Freshman Ada Kitch misses being able to do her volunteer work with students at Kenwood Elementary School near Iroquois Park in Louisville. Last year as an eighth grader at Holy Family, her godmother, Aimee (Hess) McDonnell ’96, who teaches English as a second language at Kenwood, invited Ada to help out with Kenwood’s Culture Club, which celebrated diversity and acceptance while also helping students with their conversation skills.
Ada started working after school with two of McDonnell’s ESL students. The boys are refugees from Africa whose family immigrated to the United States through Kentucky Refugee Ministries after their village was attacked.
Ada’s mom would take her to Kenwood after school, and she would play games with the boys and talk to them to help them improve their English skills. Sometimes they would tell stories in English using cards with pictures of various objects. Other times, she would play their favorite game of soccer with them. Then she would ride with McDonnell as she gave the boys a ride home to the Churchill Downs area.
McDonnell said Ada was an asset to the Culture Club and its goal of playing games and having fun while listening to and speaking English.
“She was a natural and made learning English fun for them,” McDonnell said. “She was able to form a bond with them that allowed her to connect with them even after COVID.”
Ada said she learned so much while helping the boys improve their English. Her eyes were opened to the living situations of those in poverty. She learned of the atrocities the young boys witnessed in their hometown – and how it’s normal for them to wake up to the sound of gunshots in their new neighborhood on any given night. Despite those painful memories and the differences in their life experiences, the boys were thankful for so many things and kept a positive attitude.
“I realized how privileged I am,” Ada said. “I never had a life like they do (living with a large family in a small house). I’ve always been content, and I realized how unthankful I am. The little things that make them so happy, like going to the park, can be boring or no big deal to my family.”
Her family and McDonnell’s family also began collecting items to donate to the boys’ family – and any other of McDonnell’s students who needed help. Sometimes they donated food; other times they donated outgrown clothes or sheets and pillows.
When schools were closed due to the quarantine last spring, Ada missed working with the boys. McDonnell set up a program she named WakeUp Call in which volunteers from St. Margaret Mary Catholic School and Sacred Heart Academy could provide the same help Ada had been doing but virtually. The goal was for the volunteers to call ESL students to give them a chance to speak English as well as “help with homework, play games virtually, and just be a bright spot in their day,” McDonnell said.
“Speaking and listening in English is so important to an ESL student’s progress,” McDonnell said. “The WakeUP call program gives them the opportunity to engage in English, even if no one in their home speaks English.”
Ada began working with a young girl in the WakeUp Call program, calling and checking on her every day. Talking on the phone and checking on her progress with her parents was more challenging than helping with the Culture Club, she said, especially since the girl’s parents didn’t speak any English. Once school was out, Ada called a few times to check on her but really missed never having the chance to see her in person.
McDonnell will start up the WakeUp Call program again next month instead of the Culture Club. Ada is eager to help again, even if it’s only over the phone.
With JCPS starting its school year virtually, it will be several weeks before she would have the opportunity to volunteer in person again. But if she is given the chance, she would.
“I really like the fact that (helping others speak English) can change their lives,” Ada said. “It feels good to help people and make their lives better.”
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