When Naya Bakaes ‘23 first starting brainstorming ideas for her sophomore project last year, she knew she wanted to help people, but she never dreamed what it would eventually become. Her passion for giving back and providing at-risk students with opportunities to read has grown into an Upper School club with over 30 members. This club - P.E.E.R.S. (stands for “Prepare, Equip, Educate, Read, Succeed”) - has students volunteering once a week at local youth centers where they mentor children one-on-one, help them with homework, and provide them extra encouragement and support.
While researching for her project, Naya became interested in learning more about the “achievement gap,” which predicts that students of lower income homes will have lower success rates in school, in large part due to a lack of resources. Naya recognized the immense privilege of being a student at CCES, citing all the extra support available through teachers being willing to help, tutors, and supportive programs. She knew she wanted to do something to help and through research, found that reading has the potential power to change someone’s future. Naya remembers all the ways CCES incorporates reading into the curriculum, from the very beginning when each Primer has a 4th grade book buddy. Right away, she envisioned a group of students from CCES, who have the experience of receiving support here, going into the Greenville community and giving back to children who are at risk for falling behind academically.
Because of COVID, she had to wait for the opportunity to volunteer in person. However, this gave her ample time to get the logistics set in place. She worked closely with Elizabeth Jarrett, Director of Service and Experiential Learning, to communicate with organizations in Greenville, set up an application for CCES students, and start spreading the word within the student body. Based on conversations with the director at YouthBASE, Naya knew a commitment to consistency would be vital and made it a point of emphasis in her application and interview process.
Elizabeth calls Naya “a remarkable young woman,” who, through passion and organization, “was able to turn this project into a reality.” Through P.E.E.R.S., Naya has built relationships with these organizations and is “truly making the difference she intended to make in children’s lives.” Elizabeth says, “What was originally a small idea for a 14-year-old girl will become Naya’s legacy to CCES and to the programs that she has invested so much time and love in.”
When it came to juggling her own personal commitments, Naya wanted to make it all work but needed to help and support Molly Miller, Varsity Girls Lacrosse Head Coach and Director of Athletics at CCES. Naya has played lacrosse since 7th grade and been a member of the Varsity team since her sophomore year. She approached Coach Miller to try to find a solution for herself and several of her teammates who also serve in P.E.E.R.S. They found a way to move practice back a couple of hours once a week to allow time to still volunteer. Naya says, “I could not be more grateful to Coach Miller for making it work.” Through Miller’s support, additional girls on the lacrosse team started volunteering with P.E.E.R.S.
Molly shares, “When Naya first approached me about this work, I knew our lacrosse program could facilitate a way for students to do both.” She calls Naya’s passion for serving both “evident and contagious.” Miller says, “I am so proud of Naya’s leadership and how she inspires others to lead. She has taken a school project and turned it into a program that positively impacts our community on so many different levels.”
Caroline Alexander ’24 is one of eight girls on the lacrosse team that currently serves with P.E.E.R.S. She calls Tuesday her “favorite day of the week” because of her time at Phillis Wheatley. She loves getting to help kids with learning and calls it “special” being able to build relationships by being there consistently every week.
P.E.E.R.S. started with 15 members last summer, volunteering once a week at YouthBASE. Now, there are over 30 members and they are still growing. According to Naya, she sends out an interest form to at least one person every week. They have expanded to partner with the Phillis Wheatley Community Center as well because they had too many students who wanted to volunteer and they couldn’t all fit at YouthBASE.
Julia Freedman ’24 started volunteering with P.E.E.R.S. last summer and has continued throughout the school year, even while playing on the soccer team. She has loved working with her student, helping with one-on-one reading and being able to build a friendship. Julia says: “I always leave YouthBASE in a good mood, no matter how bad my day was before.”
Cate Lyerly ’23 calls her experience volunteering with P.E.E.R.S. “overwhelmingly positive.” She says, “Getting to be a part of a child’s learning journey is inspiring to me. It’s so exciting when a new concept clicks or when I can tell they are truly enjoying what they are learning.” For Luca Bracale ’23, time flies by, whether he is providing one-on-one support for homework or playing games with the kids after their work is completed. He loves the comradery they have built during game time and says that Red Light Green Light is a favorite for the kids. Luca calls P.E.E.R.S. “the best after school activity I have ever signed up for in my six years at CCES.”
In preparation for P.E.E.R.S. Naya set up training sessions for CCES students with Ms. Toler, a current CCES Primer teacher and Naya’s own Primer teacher back in 2010. Ms. Toler led workshops on how to read to children, keeping them engaged during reading, and other helpful tips for working with young children. Naya has been blown away throughout the whole process at how the entire CCES community has come together for this cause. She says, “Everyone is always so involved at CCES, and if we can all come together, see the importance of service, and support one another, we can really make a difference.”
Naya won’t be at CCES for too much longer, but is already dreaming big for what’s next. She hopes P.E.E.R.S. will continue to run even after she graduates and hopes the underclassmen can step up to lead the charge. Naya isn’t quite sure what she wants to pursue for a career, but she knows whatever it is, she wants to be in a position “to make a difference for other people.” Her biggest takeaway in this whole process – from first researching, to dreaming, to the current club – is to “not limit yourself.” She says, “I never thought this program would be what it is. I was discouraged at first, but it’s been so worth it to see everyone embrace it. If you start small and get everyone involved, anything is possible.”
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