flyers with pictures and descriptions of volunteers

Learning and Love: Volunteering with Journal Buddies

Written by Jenny Wiland

Learning and love come together in a volunteer program coordinated by elementary school teachers and Hillsdale College students. Gier Reading and Journal Buddies, a GOAL volunteering program, allows students at Gier Elementary to develop their reading and writing skills by writing in a journal with a college-aged “buddy.” Elementary students are paired up with volunteers, and they write letters to each other in journals like pen pals. While younger students and college volunteers alike face occasional challenges, the program remains a wonderful source of both academic and relational support.

Volunteers serve not only as academic assistants for the kids to practice writing, but also as mentors for them. “They definitely look up to the college volunteers, and think of them like a big brother or a big sister,” says Paula Skwarek ‘23. “I think they appreciate having someone to ask questions to that isn’t a sibling or a teacher. Through those journals, they end up learning a lot about what it’s like to be an adult in the real world.”

Paula began volunteering with Journal Buddies in the fall of 2019, and this year, she’s serving as the program leader. She recognizes the benefits of the program for the volunteers as well as the children. “It’s healthy to just talk to a kid every once in a while. I think that’s good for our mental health, and it’s good to pass on some knowledge to someone.”

This communication is healthy, but it can also be challenging. Volunteers sometimes have difficulty connecting with students who are significantly younger, especially when the kids don’t have fully developed writing or typing skills. “I’ve learned that it’s really important to have an open mind,” Paula notes. “There’s always a way to find a common ground. It just takes communication and effort from both of them.”

This continued effort has been essential as volunteers  navigate the changes brought about by COVID-19. This year, Paula has worked for hours with the teachers to figure out how to make Journal Buddies possible when they couldn’t have physical journals anymore. Even when they began using an online format, some of the kids were sent home sick, and without direct supervision from their teachers, they sometimes struggled to get their journal entries in on time. Despite these difficulties, the program is standing strong, thanks to the dedication of both Gier teachers and Hillsdale volunteers.

The online format also made it more challenging to maintain the personal quality of the journal entries.  “It used to be really nice to see the students’ handwriting, and how sometimes even throughout the school year their penmanship would improve from the beginning to May. Now they’re learning how to type, and that’s been more difficult because it seems a little less personal when you don’t have the little doodles in the margins, or the drawings they could have added themselves, or their silly spelling mistakes.” But with encouragement from the teachers and from Paula, kids and volunteers have found creative ways to preserve the warmth of a handwritten letter. They add pictures to their journal entries, and they try to make them more exciting with special colors or fonts.

Kids and volunteers both value Journal Buddies enough to push past the challenges of communication and COVID. Through the program, kids learn to write better, and volunteers learn to love them like little brothers and sisters—all through the simple act of writing letters. “It’s such a simple way to bring joy to someone’s life right now, when they’re really struggling to find something to cling to,” says Paula.

Headshot of student Jenny WilandJenny Wiland, ’23, plans to study psychology and graphic design. She loves her cat, dark chocolate, and writing stories, especially science fiction and fantasy.

Published in March 2021