Volunteering: A Life-Changing Opportunity

Lt. Mara Title, SMC Public Affairs, and the student that she tutors in the School on Wheels program. (Courtesy photo)

Lt. Mara Title, SMC Public Affairs, and the student that she tutors in the School on Wheels program. (Courtesy photo)

LOS ANGELES AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- I've always loved working with children, so I knew I wanted to volunteer when I saw the Company Grade Officer Council announcement about tutoring for the School on Wheels organization. I felt like I might be able to help someone, and that it would be a rewarding experience, but I really didn't understand the far-reaching effect of my decision.

School on Wheels intrigued me because it focuses on helping homeless children. Families with children constitute the fastest growing segment of the homeless population in most major cities. I wasn't sure how I was going to tutor a child who was homeless, but I wanted to find out more.

I listed some references, and to my surprise a volunteer coordinator contacted them within the first week. I then attended a training session, which lasted a few hours on a Saturday morning. I learned School on Wheels provides tutoring for homeless kids living in shelters, motels, group foster homes and on the streets. I paid a small fee for them to take my fingerprints, and in a few weeks, the coordinator arranged for a meeting with the student and her mother at a location of my choice--the Woodcrest Library about 15 minutes from my home.

I wasn't sure what to expect. I wondered if I could really help. Lucky for me, the School on Wheels Web site provides material related to all grade levels. Worksheets are also available for the students to fill out to assess their skill levels in various subjects. Once we all sat down, we read aloud School on Wheels' expectations for the tutoring sessions.

After the coordinator left, I donned my volunteer badge and was ready to go! The first thing I wanted to do was learn more about her--she really loved science and math; she had eight half-brothers and sisters; and she wanted to be an archeologist. I also found out she was going into the sixth grade and her family lived in transitional housing (a shelter that facilitates the movement of homeless individuals and families to permanent housing within approximately 24 months).

Over the next 12 weeks, we would work on multiplication tables, division, word problems, spelling, reading and word pronunciation, typing with correct fingering, online homework assignments, geography, and any other questions she had. Usually at the end of a lesson, I would get out my National Geographic book of world explorers. She really liked the pictures in it, and she would choose the passages she wanted to read aloud. She would also show me the books she wanted to check out from the library, usually involving cooking or science experiments.

During one session, I asked her to make her very own "Dream Sheet" listing where she wanted to live if she could go anywhere in the world, where she would like to travel, what she would like to study, where she'd like to go to college, and even if she wanted to have a family one day. I told her that each part of her education was very important because it was one step closer to reaching whatever she wanted in life.

What impressed me most about her was that she never had an attitude with me about anything, and she was really making an effort to improve. But what was even better is she was having fun.

"Let's play the geography game again--I know I can get all the states right this time!" she said.

One day after our session, the three of us walked out of the library, and her mother turned to me and said, "Maybe next week you can wear your uniform because she has a military outfit and she wants to take a picture with you." The next week I showed up in uniform, and so did she. We took a picture together, and it's something that I cherish.

"She really wants to get involved with the military--is there something she can do now, like ROTC?" asked her mother. I told them about Junior ROTC, but that was for high school students. I told her that ROTC paid for college and she would be an officer afterward. The following week her mom told me she'd done some research and there were programs for students her daughter's age where she could learn about the military early.

Then I offered to give them a tour of where I work at Los Angeles Air Force Base in El Segundo. Their eyes lit up. It became more apparent to me that I took for granted opportunities I had that she was only beginning to learn about and explore. It made me extremely appreciative of my career, but also thankful I could share the same possibilities with her. The sky was the limit.

With the military comes change and I'm scheduled to arrive at my next duty station toward the end of November, which means I will no longer tutor her. We set up an e-mail account for her so we can communicate while I'm overseas. I watched her make sure she was using the proper fingering while she typed, and she was excited to set up her own account. I won't give the exact address she chose, but she did want it to include "militarygal."

She's excited about the future, and I'm excited to see her thrive. Her smiling enthusiasm will stay with me and after all is said and done, I hope she stays encouraged to follow her dreams. I know she did the same for me.

Editor's Note: School on Wheels is one of many organizations that LAAFB personnel volunteer for to make a difference in the community. The Air Force doesn't endorse any specific organization or charity.