Laura Santel Delivered a Speech at the 2010 SCI Social Capitalist Luncheon

"Before I moved to Boston, I used to smile at people as I passed on the sidewalk. This was normal in my native St. Louis. I thought this was normal everywhere, but my simple gesture produced very strange reactions in my new home: a sudden fascination with foliage, trash, anything but eye contact; or an over-eager look that said, “Hey, baby, how you doing?” After a week, I gave up. After four years, I was ready to move back to a place where I felt people looked out for each other just a bit more.

So why am I still here?

Flash forward to a night just a few weeks ago. I am standing in an elementary school cafeteria – actually, standing is not the right word. I am surrounded by activity – I greet Zori’s mom and hand her a summer resource guide packet, congratulate first grader Jennixsa on the dance performance she has just completed, and check in to make sure the thirty organizations that have come to present information on summer programs have everything they need at their tables.

Suddenly I feel a tap on my arm and look down to see a young girl looking up at me with big eyes. “Excuse me,” she says, in an excited tone of voice, “I’m looking for the camp where you can swim? And dance? I had a piece of paper to give to my mom but I lost it and I really want to go but now I can’t remember which one it is.” After two months of researching summer programs to invite to this resource fair, I knew that she could be talking about almost any of the programs in the room. Swimming and dance are very popular with the under-12 set. “Which table did you get the paper from?” I ask. “Can you show me?” We start walking quickly past the rows of tables. Finally she stops at one and picks up a program schedule. “Here it is!” she says, relieved. Pointing to the schedule, she excitedly lists all the activities she wants to do, then runs off to give the flyer to her mom. Looking around, I see the scene repeated everywhere – parents talking with representatives from different summer programs, and kids pointing excitedly at posters and telling their parents everything they want to do this summer: hiking, ropes courses, tennis, sailing - and of course, swimming and dance.

These might seem like small things – saying hi to parents I know, helping a little girl find the summer program she wants to join – but collectively these small connections build up to a thriving community, which is where I find myself today. And that’s why I’m still here. Through my SCI AmeriCorps service position with DotWell and the Dorchester FAMILY School Initiative, I not only participate in this community, but help create it.

Like at this resource fair, for instance – many students like Zori and Jennixsa in our partner elementary schools don’t participate in any summer programs or camps. Without any enrichment opportunities over the summer, they come back to school in the fall at least a month behind where they finished in June, maybe more. This learning loss is at the root of the achievement gap that exists in many urban schools. Our resource fair was an opportunity to address this huge problem in a simple way –connecting families with opportunities to keep learning over the summer.

I don’t personally offer any assistance programs or run a summer camp – there are already many successful programs in Boston. Any impact I have comes from creating connections. Unfortunately in Dorchester and elsewhere, there are a lot of missed opportunities to connect – whether between two strangers on the street who don’t smile at each other, or between a child who needs help reading and the free tutoring services at the library. In my role I get to act as the connector, helping families and students by bridging those gaps and linking them with resources that help them succeed.

I am continually amazed by how eagerly families have welcomed me, a complete outsider in many ways, into their lives – and I didn’t have to move miles away to find this community, I just had to find some new ways to get involved. I’m glad to know there are organizations like DotWell and SCI that share my belief that we need to look out for our neighbors, and I’m so pleased to be a part of this effort. I’ve even started smiling at passers-by again - so if you see me out on the sidewalk, I hope you’ll return the favor!"- Laura Santel