Students volunteer at area child care center, give and receive experiences

BLACKSBURG, Va., April 15, 2008 – Valley Interfaith Child Care Center's executive director, Katy St. Marie, waves goodbye while shuffling along on her knees, her assumed height more closely matching that of the determined child she follows.

A mingled overlap of childish voices and peals of high-pitched laughter float up the hallway the two are traveling, tangible evidence that this must be a great place to have fun. Judging by the bemused calm of site manager Corrine Barton as she watches the comic duo, none of this is a bit out of the ordinary.

Though fun is not the main goal of the center’s program for the very young, it is certainly a most welcome addition, and perhaps is one of the reasons a number of Virginia Tech students choose to volunteer here.

Katie Jones of Tazewell, Va., a psychology major in the College of Science from tells how her class requirements prompted her initial volunteering. She says that initial investment turned into “the best time of [her] week”. Jones says she looks forward to her days at the center. “I just like to hang out with little kids,” she says. “It’s satisfying and I get experience working with them.”

Sarah Burris of Charlottesville, Va., a sophomore human development major in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, shares a similar motivation – class requirements – with Jones, but claims she might otherwise be doing this same work through her church, which is also a Valley Interfaith Child Care Center-supporting congregation.

Burris says she has volunteered in the past through high school clubs and her church youth group, but she admits this particular effort has presented a few new situations that have challenged her. Nevertheless, the overall experience has been a good one, she says. “I have enjoyed helping the site and the children.”

The center’s primary focus is on preparing the children for full participation in later schooling. Participants learn to sit in a group, to follow directions, and -- according to Barton -- to “use words, not fists.” Instead, children are encouraged to identify and express feelings, to use simple problem-solving strategies effectively, and to receive the nurturing benefit of appropriate physical contact. Special attention is also given to what St. Marie terms “pre-science and pre-math,” or “getting used to the world around them.” Investigations into the natural environment stimulate inborn inquisitiveness, while art projects spark fledgling creativity, she notes.

The center first opened in Christiansburg in 2004 and expanded to include a Blacksburg site early last year, the VICCC was created to provide high quality, education-based child care for the very young children (ages 4 and under) of lower income working families, a much-needed resource in the community.

St. Marie says she believes that what children learn and experience in their very early years will greatly form and affect their future lives, and that helping to meet the developmental needs of youngsters is, essentially, an investment in the future of our society and is everyone’s responsibility.

Buoyed by a cooperative mix of local government and social service agencies, civic groups, private individuals, and a long list of faith communities, center locations are served by a fully credentialed staff. This effort is augmented through the contributions of many volunteers, including the students from Virginia Tech.

Josh Johns of Stafford, Va., a senior majoring in natural resource conservation in the College of Natural Resources, has a long history of volunteering. He began helping at the center since spring 2006. Since his efforts during high school were centered on the elderly, Johns says working at the opposite end of the spectrum has been a unique experience for him.

Johns says he’s a firm believer in making a contribution, wherever you are, and claims that volunteering “gives me more of a servant-oriented attitude, which helps me focus on making a difference.” When considering his service at the center, he admits he’s gotten as much or more from the experience as he’s given to it, including heightened people-management skills.

It takes a lot of caring to combat the stressors of today’s world and, as so aptly stated by Johns, “Really caring about others is not a feeling that we just turn on and off; it requires that we put some effort into it. Volunteering is just the manifestation of genuinely caring about other people — and there is always a need for it if we’re willing to look,” said Johns.

Another volunteer, Corey Gordon, is a human development major in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences from Gainesville, Fla. St. Marie and Barton warmly tell stories of his volunteer work with the center. “You see this huge man interacting with a young child, and are aware of the open-ended, give-and-take exchange,” St. Marie says. They both agree there’s a real sense of play about it, an opportunity for these adult volunteers get to act like little kids again; sometimes even taking on play personas. On the more serious side, Barton adds that it’s a “connection with an adult that the children might not get at home from stressed, overworked parents.”

Written by Sharon Crane.