COMMUNITY CHILD PROJECT TURNS LOCAL KIDS ON TO THE POWER OF WORDS
On a weekday morning at St. Vincent DePaul School in Syracuse, a group of preschoolers gathers around English and women's studies professor Rosaria Champagne and students Kristen Guarente '99 and Sarah Smith '00. "We're going to read a story called Community Child that we wrote especially for you," Champagne tells the children. "Then we want you to draw pictures of yourself and your family and friends; people you love and who love you."
Moments later, markers and crayons in hand, the kids go to work creating an assortment of people, faces, and other images, including a "cat with fur between its toes," as one young artist describes her picture. A 4-year-old named Ashley draws a sun and says, "Kirsten (her friend) can reach up to it."
Champagne, Guarente, and Smith immerse themselves in the action, quickly befriending the youngsters, talking with them about their drawings, and offering encouragement. "I really enjoy watching the children create and seeing how they interpret things," Guarente says. "They come up with some amazing work."
St. Vincent DePaul was one of several city school sites and community centers where Champagne and students in her research program gave readings and collected artwork this spring as part of the Community Child Project, a children's literacy initiative. The project's ultimate goal is to publish Community Child, a children's book written by Champagne and her students that features the kids' illustrations. The book will be distributed locally to HeadStart, hospitals, schools, and children's centers, and its rights will be given to Success By 6, a local children's advocacy organization. "They can continue publishing it and have it as a renewable resource," says project member Laura Clay '01, "because the need for new books is tremendous."
According to Champagne, more than 40 percent of Syracuse schoolchildren enter first grade lacking the language skills needed to succeed. For the SU students, producing Community Child became a way to confront this startling statistic head-on. They want to combat illiteracy and understand its underlying causes; turn kids on to the power of words, build their self-esteem, and create a sense of community. The two-semester project involved much more than the demanding work of publishing a book, however. The group, which also included Laura Deschaines '01, Danielle DeSiato '00, Sara Hopp '99, Margaret Kip '99, Alison Kwan '01,
Sarah Smith '00, center, shown here with students at Roberts Elementary School in Syracuse, is one of several SU students involved in the Community Child Project, a childrenŐs literacy initiative.
Pilar Reid '00, Kimberly Yonkers '99, and graduate student Tobi Jacobi, studied the link between illiteracy and poverty through readings and discussions, talked about such issues as state funding for education, and kept journals reflecting on the project. They visited schools and met with educators; did readings for books on tape; hosted a community art exhibition of the illustrations; and participated in last fall's Success By 6 book drive that netted 15,000 books, including close to 5,000 from campus. "Illiteracy is such an overwhelming problem," says DeSiato, a Success By 6 intern who organized the book drive. "As a team, we wanted to do the little things that make a difference."
Without the group's collective efforts, the project would have been an insurmountable task, Champagne says. The students cast aside ideological differences and developed a community of trust and support among themselves. They drew on their academic skills and personal talents, community contacts, creative visions, energy, and determination to learn from each other, have fun together, and successfully contribute to enhancing children's literacy at the local level. "In our book we define community as 'the friends you have and the friends you haven't met yet,'" says Champagne, who hopes the project will become a permanent program at SU. "These students have created a community that shows us Generation X isn't bored, apathetic, cynical, or unmotivated. They are idealistic, savvy, enthusiastic, and not afraid to tackle big problems."