Teachers serve up homework help, food and fun at café
Posted December 13, 2017 by Liza Frenette
“I love working with kids. In life, you should give back if you can,” says Cindy MacCallum, a math teacher and member of the Bethlehem Central Teachers Association. Photo by Liza Frenette.
Glass jam jars are clustered with crayons, and the tops of cafeteria-style tables are crammed with Legos, Play-Doh, board games, and a lot of elbows. Happy sounds swirl around the air and rise up to the rounded roof of the Quonset-style building in downtown Albany.
This is the new home of the South End Children's Café, a place where about 30 children gather each day to get help with homework, some with the assistance of volunteer teachers such as Cindy MacCallum and Sandra Munella Olson. Kids also come here to get a healthy meal and to let their energy rise up like the yeast in a loaf of bread. About half of the kids who come are homeless — they live in shelters with family or with different, extended family members or friends on a shifting basis. Some are foster children. Most of them are at or below the poverty line, said café founder Tracie Killar. They are all beautiful.
Above their eager faces, 1,000 paper cranes float in sets of strings that hang from the ceiling. They were made by volunteers to reflect the hope and courage of the main character in “Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes,” by Eleanor Coerr.
Many of the volunteers who keep the rhythm of the place in motion come once a week; a few, every day. Among them are a host of reliable teachers. Featured here are two of them.
MacCallum , a math teacher and member of the Bethlehem (Albany County) Central Teachers Association, shares her talents every Tuesday. Olson previously taught in Jamestown and then worked as a permanent substitute in Shenendehowa in Saratoga County. Unable to find a teaching position, she went to work in state government. Years later, she is teaching again as a volunteer, helping kids four afternoons a week with their homework.
MacCallum’s duties begin each week with time spent in the homework room, a quieter room in the back of the building. She helps kids work on assignments they bring from school.
“I love working with kids. In life, you should give back if you can,” said MacCallum. “Giving time and effort is important.”
Faced with an empty house after school when her youngest left for college, MacCallum wanted to share some of her own energy. She heard the café was looking for tutors.
“That’s why I came,” she says, mushing Play-Doh at a table with children who call her “Miss Cindy.” She grins. “You form attachments.”
For her volunteer work, MacCallum comes directly from Slingerlands Elementary, where she teaches Response to Intervention, remedial math K-5 and third-grade challenge. In the café homework room — just off the kitchen — she works with students.
Last year, a fifth grader would regularly wait for Miss Cindy to come to help her with her homework. She told the teacher she wanted “a little quiet time.”
Left to right: Cindy MacCallum, Sandra Munella Olson, Tracie Killar. Photo by Liza Frenette.
When homework is done, MacCallum heads to the main room, where boisterous play is happening everywhere. She doesn’t leave behind her teacher role when she sits with a group of youngsters playing. She shows them how an array of imprints in the Play-Doh demonstrates equal groups. This helps the students figure out multiplication, she said.
In the pink Play-Doh, Darnell makes four rows of three circle imprints, followed by four rows of three, followed by four more rows of three. Sitting across from her, he calls out the totals.
“Multiplication is the same as repeated addition,” MacCallum said.
In addition to appreciating all the hugs she gets from these eager kids, she said she also enjoys the sense of camaraderie with her colleagues at the café.
Colleagues such as Olson, who signed up to volunteer on the spot.
“I read about it in the paper and I walked down the street and introduced myself to Tracie,” she said. “I’ve been volunteering here since it opened. I came to volunteer one day a week and ended up five days! I had a void in my life.”
Next to her, Jacob, her nearly-nine-year-old protégé, bends so far over his math homework that you can see the wonderful whorl in his hair. He answers every math challenge correctly, stands erect and beams at “Miss Sandra.”
“She helps me with spelling and math,” said Jacob, who attends Giffin Elementary in Albany. When the café was closed for several months as it was relocated from a church to its new home in a building leased by the Albany Housing Authority on Warren Street, Jacob felt the difference.
“Usually, I have nowhere to go and I just sit at the house,” he said. “Here I play Legos and chess and bring dinner home for dad.”
“They miss us terribly,” Olson said. “This program is consistency.”
During the time the café was closed, volunteers received notes from teachers who noticed that students’ homework performance had declined in the its absence.
Olson tells a story about going to a store with two of the girls who attend the cafe to buy them clothes. She had a store credit one of the moms had given her, but the clerk wouldn’t let her use it since it wasn’t in her name.
“One of the girls walked up to her and said: ‘Do you realize she’s the vice principal?’” Olson said, laughing.
During the school year, Olson can usually be found in the homework room, where college students also help the young café kids with assignments. In the summer months, when school is out of session, the homework room is happily abandoned for outings.
“We do three days a week, and every day we do some sort of field trip,” said Olson. These include MiScii (Museum of Innovation and Science), New York State Museum, Lincoln Park, Sky Zone, Thatcher State Park, and Great Escape —all Capital District destinations.
While summer means boxed lunches, during the school year the children are fed a hot meal each day; sometimes a parent joins them. Meals are made from scratch, with health at the top of the recipe. Chicken, for example, is baked not fried.
“The main mission is to impact food security and food equality and justice by offering a free, healthy meal,” said Killar. “We feed mind and body.” In the two years since the café opened, she said they have served 14,600 dinners.
Meanwhile, every child gets a birthday gift and a holiday gift, Killar said. Volunteers helped make Thanksgiving baskets for the families. The children, in turn, are taught about community outreach.
South End Café is joyfully technology free. “They talk to each other; problem solve. It’s kind of old school,” she said. “We can lose sight of how important the simple things we do for children are.”
Prior to running the South End Café since 2015, Killar ran a program in the same neighborhood called New Day Art.
Active and retired NYSUT teachers volunteering here include Karen Smith, Mohonasen (Schenectady County) Teachers Association; Barb Riegel, Bethlehem Central Teachers Association; Sue Hacker, retired, Albany PSTA; and Diane McNiven and Mignonne Philips, both retired, Bethlehem Central TA.
“It’s amazing that teachers teach all day then come here and teach,” Killar marvels.