Seattle U adopts impoverished neighborhood, wins presidential honor

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by ERIC WILKINSON / KING 5 News

KING5.com

Posted on March 12, 2012 at 5:36 PM

Updated Monday, Mar 12 at 6:00 PM

SEATTLE -- The kids at Bailey Gatzert Elementary have it tougher than those at any other school in Seattle. Almost every student is low-income. Forty of them are from homeless families.

There are kids like Chaya Hill who could barely read a single word when she started kindergarten this year. It was damaging to the 6-year-old's fragile self-esteem.

"I kinda felt bad because I couldn't read the letters," she said.

Enter the Seattle University Youth Initiative -- 100 student volunteers sent to the school to make sure these kids don't get left behind. The university pledged $1 million to the school and its surrounding neighborhood in Seattle's Central District.

The volunteers tutor the students in math, and reading. They teach them how to play chess and assist with class projects. But Seattle University's influence is felt far beyond the school walls. Volunteers also offer legal aid for people in the community, health care support, as well as assistance in becoming United States citizens. It all ends up being quite an education for the volunteers themselves.

Volunteer Natalie Alia says the experience has taught her not to take the privilege she enjoys for granted.

"It seems like the right thing to do, to be able to share the benefits of my education with people who have not neccessarily been given the opportunities that I have," she said.

For its work, Seattle University has been bestowed with the Presidential Award from the U.S. Department of Education. It is the federal government's highest recognition for a university's commitment to community service.

While there are no quantifiable results at Bailey Gatzert just yet, teachers say the project is paying off. The students are more active and engaged, they say.

They point to little Chaya as proof. She's now reading above grade level. When asked how she feels about that, a smile beams across her face.

"Happier!" She exclaims. "Very much happier!"

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