In one first grader’s mind, there is no better reason to get dressed up than to go to a holiday party surrounded by Casa de Amistad’s community of caring volunteers, family and friends.
For him it is quite literally, “the best day of my life!”
At Casa de Amistad (“house of friendship”), this little boy and other students just like him are encouraged, inspired, supported and celebrated.
This nonprofit organization in North County San Diego enlists young adults and retired professionals who have excelled in STEM careers and many other fields to spend Tuesday and Thursday afternoons or evenings with a special group of students.
Casa de Amistad strives to help low-income, underserved youth in grades PreK-12 in the coastal communities of San Diego County achieve success in their education. And the program is a success, well known in the community for its commitment toward inspiring young students through character and leadership development, mentorship and music.
“(Casa de Amistad) is a very special place,” Director Nicole Mione-Green said. “Kids love their volunteers, they really build special bonds. They look forward to Casa each week, and the volunteers do too.”
Students get help with their homework during the Study Companion program sessions on Tuesdays and Thursdays, but Green said the program offers so much more: a chance for kids to connect with individuals who are committed to making a difference in their lives.
“We encourage tutors to really talk to their students, rather than solely focusing on helping them finish their homework,” Program Coordinator Melissa Farrell said. “Sometimes the biggest barriers for our students are not just academic, they’re social-emotional. So we like volunteers to take the time to ask their students ‘how are you’? We believe that having an extra adult who truly cares and is there reliably each week can make a huge positive impact in the life of a child.
Because of this, special bonds form between the volunteers and students. Casa de Amistad also requires at least a semester-long commitment from volunteers, providing a reliable and welcoming environment for the kids who come each week.
Many Casa de Amistad students start with the program at a young age and continue through middle and high school. Along the way, their mentors are beside them, inspiring them to advocate for their education and sharing their own educational and professional paths.
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“The program is with them all the way through if they want it to be,” Tiffany Farnsworth, Casa de Amistad’s Board President said. “It’s important for young learners to understand that there are all these people supporting them.”
Parents are a huge part of this too.
Farnsworth said one of the most valuable aspects of Casa de Amistad is its focus on helping parents to spur their children’s success and learning ways to advocate for their family.
“What I really appreciate is the full circle, how the parents are involved, how they seek out Casa de Amistad,” Farnsworth said. “ Parent involvement is one of the most important and impactful ways they can help their child.”
Casa de Amistad offers several programs to parents, focusing on education and leadership. These programs help parents feel connected and allow them to voice their educational priorities.
“We ask parents ‘what do you want to know?’ Green said. “That way we can make sure we aren’t telling them what they need, but are listening to their needs instead.”
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Each of these programs offered by the organization exists to help children grow and reach their educational goals. All students who participate in Casa de Amistad through high school graduate and continue toward higher education, Green said.
But the program wouldn’t be such a stunning success without its dedicated volunteers. Currently, Casa de Amistad has more than 170 volunteers that mentor the 200 students who attend each week, but more volunteers are needed. The organization, based in Solana Beach, has become popular since it began in 1997. Casa de Amistad now has a waitlist of students hoping to attend the Study Companions Program and parents who are looking to this impressive network of mentors, teachers and community members to help their kids excel toward higher education.
Casa de Amistad is a recipient of the Inspiring Future Leaders grant through SDG&E. Because of this partnership, Casa de Amistad has been able to recruit more volunteers with STEM backgrounds. All middle school and high school students have access to volunteers with expertise in math and science. The motto for Casa de Amistad is “Full STEAM Ahead”.