Bringing necessary skills to the community

By Jennifer Bieman
February 27, 2014

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LiTIllustration by Frank Neufeld

Small budget, big impact. That’s the challenge for Learning it Together (LiT), a large, student-run volunteer organization at Western.

The community outreach program pairs Western undergraduates with local elementary school children through eight-week, after-school programs. With the help of its dedicated volunteers, LiT will reach approximately 250 children this upcoming year – all with a budget of well under $10,000.

LiT is a dynamic, volunteer-driven health promotion program out of Western’s Faculty of Health Sciences that aims to improve early literacy, numeracy and healthy living skills through mentorship and role modeling. The organization pairs a university-age mentor with a London elementary school student of lower socio-economic status in Grades 1 or 3 and guides them through a unique eight-week after school program.


This year, Western volunteers were placed in eight elementary schools and one housing community in the London area, said Heer Shah, LiT program director.

During every two-hour session, LiT facilitators strive to build a one-on-one mentoring relationship with their elementary school “buddy,” Shah said. “It’s kind of great when there is that one kid looking for you every week and is excited to see you.”

Together in a group setting, mentors and their buddies participate in a fast-paced, interactive program designed to challenge students to learn and grow through play. The program is free of charge.

Shah, a fourth-year Political Science and French student, has been volunteering with LiT for three years.

Since the goal of the program is to build an individual role-model relationship with students, children are able to decide which volunteer they would like as their mentor. “You have to let your kids choose you,” Shah said.

In one activity last year, volunteers invited the children to put glitter on their hands and used it as a teachable moment to discuss how germs are spread. In another, volunteers used inflated balloons to help demonstrate the importance of lung health. Volunteers and students play math games, read together and enjoy healthy snacks during the program.

This upcoming year is expected to be the largest program in its seven-year history. With the support of Health Sciences, and a grant from the Acorn Fund for Youth, LiT  started running after-school programs throughout the city in January.

At its core, the program is about reaching out and helping students on an individual level through role modeling and mentorship. “People just gain confidence when you give them that positive reinforcement over time,” said Shah, who eventually wants to become a teacher herself.

“(LiT) offers people a chance to actually make a big difference in your community, to do something for your community and it’s really great for that reason,” said Dan Passafiume, volunteer co-ordinator.

Passafiume, 20, a Health Sciences student, has volunteered with LiT since attending an information session in his first year. Although the program is open to volunteers from across all faculties, its health promotion mandate makes it particularly attractive to Health Sciences students.

“But the thing that really unites everybody is a passion for working with children,” Passafiume said.

While volunteering at Ealing Public School in his first year, Passafiume was paired with an extremely shy student. Gradually, the young boy began opening up and participating in the group activities.

By the end of the eight-week program, he was comfortable interacting with the volunteers, especially Passafiume. The young boy’s parent told Passafiume he looked forward to the program all week long.

“It’s a very, very great feeling being able to know that you’ve actually impacted these kids,” Passafiume said.

For both Shah and Passafiume, the experience of volunteering with LiT has opened their eyes.

“We’ve learned that we’ve grown up very privileged and that we are very lucky. Some kids don’t have it like we had it when we were younger,” Shah said.

“It’s a nice way to pop that ‘Western bubble,’” Passafiume added.


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