Marlee Henderson is a first year Teaching Fellow in Durham, North Carolina
I remember when I first noticed that some kids grew up differently than I did. I was raised in Durham, North Carolina in a middle class family surrounded by people who had advanced degrees and successful careers. I attended one of the best elementary schools in the Durham Public School system.
My middle school had students from a lot of different neighborhoods and backgrounds. I quickly noticed that I was the only black girl in the advanced classes. I don’t even think it was because I was any smarter than anyone body else, but I had a lot of support and extracurricular activities at home, and a strong foundation from my elementary school.
I remember playing a Family Feud game with my friend who was from a different neighborhood. There was one question about popular summer activities. I answered with things like going on a trips, going to summer camp, and going to the beach. He didn’t have any of those answers and I won the round. That’s when I really realized that not all children grow up the same. While there are many children like me who are privileged enough to have those opportunities, there are even more children who do not.
When I was in college I was interested in philanthropy and nonprofit organizations and I heard about the AmeriCorps National Teaching Fellowship with Citizen Schools. It was a unique service opportunity to work with students in low-income middle schools. I would teach lessons, track grades, train and support volunteers, work with school administration, and get constant coaching and support from my team. But one thing really drew me in.
I learned that Citizen Schools brings the types of adults that I knew growing up-- lawyers, doctors, professors, etc.-- into schools where students might not know anyone in those careers. This made me remember playing that Family Feud game so many years ago. I knew that having seen the opportunity gap firsthand in my own middle school, I wanted to serve as a Teaching Fellow in Durham.
By bringing people into the classroom who wouldn't normally even be in a school, students are able to build relationships with successful adults and adults are able to understand the challenges that some of these students face and make a real difference.
I knew that we were making an impact when we hosted our first family night at Neal Middle School in Durham, where I am now serving. The students were so excited and doing all the cheers we had taught them for their parents. Several parents told me they had never seen their kids so engaged and excited to be at school and then started cheering right along with them. The culture we had created was so welcoming for the students, parents, and everyone we brought into the school.
My first year as an AmeriCorps Teaching Fellow has taught me a lot about the importance of this type of service. Everyone has different career interests, but at the root of all of them is wanting to create a lasting impact and contribute to society. I’ve learned that people, especially young people, should use that desire to serve the greater community.
By pursuing national service opportunities like AmeriCorps programs, you will never lose that mindset of giving back and creating change. I know I will carry this experience with me throughout my entire career and I am proud to be helping students in Durham grow up with the opportunities they deserve.
You can make a difference by applying to be an AmeriCorps Teaching Fellow today.