“This is so much fun!”

I cherish these words from the students at Ericson Elementary School during a recent Saturday Sports activity.  Saturday Sports is a program organized by Every Neighborhood Partnership (ENP), with a mission “to connect churches and community partners to elementary schools and to equip them to serve through their active presence in every neighborhood.”

What it boils down to is being a better neighbor.

Our boys at Ericson Elementary engaging in an intense game of flag football.
Our boys at Ericson Elementary engaging in an intense game of flag football.

Last year, I heard about Saturday Sports through the Richter Center Student Leadership grapevine. Although I was not an Ambassador at the time, I was very much interested in completing personal service hours with kids. I was already a tutor for Wise Old Owl, the after school program for kids in the Lowell Neighborhood, organized by the Fresno Institute for Urban Leadership (FIFUL).  However, as I started a new job this year, I was no longer able to commit the time for after school tutoring.

I sure miss the kids from Wise Old Owl, but sometimes life forces you to pick up your things and move on. This can be especially difficult for the kids because some are familiar with inconsistency and people entering and exiting their lives.

On a Thursday night at my church’s college community, there were sign-ups going around for Saturday Sports at two nearby elementary schools. Ericson Elementary, was going to be led by my former internship staff member, Daniel, and his wife Brenda. I was excited about the opportunity, but also worried that I would be inconsistent in my attendance and use being a busy college student as an excuse. However, I wanted to try because even if I connected with one student, and could be a consistent presence in his or her life, that would be enough.

The first Saturday in September was a hot one; typical Fresno weather. I showed up before our site leaders and any other volunteers, and I was hopeful that it was going to be a good day. I met Chris, Josh and Jonah among the adult volunteers from the Valley Dream Center, for a total of ten volunteers. We did not expect the overflow of children at 9 a.m., but that is what we got. Nearly 30 children showed up for a first Saturday Sports. We played soccer, flag football, colored, sculpted with Playdough, and more. Kids were elated and never short of energy. Parents even joined in on the games. They just wanted more time to spend with us.

Kevin waiting to topple a train of Jenga pieces.
Kevin waiting to topple a train of Jenga pieces.

I even received a colored picture of a turtle from one of the young girls in attendance. I pinned it to a wall in my room, next to a mish-mash of other special handwritten notes and photos.

The beautiful turtle colored and autographed by Davine.
The beautiful turtle colored and autographed by Davine.

After the conclusion of a recent Saturday morning, volunteers were invited to an ENP training. We met the staff of ENP, heard their history, and their vision for the city of Fresno. At the training, we discussed engaging parents in our program as part of their Five Step Process. This was of particular interest for me because I want to build a relationship with the families attending our program.

One takeaway from that discussion was it’s not about us (the volunteers) imposing our ways and our thoughts of what makes a “good neighborhood.” It’s about our neighbors (both parents and kids). Parents especially have many valuable assets because they know more about the neighborhood than we do. It’s encouraged to let parents lead activities and share their skills with us and the students, even if that is simply teaching a student how to play checkers.

It has been seven weeks since the first Saturday Sports. I recognize faces and remember names. They are no longer just the boys from Daniel and Brenda’s apartments, the artistic girl in middle school, or the twins who like to play badminton. They are Kevin, Jesus, Jorgie, Skye, Jay’den, and Dav’ion. I know their teachers’ names, what type of music they like, how many siblings they have, and the like. No Saturday has been the same, but each Saturday has taught me something new about service.

What are you doing to serve your neighborhood? What volunteer experiences have made an impact on your life?

~Ambassador/Reflection Facilitator Erika D. Castanon