English majors share a love of reading with the Boys & Girls Clubs of St. Joseph County

Author: Sara Judy

Nayla Hernandez Success Academy
English major Nayla Hernandez reads Alice in Wonderland with a student at Success Academy, one of the Boys and Girls Clubs' STRIVE program sites.

English majors are taking their passion for reading into the community. A new service opportunity has Notre Dame English majors serving as literacy volunteers with the Boys & Girls Clubs of St. Joseph County.

The University of Notre Dame has long been a supporter of Boys & Girls Clubs programs, but this is the first time a department has reached out to serve a subject-specific need.

The opportunity, which kicked-off fall semester 2022, has English majors spending 1 to 2 hours per week reading books, tutoring, and spending quality time with kids enrolled in the afterschool program STRIVE.

According to Susie Brennan, Director of Strategic Partnerships at Boys and Girls Clubs of St. Joseph County, many of the kids served by Boys & Girls Clubs are reading well below grade-level. These children need support in literacy, math fluency, social & emotional learning, and college & career readiness, and these are the needs STRIVE is designed to meet.

However, literacy is key to making strides in post-pandemic learning loss across disciplines. “If you can't read, it makes learning more difficult across the board,” said Susie Brennan in a Zoom conversation. “We want to give our Club kids the foundation they need to succeed in all subjects.”

This afterschool program operates in 22 club sites in 4 school districts across the county, serving over 1400 children K-12, at no cost to families. Most kids enrolled in the program qualify for free and reduced-price lunch, a common benchmark in education to indicate a significant socio-economic need.

The outcomes of STRIVE’s afterschool programming are significant. In just one year, 64% of children served improved 1 or more grade levels in literacy, and 20% improved 2 or more grade levels in both literacy and math.

According to Susie Brennan, these outcomes are due, in large part, to Boys & Girls Clubs being able to keep a low ratio of volunteers to kids. The Clubs aim for a 1-10 ratio, but the children in STRIVE benefit most from the kind of 1-1 attention and passion for reading and learning that English majors are naturally suited to provide.

By volunteering, Notre Dame English majors not only help kids learn, but have the chance to make meaningful connections. “What really matters,” said Susie Brennan, is that kids in Boys & Girls Clubs “get access to adults in our community that they can form positive relationships with.”

Natalia Rodriguez, a first-year student at Notre Dame, first learned about the program through the English department. She signed up right away and has been volunteering with Boys & Girls Clubs for several months.

In a Zoom interview, Natalia emphasized how fulfilling she has found her time with Boys & Girls Clubs. “I’ve seen a lot of kids that reminded me of me,” she said, recalling her own experiences in afterschool programs in her hometown of Miami. “You want to make that experience enjoyable for them. You want to befriend them, and you want to treat them like they’re not just kids in an afterschool program.”

Natalia also emphasized how easy it has been to reach her volunteer site. While transportation has long been a challenge for students who want to volunteer off campus, a new city program makes community service accessible. Boys & Girls Clubs volunteers can receive free Uber and Lyft rides thanks to Ride Guarantee, a grant-funded program which covers the cost of ride-sharing services (the program also helps nonprofit clients and low-income employees in South Bend reach services and worksites).

Getting to know the greater community of South Bend is yet another benefit of volunteering. “As a first-year student I really didn’t know anything about South Bend,” said Natalia, “it’s refreshing. You leave campus, you see new faces, you see South Bend.”

Boys & Girls Clubs of St. Joseph County aims to “inspire and enable all young people, especially those who need us most, to realize their full potential.” According to Natalia, the inspiration moves in both directions: “we’re both benefitting from coming together and helping the community.”

“I pitch it to my friends all the time,” Natalia said, “it’s fun.”


If you’re interested in getting involved with Boys and Girls Clubs of St. Joseph County, please reach out to Laura Betz (lbetz@nd.edu) in the English Department at Notre Dame, or email either Susie Brennan (sbrennan@bgcsjc.org) or Susanne Borders (sborders@bgcsjc.org).