At 4 p.m. in the basement of the New Day Community Church, there’s the barely contained chaos of at least 30 kids just released from school. They’re here for the E7 Kids Cafe, a community program that provides a safe after-school program for kids in the East End neighborhood of Lexington to get a snack and do homework.
Demond Green, 8, is wrestling with Daniel White, a junior at the University of Kentucky, who’s been volunteering at Kids Cafe for the past three semesters.
“Honestly, one of the best parts is getting to see these kids grow up,” White said. “Getting to be a part of their lives is such a privilege.”
White, a Lexington native, wanted to do more in his community when he got to UK. That’s when he found the UK Service Corps, which sends interested UK students to different programs around Lexington that need volunteers. Those students usually volunteer once a week, and that continuity makes a big difference, said Tanya Roodhouse, the Kids Cafe director.
“Some of the students have been coming for almost six semesters, so the kids really start to form lasting relationships,” she said. “That makes everything easier.”
The UK Service Corps grew out of UK’s Center for Community Outreach, which organizes everything from alternative service breaks, when students spend their spring breaks on service projects, to the Big Blue Pantry, which helps UK students with food insecurity.
Graduate student Christine Leistner, who advises the Corps, said that about four years ago “we noticed that our community partners, especially the ones who serve children, needed more long-term volunteers. So we decided to form one program that serves kids because they need the same person to show up every week.
“We’re based on the idea that positive relationships with adults promote resilience in kids and communities,” Leistner said.
In addition to volunteering in the community, corps members tutor kids on campus with Operation Motivation, and go to the Martin Luther King Jr. Academy for Excellence twice a week for tutoring.
Once students have done three semesters with the corps, they become site leaders and are eligible to earn one academic credit.
“It’s our way of giving them credit for awesome work they’re doing and hold them accountable,” Leistner said. “But the cool thing about it is the students end up wanting to do it multiple semesters because they get attached to the kids because they see the kids get attached to them.”
That’s true for Sydney Hill, a UK freshman from Ohio, who’s been coming to Kids Cafe all semester, and is helping Olivia Mess with her homework.
“I just love all the kids,” she said.
Right now, the Service Corps has about 60 students, but Leistner expects it to keep growing, especially with new programs, such as Running Forward, which mentors kids with physical activity.
The Service Corps students have three meetings a year with Leistner and other organizers to learn more about issues, such as poverty and racism, and to report back on how their service affects them.
“They say ‘this has changed my outlook on life and society,’” Leistner said. “It’s having some impact on their broader sense of the way things work and what they want to do with their lives.”
So many UK students come from so much privilege that it’s important they see that many others don’t share it, said UK’s Daniel White.
“These kids have shown me how to have more joy,” he said, “when sometimes I don’t cherish the things I have.”