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April 6, 2021

What is Impact Volunteerism?

Last spring, I looked out my plane window and saw the view of Cuba becoming more detailed as we got closer. With the thud of the wheels touching ground, I had landed over 50 years after Fidel Castro had the courage to address a serious literacy challenge. Excited for the educational exchange that came through the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP), I was filled with curiosity and motivated by the possibility of new insights. Ready to explore Havana, I hoped that my takeaways would add value to students and schools in the US.

Kevin Bennett in Cuba 

Kevin Bennett in Cuba

A Historic Lesson

In 1961, during a time of strained relations between the US and Cuba, Castro strategically began the National Literacy Campaign. In just one year, the country mobilized its adults and secondary students to teach more than 700,000 people how to read. Sociologist Miren Uriarte describes in “The Right Priorities: Health, Education, and Literacy,” how in just one year, the illiteracy rate dropped from 23% to 4%. And they didn’t stop there — each generation improved until they reached and maintained 100% literacy.Instructional manuals from the Cuban Museum of Literacy Instructional manuals from the Cuban Museum of Literacy

Now, I know many people have opinions about Castro, Cuba and human rights. But as an educator and an American citizen, I can’t help but focus on the compassion, determination and commitment in these five simple words: every citizen will be literate. Period. No excuses. No debates. 100%. How did they accomplish this? They mobilized qualified citizens.

A New Call to Action

In the United States, we have had a long tradition of utilizing volunteers in our schools. But, gone are the days of room moms stapling papers and stuffing envelopes. Our students need more than a holiday party planner, they need “impact volunteerism.”

Are we fully utilizing the skill-set and potential of our volunteers? Are we strategic in our use of volunteers in our schools? Recently, I sat in my car at a stoplight in downtown Minneapolis and watched people walk by — a grandparent, a corporate executive and a college student crossed the street. Add in there the population that is unemployed or working part-time, and we could mobilize a massive volunteer base, one powered by skills, life experiences, training and maximized potential.

Impact volunteerism requires a different strategic approach in schools. Forethought and comprehensive planning must be established before volunteers walk through the door, and we must believe in the impact volunteers can make on student success, literacy, technology access, job preparedness, etc. Here are a few ways schools can get started now with volunteerism that has true impact on student learning:

1. Be prepared and know what you need. Identify school improvement areas, and then establish a skill inventory or assessment to align volunteers with the needs of students and/or the school.

2. Make the experience count. Enlist and train volunteers in specific academic tasks. If academic time is taken away from students and staff, it must be valid and beneficial. It has to be more than a feel-good experience.

3. Move the classroom beyond its four walls. Make learning come alive with real-life career opportunities. Get students out into the community and bring in volunteers to add to class curricula. Teach students at an early age the importance of making connections and networking, while broadening the scope of a student’s vision and dreams.

With a new year, resolutions are made, and educators must begin to rethink the experience with volunteers and students. Are you utilizing the full potential of your volunteers? Could the experience be more valuable for your volunteers and students?

Many times, educators think, “It’s just easier to do it myself.” However, when we stay in that frame of mind, what great benefits do our students miss? Strategically bringing in motivated, skilled, and trained volunteers may be the difference our schools need to increase literacy and comprehension, while providing valued and real-world networking opportunities for our students. Let impact volunteerism begin.


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