Giving back to the community, encouraging young readers

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Each year, AFT members give back to the community that hosts the biennial convention, and this year that means busloads of people volunteering at Summer Dreamers Academy, a public school enrichment program designed to prevent “summer slide” for Pittsburgh students. Volunteers—including AFT President Randi Weingarten, Secretary-Treasurer Lorretta Johnson and Executive Vice President Mary Cathryn Ricker—read aloud to campers, built “book nooks” with themes such as social justice, diversity, health and careers; wrote miniature book reviews and participated in other hands-on activities with campers from kindergarten through eighth grade.

“It’s one of the things AFT does so well— giving back,” says Sharon Baker, president of the TOTEM Association of Educational Support Personnel in Anchorage, Alaska, as she sorted through books for preschoolers. “This is an integral part of being in a union, because you are a part of the community,” agreed Sandra Thompson, TOTEM’s vice president. “Giving back to the area you’re visiting, but also your own community, is important. It lets people know what we’re all about.”

The Summer Dreamers Academy, a six-week summer camp held at four campuses throughout the city, is open to all Pittsburgh public school students, from rising kindergartners through rising eighth-graders. Campers are selected on the basis of how at-risk they are for summer slide—that well-known phenomenon when students forget what they’ve learned over the last school year and lose momentum for their continued education. Mornings at camp are dedicated to academics, and afternoons to enrichment programs supplemented by community partners.

The book nooks AFT volunteers created will serve the children during the school year as well. Nurses from Oregon and Washington state set up the one themed around health and wellness, with neatly sorted books, cutout photos and descriptions of women in healthcare professions, and cozy beanbag chairs and rugs. Members from the Guam Federation of Teachers and the U.S. Virgin Islands set up nooks celebrating diversity, with a bulletin board framed in children’s photographs from different ethnicities. A social justice nook featured heroes like Frederick Douglass, César Chávez and Harriet Tubman.

 “This is the best part of convention,” says Dianna Hess, of the Oregon School Employees Association, who loves that it directly connects the convention with the children so many AFT members serve. “The children are really the only reason we work.”

Members who couldn’t make it to the pre-convention event were also able to contribute to the community, and donated new baby items for families in need. The donations and activities are an extension of the AFT’s regularly programmed community service work, which has been extended to convention participants. Members can donate funds for books, school supplies and basic-needs items to students, teachers and school staff still recovering from the hurricanes in the U.S. Virgin Islands, using the AFT/First Book Essentials for Kids Fund; and donate to Operation Agua, which continues to provide essential clean drinking water to Puerto Rico, where families are still struggling to recover from the storms.

[Virginia Myers, photos by Mike Campbell]