By Kate Allen
Twice a week, three to six Union students teach art and reading to children living at the Dream Center — a shelter for women and children located on Old Hickory Boulevard.
“We want to instill a sense of love, belonging and accomplishment through art,” said Maddie Russo, junior elementary education major. “If they can finish an art piece and feel good about it, it boosts their self-esteem.”
This is the focus of the program: Not simply to teach art and reading, but to love the children and see them grow, Russo said.
As the group arrives every Monday and Thursday night, the children at the Dream Center flock to the students, leaping into their arms.
The students divide the 10 to 12 children into two groups. One group reads a story while the other group learns about art. Then, the groups switch.
The children who attend the reading and art classes range in age from 4 to 10 years old. Children older than 10 attend tutoring, while the younger children stay with their mothers.
“We read stories — stories you haven’t even heard about!” said one of the 9-year-old children.
“Each week, we read children’s books from the library or that I’ve gotten from my house,” Russo said. “We choose the books that get them engaged in reading, (that get them) to like reading.”
The children sit in a small circle in the playroom as Russo reads with animated voices for each character in the story.
One of the goals of the program is to help children enjoy school and excel. Many of the children do not like going to school, Russo said. Some of them have parents who did not like or did not finish school.
“I really feel for them and have a desire to see them succeed,” Russo said.
Russo described what usually happens in the art group.
“We do a lot of different activities in the art group,” she said. “We make noodle necklaces, learn how to draw or make paper airplanes.”
The children, through sharing glue sticks and listening to detailed instructions on how to make the farthest-flying airplane, learn patience and how to share and follow directions — practical life lessons.
“My goal is for them to feel like they are worth something and can accomplish anything,” Russo said. “They don’t have to live in a shelter forever.”
The mothers say they are grateful for the Union students teaching their children.
“These students are helpful to me,” said Shereka James, mother of three children, two of whom attend the art and reading classes. “My children have fun with them and they must be learning a lot — they are making all A’s and B’s on their report cards.”
One of the children who had just made a “wild thing” puppet after reading “Where the Wild Things Are” said, “I like when they come. They are fun and exciting and playful — and really loud!”
The children at the Dream Center seem sad to see the students leave. As the students exit, the children run to their rooms to show their families what they made.