Most Tuesdays this school year, John McIlveen will stroll half a block from his office at the American Institute for Cancer Research to Ross Elementary School in the Dupont Circle neighborhood, where he’ll join third-grader Max Akridge in the game worlds of Commander Toad or Wimpy Kid Greg Heffley.
McIlveen is now in his 10th year as a mentor at Ross as part of Everybody Wins! DC’s Power Lunch program. The program, which now exists at 11 elementary schools in the District, Arlington and Silver Spring, gives working professionals the opportunity to meet with a selected student once a week during the child’s lunch hour.
The program attracts people from 125 different organizations. The list of current mentors includes U.S. senators – the late Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) was a longtime participant – CEOs, lawyers and staffers from The Washington Post. While high-powered people frequently join the program, it is open to people “from staff assistant on up,” said Everybody Wins! DC Executive Director Mary Salander.
“To the child, it’s just somebody who wants to come and spend time with him each week,” she said. “The children aren’t interested so much in what the person’s title is.”
The program – and Everybody Wins! DC itself – originally got off the ground in 1995 because then-Sen. Jim Jeffords (R-Vt.), heard about the success of the original Everybody Wins! program in New York, which began in 1991. Jeffords and other senators began reading to children at Robert Brent Elementary in Southwest that spring. Everybody Wins! DC has programs at 38 area Title I schools this year, which serve more than 4,000 children.
Everybody Wins! DC was one of four area organizations to receive a grant from Washington Post Charities, a McCormick Foundation Fund which aims to support D.C.-area nonprofit organizations with programs focused on increasing educational opportunities for disadvantaged children. The organization plans to use its $25,000 grant for the Ross Power Lunch program. Eighty students will be able to participate.
McIlveen, now 52, has mentored four students in his time with the program; he’s worked with each of them through their entire time at Ross.
“You see them grow and develop over the years,” he said.
One of McIlveen’s colleagues who also volunteers as a mentor once told a student that McIlveen is called “Grandpa” around the office because of his gray hair.
“For the next three years, kids from the school would call out ‘Hey Grandpa!’ as I passed by on my way to work,” he said.
School administrators and teachers will refer students to the program if they think the student will benefit in some way – students who are learning English as a second language, students who read below grade level, or students who would benefit from regular interaction with a caring role model, Salander said.
This is the second year McIlveen has mentored 8-year-old Max. Though Akridge is in third grade, he reads at a higher grade level, McIlveen said.
“Max is great; he looks forward to our time together each week,” McIlveen said. “If I have to reschedule our reading time for another day, he will interrogate me about where I was or why I couldn’t come in.”
McIlveen said it’s important to find the right way to reach out to the kids and get the most out of their interaction.
“I’ve lucked out with Max,” he said. “We’ll talk a little bit about how he’s doing, but he always wants to get down to business and start reading. Sometimes he’ll want books that are simple and sometimes he’ll want to read these complex chapter books.”
Everybody Wins! DC touts two independent studies by the U.S. Department of Education and Loyola University that have found that the Power Lunch program is “one of very few programs documented to effectively impact low-income students in reading comprehension, motivation, achievement, as well as overall academic performance, classroom behavior, self-confidence and social skills.”
For more information, visit The Washington Post Charities’ website.