Tiger Club partners with Bush Elementary to mentor youths

by University Communications,

Twenty pairs of hands reach for her, plucking the water bottles from Cassidy Gammill’s grasp.

These aren’t ordinary water bottles.

They are filled with equal concentrations of vegetable oil and water, stained red with food coloring. By observing the liquids, Gammill wants the 7- and 8-year-olds to learn why the two won’t mix.

But before she can explain the purpose of the science project, one student unscrews the cap from his bottle and takes a sip.

“Evan, does that taste good?” Gammill asks pointedly, shushing the other students so they can hear his reply.

“Yes!” Evan screams, erupting into giggles. Then, a minute later, he changes his mind. “Guys,” he says quietly. “Don’t drink that.”

As a coordinator for Willamette University’s Tiger Club, Gammill ’13 has experienced everything from temper tantrums to enthusiastic hugs while mentoring students at Bush Elementary this past year.

Seeing the youths excited to learn is why she keeps coming back.

“Sometimes things don’t turn out the way you want to, and you have to keep on going,” says Gammill, an economics major. “I think we’re giving individual attention to students who need it.”

Entrepreneurial Undertaking

Established by Willamette students in 2007, Tiger Club is a structured, after-school program that provides mentoring and tutoring services to students at Bush Elementary. Most of its funding is provided by the Hull Family Foundation, which promotes social justice, arts and culture.

Twice a week, a handful of the club’s 20-plus members spend a couple hours making learning fun for kids. Typical activities include games of dodge ball and tag, tempered by the scholastic pursuits of reading books and solving math problems.

“We do fun things because we want to spark some enjoyment in learning,” says Bella Feibert ’13, a psychology major who manages the club with Gammill. “I like the challenge.”

Feibert joined Tiger Club as a freshman. During the past few years, she says the club has undergone many changes — from preparing students for state tests to helping them with their reading and vocabulary.

Now, she and Gammill say they’ve achieved a balance between work and play — all while demonstrating Willamette’s motto, “Not unto ourselves alone are we born.”

“We’re exposing them to something they didn’t have before,” Gammill says. “Our hope is that the students listen to our stories and see how excited the volunteers are about school. We talk a lot about the clubs at Willamette, and all the different things you can do here.”

Eight-year-old McKayla Rojas Garcia, for one, has taken these lessons to heart. As someone who frequently attends Tiger Club meetings, she says she looks forward to spending time with the Willamette volunteers each week.

“The most fun is getting to learn, getting to play and getting prizes, like candy and erasers,” Rojas Garcia says. “These guys are fun.”

Filling a Need

Tanya Hauck, a first-grade teacher at Bush Elementary, says Tiger Club is making a profound difference in the lives of her students — many of whom live in low-income neighborhoods.

What these children need, she says, are positive role models who demonstrate the value of staying in school.

“The students selected for Tiger Club are struggling academically. But through the intervention efforts, their reading levels and self confidence are improving,” she says. “They get to do this really special thing, and they really look up to those Willamette University students.”

For Feibert, who aspires to become an elementary school teacher herself, Tiger Club gives her early exposure to the rigors of lesson planning and behavioral management.

It’s also cemented the belief that she’s chosen the right path for herself.

“We are mini-teachers,” she says. “Hearing them say they don’t want to go home because they’re having too much fun is really rewarding.”

The Tiger Club after-school program runs Tuesdays and Thursdays from 3 to 4:30 p.m. For more information on becoming a Tiger Club volunteer, email Cassidy Gammill at cgammill@willamette.edu or Bella Feibert at ifeibert@willamette.edu.