By Austin Dumont – AmeriCorps Member at Bates College
Forming Connections on the Playground
Coming into my year with AmeriCorps VISTA, one of the greatest external pressures was the lingering COVID pandemic. As we all know too well, the reality of the pandemic has required that much of our lives take place behind a computer screen. While the shift to remote work, and a remote lifestyle, have impacted all of us in unique ways, adverse effects have been especially profound on children. Being at home and away from school has meant many children have gone without peer interactions and socialization. As a new school year started up in the fall of 2021, and as students returned to in-person learning, teachers and school staff became increasingly aware of how remote learning had impacted students’ ability to form close bonds and connections with their peers.
School administrators at two Lewiston elementary schools reached out to the Harward Center with the hopes of partnering to create a playground supervision program. Working with my supervisor, our devised solution was to provide a consistent stream of Bates students who would play, interact, and socialize with elementary school students. We were able to get the program, called Playground Pals, up and running in November. On short notice, we launched Playground Pals as a trial run with minimal structure. A simple spreadsheet went out to the Harward Center email listserv, and interested volunteers could sign up for as few or as many time slots as they liked. I then served as a liaison between the student volunteers and school administrators, making sure volunteers had ways to get to the school and had all other information they would need.
While this simple structure worked well to begin with, I soon realized that to really support the goals of Playground Pals we needed to step up our recruitment and outreach strategies, as well as educate our volunteers on the goals of the program. During the long and cold winter months, the number of volunteers stagnated. It became necessary to devise a more intentional outreach strategy, and I worked with a student leader to make this happen. The student leader designed flyers, which we distributed throughout the campus community. Through quick improvisation, we were able to keep the program going. However, even with these steps, we knew we needed more structure to offer the kind of consistent support we wanted for our partners.
I am currently working with a small cohort of Bates students to develop solutions and provide recommendations to ensure the long-term sustainability of the program. We realize just how valuable this kind of program is. Volunteers have reported that they have thoroughly enjoyed connecting with the kids and that the elementary schoolers have really enjoyed having someone to look up to.
The Harward Center is very excited about sustaining this program long into the future. In my year working in this role, I feel honored that I was able to play a part in getting Playground Pals off the ground!
Austin Dumont (He/Him) is the 2021-2022 AmeriCorps VISTA/Post-Baccalaureate Civic Leadership Fellow for the Harward Center at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine. During his time at the Harward Center, Austin has very much enjoyed opportunities to work closely with students and to connect them to community engagement opportunities!