.), social emotional learning (SEL), and they also receive a healthy breakfast and snacks.
Discovery launched in 1990 at Parklane Elementary with support and leadership from volunteers Debbie and Richard Goldsmith. About 100 students showed up to the opening session and 30 years later, the kids are still attending every other Saturday.
Debbie Goldsmith said, “Overall, the model of the Discovery program hasn’t changed much. It’s sustainable, effective, and easy to replicate. We’ve really worked hard over the years, to engage the community and parents to provide a diverse group of committed volunteers to work with the kids.”
Richard and Debbie agreed that Discovery has simply become a part of their lives. Richard added, “It’s so rewarding to see how the kids enjoy the program, to interact with people you normally aren’t around in your day-to-day life, and to build lasting relationships with the students.”
The power of Discovery and it’s success is the based on the commitment from volunteers and grade captains to implement the program. Most grade captains at Parklane have been volunteering for a very long time, allowing the volunteers to build relationships with the students, which is rewarding for both the volunteers and the students.
Richard reflected, asking, “Who’s serving who?”
Rhuda Mididoddi, a grade captain at Parklane, echoes Richard’s thoughts, “I always maintain that I learn just as much from these students as they do from me and the recurring Discovery volunteers show me that if you're truly committed, you can balance work, family, and service.”
Rhuda was first introduced to the Hands On Atlanta Discovery program almost 10 years ago as a freshman at Georgia Tech, saying “When I was in 5th grade, I had the opportunity to volunteer with my school's special needs program. I'd spend lunch and recess with the students and even though I was just an 11-year old having a fun time, I continued to make sure service was a part of my life.”
At the end of the day, it’s about the kids, their development as well rounded students, and the opportunities the Discovery program provides them. In the 2017-2018 school year, Hands On Atlanta served over 900 students at 6 partner schools.
Students like William M., who from kindergarten through fifth grade, missed less than 10 Discovery sessions! William (and 2018-2019 Discovery student Nia W.) won an opportunity to interview Arthur Blank as part of the 2018 Hands On Atlanta High Five Party.
For 2018-2019, Hands On Atlanta was awarded a three-year AmeriCorps grant from the Corporation for National and Community Service national competitive application process, which has allowed us to expand into 17 schools, engaging over 1,000 students through Discovery.
Looking forward, Rhuda wants donors to consider supporting the Discovery program.
“With the support of individual and corporate donors, Hands On Atlanta can invest in new curriculum to supplement class learning and expose students to new, unique concepts that can help shape their interests moving forward.” Adding, “I know the program works, and if possible, I’d love to see it expanded to other districts in Georgia.”
Whether you’re looking to make an end of year gift or want to kick-start the new year by making a difference in a student’s life, consider giving to Hands On Atlanta. Who knows, with your help, we might be able to add Atlanta to another “Best of” list: Best volunteer led school enrichment program in the country.