How appropriate that the teacher’s name was "Hope." Because that’s what her message was all about.
Recently I had the great fortune to talk with Hope Vrato, a literacy teacher at Fairhill Elementary School in Philadelphia. Fairhill is Comcast’s and Big Brothers Big Sisters’ partner in the John Alchin Beyond School Walls program.
Typically, about 30 fourth-grade "Littles" visit their "Bigs" every other week at the Comcast Center. However, this final session of the school year was "reverse day." So I joined the Bigs as we piled into a classic yellow school bus for the 15-minute ride to Fairhill.
We were greeted warmly at Fairhill by teachers and students, and led to the library for lunch and festivities. And for me, a quiet chat with Hope.
She said this type of program, where young children interact with adults they probably would not otherwise meet, "gives them a lot of self-esteem. And it’s particularly good for them to see so many male role models.
"They’re at a very important time in their young lives. They now have more positive things to seek and look forward to as they grow up. This gives them aspiration and drive. And because they’ve been to the Comcast Center and know people who work there, they can have a vision of being there someday themselves. I can’t tell you how great this is for all of them."
Hope said she’d seen a lot of changes at the school and in the neighborhood during her 23 years at Fairhill. The moment I arrived it was obvious the school is a bustling, high-energy oasis in a North Philly neighborhood that’s seen hard times. Many of the students’ families are below the poverty line. Some live near boarded-up homes, and the streets aren’t always safe.
As you’ll see in the accompanying video, all that was forgotten for more than an hour. Littles challenged their Bigs on the basketball court – and, in truth, literally "took them to school" in the process. Other Littles led their Bigs on a tour – one exclaiming, "I’m the Big today!"
There were hugs, hands being held, and lots of one-on-one conversations about school, life and whatever else was important to the Littles. I could see that many close connections had been made since the program kicked off last November 6. Many of these connections will be maintained in the summer and renewed in the fall, when the program continues at Fairhill.
One of the most interested – and proudest – observers was John Alchin himself, Comcast’s former co-CFO who is a long-time supporter of Big Brothers Big Sisters. John was all smiles as he talked with the kids and staff from BBBS and Fairhill.
Beyond School Walls is a key element of Comcast’s three-year agreement with Big Brothers Big Sisters. In the fall, Beyond School Walls will expand further in Philadelphia, and also to schools similar to Fairhill in Hartford, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Salt Lake City and Houston.
All told, about 150 Comcasters will be matched with Littles for the 2009-2010 school year. That means 150 more opportunities to do something vitally important: help open young minds to hopes and dreams that otherwise might not seem possible.