There are plenty of ways to get involved in St. Louis, and sometimes the most rewarding experiences can be found in unexpected places. We talked with several local nonprofits to find volunteer opportunities that suit any interest.
Ready Readers Readyreaders-stlouis.com, 564-8070
“If you can’t read, and you can’t think, your options aren’t there,” says Lisa Greening, executive director of Ready Readers. According to studies, upon entering kindergarten, the average child from a low-income family has a vocabulary of 2,000 words, compared to 20,000 for a middle-income family, she says. “Vocabulary entering kindergarten directly predicts third grade readings scores. Those correlate almost directly with incarceration rates,” she adds.
Ready Readers strives to give kids more options by inspiring them to become readers. About 450 volunteers, including retired school teachers, college students and professionals, visit low-income preschool children (ages 2 to 5) on a weekly basis to read high-quality books. Each visit lasts about 30 minutes, and volunteers visit the same classroom for an entire school year. “That allows you to really get to know these children well and creates a consistency of expectation,” Greening says. “You don’t know what kind of lack of stability is going on at home.”
Every four weeks, Ready Readers provides a book that is personalized for each child, which the volunteer passes out, reads aloud and lets the children take home. Speaking of one such recent visit, volunteer Ann Mandelstamm says, “As I was leaving, the children spontaneously started singing the ABC song, so of course the adults in the room joined in. I came home feeling as if this had been one of the richest days of my life, and believe me, I’ve had some rich ones.”
Gateway Greening, Inc. Gatewaygreening.org, 588-9600
As spring draws closer, those of us with a green thumb are ready to get outdoors. Gateway Greening is a nonprofit that promotes community development, health and wellness through community gardening. The organization provides garden resources as well as educational opportunities.
“There’s the dual aspects of gardening, whether it’s the production—growing healthy foods that you know the history of—or the social component that relates to the community,” says community development coordinator Hannah Reinhart. The group supports 200 gardens, both for school and community use, in lower income neighborhoods throughout St. Louis city and the inner suburbs, she says.
The staff manages the Bell Demonstration Garden, which is open every Saturday between March and November. Fourteen demonstration beds illustrate vegetable growing techniques, and ornamental beds line the edges. Reduced cost seeds are also available, Reinhart says. Volunteers are needed throughout the growing months, she adds, noting that they have the opportunity to interact with the organization’s master gardeners. Other opportunities for volunteers include the City Seeds Urban Farm, which is a 2.5-acre vegetable farm that provides job training and horticulture therapy to St. Patrick Center clients; and Urban Roots, which maintains a landscape border at Kiener Plaza.
Simone Bernsetin first noticed that it was hard for teenagers to find volunteer opportunities at the age of 12. She was looking for something to do during the summer, and wasn’t interested in going to camp. Fortunately, someone recommended The Magic House, where she became involved on a long-term basis, and later she also became involved at the St. Louis Crisis Nursery and the VA Medical Center. Still, she was frustrated that there was no central resource for teens to find volunteer opportunities.
Last year at the age of 17, she started a website, stlouisvolunteen.com, that currently lists volunteer opportunities with 58 organizations. Some lesser-known options include Making Music Matters, which lets volunteers teach violin to inner-city students; Knit for Newborns, which allows volunteers to knit or crochet clothing, blankets and more for babies in need; and Web Innovations & Technology Services (WITS), which teaches volunteers to repair computers that are then donated throughout the region.
Bernstein also sends out short-term opportunities under the Twitter handle @stlvolunteen and is applying for 501c3 tax-exempt status. She has earned grants from both Scholastic and L’Oreal Paris to expand the website, and hopes to make it national. So far, about 1,500 teens have found long-term opportunities through the site, and there are about 2,500 followers on Twitter, she says. “It’s great to see the support in the St. Louis community and now in Western New York. I want to make it a site for teens, run by teens.”