[Ed note: This is the latest in the Doing Good series which features stories of Southborough residents who are doing their part to help the causes they hold near and dear. In this installment we hear from Girl Scout Emily Van Learhoven about her efforts this summer to put together a training program for special needs babysitters.]
by Emily Van Laarhoven
I am a seventeen-year-old Girl Scout in Southborough and I just completed my Gold Award Community Service Project, which is the Girl Scout equivalent of the Eagle Scout Project. In the fall of 2011 when I was still in the brainstorming phase of my project I talked to my neighbor, Donna Fantozzi, who is a passionate advocate for the special needs community. I knew that I wanted to do a project to benefit kids with special needs and their families, and she connected me with Jennifer Ostroff, the district Autism specialist.
Ms. Ostroff pointed out to me that families of special needs children often have difficulty finding qualified babysitters to watch their children. I decided that I would recruit interested teens from Northborough and Southborough and train them to babysit for children with special needs.
By the spring my project was picking up steam and I got approval from my Girl Scout Council. I also arranged to have my volunteers spend time observing and helping out in the Academic/Social Pragmatics programs for kids with special needs at both Finn Elementary School in Southborough and Melican Middle School in Northborough.
I was so excited because I realized that the project benefitted three distinct groups of people. First and foremost, the families of special needs children in Northborough and Southborough would have an accessible list of babysitters. This was very important to me since I had heard from my neighbor that parents often had to pay $25 – $30 per hour for adult professional babysitters.
Second, I knew that it would benefit the volunteers, who would gain valuable experience and also be able to charge slightly more than the average $8 – $10 that they would usually get paid for typical babysitting jobs. Lastly, I hoped that the summer programs at Melican and Finn would appreciate the help in the classroom and the added social interactions for the children in the program.
Once I got all of the pieces in place I recruited volunteers from Melican and Trottier Middle School and they each signed up for one or more weeks of volunteering at either Melican or Finn. The program at Melican ended the first week in August and the program at Finn continued until the last week of summer.
I spent three weeks in the classroom with each new shift of volunteers, and I personally learned so much from observing how the teachers interacted with the students and from working with the students myself. It was inspiring to see the improvement in the special needs students over the course of the summer, and I was very impressed with the maturity and enthusiasm of the volunteers, who brought so much fun energy into the classroom. For example, one of the volunteers from the first week of the program brought in her iPod and a stuffed bear that acted as a speaker so that the volunteers and the students could have a dance party at recess. It was a perfect break from a morning of math facts and reading packets, and the kids remembered it for the rest of the summer.
The last step in my project was to hold two workshops just for the volunteers to teach skills that were specific to babysitting – first aid, questions to ask parents, etc. We also discussed what we learned in the classroom in more detail, and the girls once again surprised me with their insights.
At the end of the workshop they all filled out profiles with their contact information and a description of their experience with special needs kids, which I have since compiled into a binder. I hope to pass the binder off to one of the specialists in the school district so that the parents of special needs children can have access to this list and benefit from the hard work of the volunteers this summer.
(Image: Emily Van Laarhoven, contributed)