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Professor, Students Working
To Make a Difference for Children

Date: Feb. 28, 2002
By: Marianne Kunnen-Jones
Phone: (513) 556-1826
Photos by: Dottie Stover, Lisa Ventre
Archive: Campus News

After gobbling up a snack of cheese and crackers, animal crackers and bright red Chester's Fries, Sydney Rahe must get down to work. School's over for the day, but homework still waits.

Lea Ottenheimer and Sydney

No, Sydney, a third-grader at A.B. Miree Academy, doesn't like to do homework, but she voices her approval of UC senior and English major Lea Ottenheimer, who has volunteered to help her out. Ottenheimer is volunteering four hours a week this quarter to tutor at the Reading the Write Way program in Roselawn. The after-school program helps inner-city youngsters, age 6-19, improve their academic skills, particularly in reading and writing.

"We have fun even though we're working hard," says Ottenheimer, as Sydney bends over a worksheet with a pencil in hand, still wearing the blue shirt and tan pants of her school uniform. The first 10 problems require Sydney to write the singular form of plural words or the plural form of singular words. The first word is eagle. Sydney writes a 2 in the blank space next to it. "We're not doing math," teases Ottenheimer. "Make it plural," she says. "What's the plural of eagle?" Sydney replies, "Eagles." "Write 'eagles' over here," Ottenheimer points to the space next to eagle as Sydney uses her pencil to fill the blank.

Ten words later, the two flip the paper over to move on to another set of problems -sentences that must be labeled compound subject, compound sentence or compound predicate.

Ottenheimer's presence at Reading the Write Way is prompted by the Advanced Composition course she is taking, taught by Wayne Hall, professor of English in the McMicken College of Arts and Sciences. Greater writing experience and better writing skills aren't the only thing students in Hall's course are gaining during winter quarter. Students are also learning how to make a difference in the lives of Cincinnati's poor children.

Hall added a service learning requirement to his course partly in response to comedian Bill Cosby's challenge to the audience at Commencement 2001 to "do something about this city." Cosby urged listeners to "make a difference," to put Cincinnati in order because "your children are coming." Another motivation for Hall's revised course came from headlines last fall reporting that more than one in three Cincinnati children live in poverty. He decided to create a course that would work to address this very real and pressing social problem.

"The thematic center of this course is children living in disadvantaged circumstances, and our various reading and writing assignments are all directed towards different aspects of that theme," he says.

Hall teamed with the Children's Defense Fund (CDF) to match students to agencies in need of volunteers. CDF staff member Mike Kammerer spoke to the class, giving students an exercise in budgeting. He asked students to pretend they were single mothers of two living on incomes ranging from minimum wage (77 percent of the federal poverty level) to $13.35 per hour (200 percent of the federal poverty level). Struggling to pay for necessities like rent, food, transportation and health care, the students learned that "one big bill will not only put them into further debt, but in most cases (will also) break the bank so to speak," said Kammerer. "I suppose the real motivation here is to put these students in someone else's shoes."

Other speakers were Fritz Casey-Leininger, who discussed the creation of Cincinnati and Hamilton County's racial segregation and ghettos. Karen Kahle presented the key factors that affect the educational and life success of children in Ohio and Greater Cincinnati. Eileen Cooper-Reed discussed local education reform and child safety issues. Students also learned how to fill out applications for the no-cost health benefits in a state-funded program to help families with little or no medical insurance.

Sadie McGee at Mercy Connections

After a couple of weeks of orientation, students began service in local agencies. Christine Bull works writing grants for the Greater Cincinnati Oral Health Council. Chris Jurczak volunteers as a tutor at Hamilton County Head Start in Newtown. Other assignments include mentoring adults on how to use computers at Mercy Connections in Avondale and helping pregnant teens at clinics around the city. Sadie McGee, English major and McNicholas High School graduate, spends two hours a week searching through client files at Mercy Connections and making phone calls to find families without medical insurance. The purpose is to help them apply for a state-funded medical program called Healthy Start/Healthy Families and keep them from falling through the cracks if they need medical assistance.

Ottenheimer's Roselawn assignment proved to be just what she wanted. Tutoring youngsters will help her test her future plans to become a teacher.

But at first she wasn't happy about having to do a service project. "I was a bit annoyed, because I thought it would really be a burden on me." But then she changed her mind as she read a course assignment, Jonathan Kozol's "Ordinary Resurrections."

"I gained a whole new perspective," she says. Kozol's experiences with tutoring and teaching poor children in New York's Bronx made her realize how much she could learn from working with inner-city children herself. "I have little experience with kids who have come from circumstances that are more difficult than mine were," said Ottenheimer, 1995 graduate of Villa Madonna in Northern Kentucky. Ottenheimer did work several summers at Camp Fitch. Among the junior high and high school kids at the camp were inner-city kids from Youngstown.

Ottenheimer's classmate, Terrah Lee, was excited about the chance to do volunteer work. Cincinnati's unrest "made it very real to everybody that we have a real racial problem that we need to fix and fix fast. Because it is not going away. I'm glad to see a professor is doing something and using his means to help."

The fifth-year English major from Hamilton had made a New Year's resolution to be more involved in her community. "It's hard to have the motivation to go out and find some work to do," admits the 1997 Badin High School graduate. "I am just happy to learn about things that are relevant to our community, get to help people and get a grade for it."

Lee volunteers at the University Hospital Teen Center, where the clinic works to give health education and care to pregnant women and children from birth to 19 years old. "I think one person can have an impact, and I think one classroom of young adults can have an impact. The most satisfying thing will be that I tried. Even if I don't have a big impact, at least I tried," she says.

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