Article by Seth Conaway
It’s 3:30 on a Wednesday afternoon, and volunteer Helen Jacobs is stepping onto the playground at ICAN. All around her swarms of children run about playing and laughing and soaking up the sun. A wayward basketball sails by overhead. A girl darts through the crowd to give Jacobs a hug before disappearing once again into the sea of children. Another comes by to explain to Jacobs that she’s inventing a money sorter out of an empty tissue box.
“That is so clever!” Jacobs exclaims, and the child is delighted.
For many of these children, the positive feedback and friendly hugs volunteers like Jacobs provide are more than just bright spots in their day. That’s but one of the reasons ICAN founder Henry Salinas chose to create the free after-school program: to make positive, lasting impacts in their lives by providing safety, learning, self-empowerment and, of course, fun. Jacobs is one of the many volunteers from the Chandler community who have dedicated themselves to carrying out Salinas’ mission, and her background has more than prepared her for it.
Having taught high school Spanish for 34 years in Maryland, Jacobs and her family relocated to Chandler where she continued to teach part time in Tempe before retiring in 2012. After hearing of a back-to-school drive ICAN was sponsoring, she gathered up the extra school supplies she had collected over the years and made a donation. Her choice to volunteer at ICAN soon followed, and before long she had a seat on the Programs Committee as well.
“It’s a wonderful organization,” Jacobs explains with a smile, “and it’s right up my alley.”
An educator at heart, it’s clear that Jacobs feels most effective when she’s providing instructional assistance to a discouraged student, either with homework or in ICAN’s computer lab.
“When I help a student work through something and they understand how they got it, it makes me feel good. And hopefully they’ll keep that understanding going,” she says.
It’s important for Jacobs to remind the children and families ICAN serves that the sky is their limit, and that positive influences and a good education are vital for a productive life. ICAN President and CEO Becky Jackson agrees.
“ICAN provides leadership training so that they can grow up to be independent, productive and self-sufficient members of the community and break the cycle of unemployment and poverty,” Jackson explains. “Henry (Salinas) never dreamed that ICAN would become what it is today, impacting the lives of thousands of children, young adults and families each year – which in turn benefits the entire East Valley community.”
Jackson adds that it’s volunteers like Jacobs who make it happen.
“ICAN could not serve the number of children it does if it were not for amazing volunteers like Helen,” Jackson says. “With 250 youth coming to ICAN every day, we need 15-20 volunteers each day to assist the staff. They help check the kids in, help in the classrooms with art projects and activities and are another warm, smiling face of encouragement for the kids to see.”
As the sun blazes overhead, Jacobs and her fellow volunteers bring the played-out children inside for afternoon activities. Her connection with these children is apparent not only in their love for her, but their respect as well. As they file into the computer lab for a game of Whiz Kid Jeopardy, some of the students haven’t left their “outside voices” at the door. With the grand prize being candy, the excitement in the room is only natural. Jacobs keeps cool and calm, setting the tone by demonstrating it. Before long the game is on.
“I like to weave my way through everyone and give as much positive feedback as I can,” Jacobs says. “If I see someone doing some really good work I’ll stop and admire that. Kids need to hear ‘good job’. I always feel good when I leave here because I know that I’ve helped to make someone’s day, or that I’ve at least been a little part of that.”
For more information, visit icanaz.org.