Volunteering at WordPlay offers more than academic rewards

Before WordPlay Cincy ever opened its doors on Hamilton Avenue, volunteer Suzanne Schindler was already dedicated to the fledgling non-profit’s success.

The professional event planner and Western Hills resident had long admired similar non-profits in San Francisco and Brooklyn, both branches of Dave Eggers’ 826 National literacy and creative writing-focused operations. So when she learned about WordPlay and its similar mission, she quickly signed up to help—and rolled up her sleeves.

“I painted walls, moved furniture, cleaned out storage spaces and swept floors,” said the 43-year-old owner of SMS Events who has helped pull off major events around town, including the Bunbury Music Festival.

Some tasks came more naturally than others, she admitted. “With some reluctance, I hung the crocodile photos in the bathroom.”

Spreading a can-do spirit

As Schindler did her part to shape and celebrate the quirky atmosphere that embodies WordPlay’s spirited approach to learning—where else can you tutor a student who is lounging in a pillow-filled clawfoot tub?—she always looked for additional ways to help.

Beyond alphabetizing books, reorganizing the storage room and staffing booths at special events around the neighborhood, Schindler has also donated her professional talents.

She helped plan WordPlay’s first birthday party and turned the successful fundraiser into an opportunity to bring together the non-profit’s diverse family, including youth, tutors and community members.

“Suzanne is such an amazing resource for WordPlay,” said Executive Director Libby Hunter. “She takes on every new challenge, from a day of tutoring to event planning, with a sincere enthusiasm that inspires everyone around her.”

Getting to know students, one story at a time

WordPlay students also count on Schindler, who has volunteered nearly 200 hours in the last two and a half years. For two hours every other week, she works with students on homework, reads alongside them and helps them with a variety of creative projects.

She recalled a recent tutoring session with a third-grader. For reading time, a required element of every WordPlay visit, he chose “The Bully Book.” Written as a tongue-in-cheek manual for bullies intercut with diary entries from a victim of bullying, it hits on common grade-school (and lifelong) fears and experiences.

After reading about 10 pages, Schindler turned the young man’s attention to a set of discussion questions. “What is bullying?” she read the first one to him.

“It’s making people feel bad about themselves,” he responded.

When she asked if he had ever been bullied, he nodded yes.

“I was surprised,” Schindler said. “I told him that it made my heart hurt to hear this because to me he is a good kid—interesting, smart.”

They continued reading, but as tutoring time drew to a close, Schindler knew she had something more to offer her young friend. She asked him if she could share some advice her father had given her. He quickly agreed.

“When someone’s bullying you, just walk away,” she said. “Pretend they’re not even there. Because the big secret about bullying is that they need you to cooperate, and if you refuse to do that, eventually they’ll leave you alone.”

Lessons learned

At first, Schindler simply felt grateful to be able to share some of father’s advice with a new generation. But then, as she and the student were packing up for the day, she saw a powerful message scribbled in his daily record-keeping log where there is space to write “what I learned today.”

“I learned to walk away when you are getting bullied,” he had written.

Schindler played it cool on the outside, but in the inside, her heart melted. “I felt good that something I said from my heart had reached him and maybe will make a difference for him,” she said.

The experience helped her summarize the power of what students gain from spending time at WordPlay.

“We are giving kids some self-confidence and armor against what threatens them,” Schindler said.

While she knows there’s no easy answer or quick-fix to bullying or any other complex challenge facing the youngest members of our community, she sees WordPlay as providing some hopeful starting points.

“If I did nothing else that day,” she said, “at least I gave him a new way of handling a real problem in his life. On a day when my own self-esteem was faltering, it made me feel better about myself, too.”

Would you like to be part of the WordPlay volunteer team? WordPlay is currently accepting applications for volunteers for our weekday afterschool programs as well as our Saturday sessions. For more information and an online application, visit http://www.wordplaycincy.org or call Kirsten at 513-541-0930

By Elissa Yancey. Co-Founder and Chair of the Board at WordPlay Cincy, Elissa is the Director of Media and Communications for the Office of the Provost at the University of Cincinnati. She is also an inaugural Images and Voices of Hope Fellow working on a long-form restorative narrative.

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