Law students extend a helping hand
Walking from his apartment to the Law School nearly every day, second-year law student David Hoffman couldn't help but notice the neighborhood of Woodlawn, located within a block of the school, just across 61st Street. The community, which suffers from long-term disinvestment and poverty, has been the University's neighbor for more than a century -- albeit a neighbor not well known to the average law student, Hoffman realized.
Hoffman subsequently teamed up with fellow second-year law student Maria Pellegrino to form Neighbors, a student-run volunteer organization that works with several existing Woodlawn community-service programs. Organized just eight months ago, Neighbors already has a membership of 85 Law School students, from first-year students to students who are about to graduate.
Hoffman said the concept of Neighbors recognizes the realities of what can be accomplished and the dangers of what he terms "bad community service."
"Any time you set up a volunteer community-service program, you run the risk of turning off the volunteers or of practicing heavy-handed paternalism," Hoffman said. "We call the group 'Neighbors' because it captures what the program is really about. This is not about us going out and saying 'we know the answers to your problems,' but instead, 'you know the solutions, can we lend a hand?' "
Woodlawn community organizations responded to Neighbors' offer by presenting the group with established programs that needed additional help.
Members of Neighbors volunteer a minimum of two hours a week, although the range of activities allows many students to volunteer much more than that. Thirty-five volunteers tutor students at Carnegie and Fiske elementary schools, and 10 students volunteer as teacher aides for preschool children at the Head Start center on 65th Street. The remaining 40 members donate their time working with programs that help adolescents, adults and seniors. Volunteers assist with after-school sports and recreational programs at the Harris YWCA and plan activities with the YWCA's adult day-care facility for seniors. A smaller number of volunteers are training to lead health-education programs for mothers ages 12 to 20 at The Woodlawn Organization's Healthy Moms/Healthy Kids programs. Members of Neighbors are also helping with remedial reading programs for drug-rehabilitation patients.
The collaboration has proved successful, and Woodlawn community-service providers say the Law School volunteers have formed special relationships with people in the community.
"The kids really identify with the volunteers and appreciate the one-on-one attention they provide," said Clarice Berry, principal of Fiske Elementary School. "They're more than just tutors -- they serve as mentors and counselors. The program is so successful we now have a waiting list for students who want a Neighbors volunteer."
"The Neighbors volunteers have been efficient, responsible and engaging," said Jeannette Branch, vice president of human services for The Woodlawn Organization, which sponsors the Head Start program as well as many other services. "We've received positive feedback from the staff, clients and people in the immediate community, all of whom feel very good about the students' involvement."
Ceretha Feaster, director of human services for the Fund for Community Redevelopment and Revitalization, attributes the success of Neighbors to dedication and organization. "There is a real need out there for committed volunteers, and the students with Neighbors are genuine in their interest in helping others," Feaster said. "When you have people who are committed to community service combined with a program that is well-administered, it leads to success."
Neighbors co-founder Pellegrino notes the benefits of the program's efforts to establish relationships between two sometimes very different communities. "Our students, many of whom were involved in community-service activities as undergraduates, find their experiences with Neighbors tremendously fulfilling. They are really excited about the programs, the kids and the adults we help. In turn, the community looks forward to us being there," Pellegrino said. "When you truly help someone, you take the focus off your own life, and it gives you a new perspective that makes you a better student and a better person."
Given Neighbors' success, the students plan to increase volunteer activities and opportunities next year. "We'd like to add more 'one-shot' volunteer opportunities for students who absolutely cannot commit to two hours a week," Hoffman said. Such activities may include helping to clean and renovate apartments that will be used as cooperative housing for seniors, serving at the Presbyterian Church soup kitchen for a few hours, or spending a day cleaning up parks or doing landscaping in Woodlawn.
Neighbors is also involved in the long-term project of assisting Woodlawn community organizations in developing an adult literacy program.
Hoffman and Pellegrino envision expanding Neighbors to create a larger 60th Street volunteer organization spearheaded by students from the School of Social Service Administration, the Law School and the Irving B. Harris Graduate School of Public Policy Studies.
"Neighbors relies a lot on trust and on building relationships," Hoffman said. "You can't be a good neighbor without trust, and you build relationships by allowing people to get to know each other. We realize the limits of what we can do, but also the importance of reaching out. We hope that other members of the University community are willing to join us."
For information on joining Neighbors, contact David Hoffman at 951-5696 or Maria Pellegrino at 871-9182.
-- Charles Whitt