Junior Auxiliary of Taney County members are always on the look-out for needs and opportunities in our service area. One afternoon while running errands, a Junior Auxiliary member found herself behind a school bus on a busy Branson street. She was surprised when the lights of the bus started to indicate a drop off stop. There were no homes near this stop and no nearby neighborhood. But a group of 12 children of all ages walked off the bus and down the driveway of a motel. These were some of the more than 500 children who live in extended-stay motels in Branson.
If you are a child living in a motel instead of a house, finding a book to read after school or during the summer can be virtually impossible. Last May, two Branson elementary school teachers received grant funding to operate a summer school class and a weekly “book swap” at one extended-stay motel. After sharing this concept with a Junior Auxiliary member, they followed up on a suggestion that Junior Auxiliary members might assist them. The Book Swap Stop quickly became a JA-supported project.
Over the summer, Junior Auxiliary members gathered donated books and created collections suitable for all ages. Every other week, JA members would change out the collection, providing children with access to a broader range of materials. Members also helped with weekly craft sessions by providing snacks and extra hands. More than 14 JA volunteers were involved in this project.
Based on positive experiences over the summer and persuaded of the continuing need, JA decided to continue with the Book Swap Stop throughout the school year on their own and to expand the scope of the Chapter’s involvement. A new dimension organized and supported solely by JATC and christened “Homework Helpers” involves JA members in providing homework assistance to children at the motel every Wednesday from 3-5 pm. In addition to assisting the children with assignments from school, volunteers provide snacks and a variety of enrichment activities designed for the children whose ages range from 4 to 17. These include games that require reading and math skills, art and craft projects that strengthen eye-hand coordination, birthday and holiday celebrations designed to encourage social interaction and improve self-esteem, as well as much needed hugs.
One day J. came in with some homework to do. He and a volunteer worked on it. He did a good job, and the volunteer complimented him. When he showed the volunteer other completed homework papers with good scores, he got another "good job". When J’s mom stopped by, the volunteer told her what good work J. had been doing. Later, J. asked the volunteer to walk him to his room, along with his older brother. On the way, J. whispered to the volunteer that she should tell his brother how well he'd been doing and she did. J’s brother acted suitably impressed! Another day J. asked if he could read a story he had out loud to the kids in the group. He did, and it was good. J. doesn't get much validation, and the good feelings engendered by those simple interactions made a difference in his life and will be treasured by the volunteer for a long time.
One of the girls, M, was a little bit standoffish in the beginning. She was nervous, and being a preteen didn't help either. She didn't want to take a book home in the beginning. She said she was afraid her little sisters would damage it. A volunteer talked her into taking it, assuring her that even if something happened to the book, it would be okay. Since that day, M has been talking a lot more about books she likes, what she wants to read, and how reading is cool. Building this relationship has been incredibly rewarding for the volunteer, knowing it’s making a difference in M’s life.
This project has also presented opportunities to connect with and provide support to parents living in the motel. One young mother was pregnant when Homework Helpers started at the end of August. The week before her baby was due, she still was without basic care items and a crib. JA members showed up at their October meeting with a brand new porta-crib, piles of diapers, onesies, blankets and other essential items. Homework Helpers volunteers who were putting on a Halloween party at the motel had the chance to meet the week-old baby. Smiles all around, and the mother was very appreciative of the items that JA volunteers had provided.
These short-term effects may not be earth-shaking but they are important. Homework Helpers is making a difference to the children and families involved. It is also changing the lives of JATC members by expanding our awareness of the depth and complexity of the problem of homelessness in our community and providing an avenue for the organization to be directly engaged in response to this critical issue.