Giving back

Princeton Young Achievers lend hands, hearts to neighborhood kids.

By: Christian Kirkpatrick
   Every Wednesday afternoon from 3:30 to 5:30, when other kids are heading for practice fields and music lessons or sinking back into video games temporarily interrupted by a few hours of school, Zachary Shechtel enters a two-story structure on the corner of Witherspoon and Clay Streets.
   Inside, cinderblock walls ring with the voices of more than 55 elementary school children. Floors covered in linoleum and office-grade carpet hardly muffle their scuffling feet. Still, the atmosphere is remarkably orderly, and the giggling children seem to like being there. So does Zack.
   Zack is one of about 100 Princeton Young Achievers who teach and mentor some 130 children, most of whom live in the borough and township’s affordable housing. Much of this work goes on in three local learning centers. The Clay Street Learning Center serves qualified children at the Johnson Park and Community Park Schools; Redding Circle is for those at Littlebrook, and Princeton Community Village serves students at the Riverside School.
   Trained volunteers at these centers encourage youngsters with their reading, oversee homework, provide one-on-one tutoring and participate in enrichment activities.
   "We believe that forming relationships with adults and older children will increase our children’s interest in learning," says Ann Marie Grocholski, executive director of Princeton Young Achievers.
   Zack started volunteering in September. To become a Bar Mitzvah ("son of the Law"), students at The Religious School at The Jewish Center of Princeton must perform 10 hours of community service.
   "Mom says I’m good with kids," Zack recalled, "so I did it here." He enjoyed working with the kids at Clay Street so much that he just kept coming. "I help them with math, reading and homework. Sometimes we play games. It’s fun for me and fun for them, and it helps them."
   Zack will become a Bar Mitzvah this month. He has asked each of the guests which he invited to the celebration to bring a book or a toy for the children at Clay Street.
   Most Young Achievers are older than Zack, who lives in Princeton and is in seventh grade at Princeton Day School. Many come from local public and private high schools. The Hun School of Princeton sends a van of volunteers every week. Students from Rider University, Princeton University and Westminster Choir College of Rider University also participate.
   Zack’s lifelong friend, Julie Straus, age 13, also supports the Clay Street Learning Center. Indeed, she has become something of a patron to the institution.
   Last summer, she gave the children of Clay Street some tickets to the Philadelphia Eagles Carnival, a yearly event at which fans can meet members of the football team and get their autographs. She had won these tickets by raising money for the Eagles Youth Partnership.
   The fund supports the Eagles’ Book Mobile and Eye Mobile. The former brings books — and an accomplished storyteller to read them — to needy children in the Philadelphia area. The Eye Mobile roams through poor neighborhoods offering eye exams to children; those found to have ocular diseases or to need glasses are cared for, through this foundation, at the Wills Eye Hospital in Philadelphia.
   Julie received various prizes for raising progressively higher amounts of money for the Partnership. When her total reached $2,500, the Partnership promised to send a member of the Eagles to pick her up from school and spend an afternoon with her. What would she like to do with him?
   The Princeton resident took Cecil Martin, a fullback, to the learning center. The genial young man spoke to the children, encouraging them to read. He had started life in conditions similar to theirs. By learning to read and going to college, he learned to use his head and become a successful football player.
   Then he gave each of the children an autographed book and a bookmark with a picture of him holding a football in one hand and a book in the other.
   As he was leaving, Mr. Martin said that he was touched that Julie had taken him to Clay Street. She could have kept him to herself, he noted, but she used her time with him to give to others.
   Mr. Martin’s story and Julie’s gift must have seemed familiar to Dana Hughes, the assistant director of Princeton Young Achievers. Having grown up in Princeton, attending its public schools and eventually the Hun School, she knows the families of many of the children she serves.
   "I like bringing my skills back to Princeton," comments the once-and-current Borough resident. With an M.A. in education, Ms. Hughes could probably find a more prestigious and higher paying job. However, she thinks it is important to set an example for local children and to give the community the benefit of her experience.
   PYA acts as a liaison between the wider community and the children in the three learning centers, said Ms. Grocholski, a Lawrenceville resident. PYA works with the Princeton Multicultural Camp to offer its students activities during the summer. It partners with The Arts Council of Princeton and McCarter Theatre to provide enrichment activities. Through a program called Reading Buddies, PU students read stories to children at the university’s Cotsen Children’s Library.
   Recently PYA began providing English conversational classes for the Spanish-speaking parents of children in the organization, as well as workshops on how parents can get involved in their children’s education.
   PYA receives most of its support from the Princeton Regional Schools, but it also receives funding from the United Way, several local foundations and generous local donors.
   To learn more about the Princeton Young Achievers, call (609) 806-4216.