On September 19th, City Year Tulsa held its first official Opening Day ceremony, with 50 corps members taking the pledge to serve and support students in six Tulsa public schools. During the ceremony, Annamaria Sirguro, spoke about her decision to serve for a second year, and how she's had an impact in the lives of students. This is her speech:
The first time I can remember serving my community was when I was in first grade. Service had always been an important value in my family, and family-bonding events often involved volunteering for different organizations and projects. This first memory of a project involved building a new playground in my hometown—La Porte, IN. Most of the playground had been built by the time I arrived with my family, but we helped stain and paint the wood structures. At the end of the day, the project managers helped us put our hand prints, names, and date on the walls. When I was old enough to babysit my siblings, I would often take them to this park, and we would race to find all of the family hand prints. Being the oldest, I always won.
Service projects like this one began to fill my life even more as I grew older, and I realized that the times I felt most alive were when I was giving to others. As my senior year at Butler University began winding to an end, I realized I wanted to take time off of school to help others in some capacity. With this in mind, I applied to multiple service and nonprofit organizations including City Year. I ultimately committed to becoming a City Year AmeriCorps member in Tulsa, Oklahoma because I loved the organization’s belief in young people leading and serving other young people.
Before I made the 11-hour drive southwest, I had so many questions. What grade level would I be serving in? What would City Year be like? What would TULSA be like? Where exactly WAS Tulsa? Despite my questions, I took a leap of faith, packed my car, hugged my family goodbye, and headed to a new part of the country.
Once I arrived in Tulsa, I immediately felt insecure and homesick. I didn’t have a teaching degree, and I was alone in a new city. However, once City Year started, I began to feel much more at home. I was surrounded by a group of young people from all backgrounds who were all eager to change the lives of children in Tulsa. These colleagues quickly grew into lifelines and lifelong friends.
My students also helped to give me perspective. In fact, my students are ultimately the reason I decided to serve for a second year with City Year Tulsa. Samuel and I had a rough start at the beginning of last year. He barely acknowledged me when I first became part of his third-grade classroom, and he often kept his head down on his desk. He became easily defeated when he didn’t understand the material and embarrassed by his first-grade reading level. He needed extra time to process the material and a lot of extra positive support, which was hard to get in a classroom full of students.
In order to try and reach Samuel, I would go over to his desk every morning and talk to him. He usually kept his head down, but I knew he could hear me. Every once in a while something I would say would intrigue him, his head would turn to the side, and I could see his face spark with interest. Pretty soon he was comfortable enough with me to go out in the hallway to work.
Over time and with multiple interventions, positive reinforcements, and high-fives, Samuel gained confidence. I began saying “Ding! Ding! Ding!” after he answered questions correctly, and he LOVED it. For whatever reason, that little phrase motivated him enough on some days to push himself to try one more question.
Half way through the year, Samuel’s head began to lift off of the desk more frequently, and he started to raise his hand to answer questions after I would compliment his work. He started to ask me to read with him every day, and gradually we moved from picture books to chapter books. Magic Tree House books became his favorite, and we read multiple books from that series.
By the end of the year, Samuel had reached a third-grade reading level, and had more importantly gained a love of reading and a boost of confidence. He had also gained confidence in other areas. He was invited to participate in the school’s drums program, and this also became a source of pride for him. I felt like a proud mom as I sat at one of his performances waving and taking pictures.
Before I left for summer, I wanted to give Samuel a meaningful “good-bye” gift through which he could remember our time together and his personal growth over the year. I ended up giving him his very own Magic Tree House book with a note on the inside about our year together and his progress. When I returned to Kendall-Whittier this year, he found me to tell me he still has the book and had read the whole thing. As I arrive at KW every morning this year Samuel greets me with a grin and a high-five or hug, and it starts the day off right. This year has taught me, I’m never going to forget Samuel and all of the students he represents.
My name is Annamaria Sirugo, and I proudly serve as a Team Leader on the Lobeck-Taylor Family Foundation Team at Kendall-Whittier Elementary.
To my fellow City Year corps members today we have become official AmeriCorps members and have earned the privilege of wearing this red City Year jacket for the next 9 months. This jacket represents you and every single City Year AmeriCorps member who wore it before you. It is also a promise that we make to every student that we work with that their dreams of who they will become when they grow up can become a reality with education. As a corps member you make a commitment to each student to be present, to be hopeful, and to believe in them even when they may not believe in themselves.
In the symbolic passing of the red jacket from our start up corps to this founding corps--I challenge you this year to see past a student’s barriers to focus on their opportunities for success, look past what you can’t change in a year, and focus on the big changes that you can make in a student’s self-confidence and academics. Help your students build a community that they want to live in, not just a community that they were given. And don’t forget about the impact that this year will have on each of you. Take time to reflect and celebrate the small wins and the big ones, too. And most importantly, what it means to wear this red jacket every day with purpose and pride. Thank you to the corps members of 2014-2015 inaugural City Year Tulsa corps for your service and commitment. Good luck this year! I look forward to hearing all about your very own Samuels.
Annamaria passing the symbolic red jacket to Jerico Phillips, a first year Founding Corps member.