Former WINGS Leaders Share Their Experience
WINGS Leaders are college students who work part-time in the WINGS Afterschool program as mentors and role models for our kids. Each WINGS Leader receives extensive training before and during their time in the program. An important part of our program model is developing social emotional skills in the adults – skills they use while they work at WINGS but also skills they carry with them as future educators, business leaders, and parents.
WINGS Helped Me Become the Teacher and Person I am Today
I’m currently a special education teacher in New York City, supporting students with various barriers to academic achievement. While my job is challenging, I’m able to enter the classroom each day with confidence and skills built in large part from my experiences with WINGS for Kids. I first connected with WINGS through the WINGS for Girls summer camp, which I attended for several years in the 1990s. In addition to the traditional camp experience, we received lessons in social emotional learning, though we didn’t explicitly know that as kids. Alongside other girls, I started to learn about feeling secure in my own skin, unafraid to share my thoughts and perspectives with the world.
When I graduated from college in May 2012, WINGS for Kids was hiring. I took one look and knew I had to apply. I was lucky enough to be selected for the job, and delighted to find as a program assistant that the energy and positivity I remembered from my camp days still ran through the core of WINGS. After a year of training, I stepped into a program director role at Chicora Elementary. The challenges were real in this new role. The students came largely from impoverished homes led by single parents and the community we served had been hard hit by drug abuse. At Chicora, many students had severe behavioral problems, parents were not highly involved, and enrollment was declining.
The WINGS curriculum helped us to redirect negative behavior and empower students to resolve their problems. I saw those changes happening every day. But when I think about my time with WINGS, what stands out most to me is our Community Unity time each day – when students shouted the Creed at the top of their lungs from their nests and contributed to an indescribable wave of positive energy.
And I also think of how WINGS allowed Nkyra, a third grader in our program, to soar. When I first met her, she gossiped, bullied, and did not trust her group leader. As a team, we leveraged a support system that used consistent language, set high expectations and provided Nkyra with the tools to meet them. At the time of her graduation, she gained a reputation for positivity, a willingness to help whenever possible and a passion for acting. Like Nkyra, every student that graduated from WINGS improved and grew—even in the span of just one year.
As my two-year anniversary at WINGS approached in June 2015, I saw the impact educators had on their children—and realized the opportunities I could have in the classroom. NYC Teaching Fellows came forward with an opportunity last summer I just had to pursue. On that last day, I hugged parents and students with tears in my eyes, hoping to remain in touch—and see that the program made an impact on their lives. To this day, I still receive texts and calls from both parents and students. WINGS has helped me to become the teacher and person I am today.
I Didn’t Receive the Compassion or Empathy I Needed When I Went to School
I returned to my childhood neighborhood of College Park in Atlanta hoping to support the next generation of students. Social emotional learning had sparked my curiosity, so for me, it was a win-win. Initially, I struggled, grappling with how to be direct and strong-willed with a group of 2nd grade boys (Eagles) that I mentored. But, at the midpoint of the year, I transitioned to coach a group of kindergarten boys (Robins)—and the relationship clicked. They responded well to compassion, affection and subtle expectation-setting. With the encouragement of WINGS staff, I learned how to reach a balance between compassion and firmness, adapting to what my students needed.
Take Keshawn, one of my Robins that like to take on a leadership role among his peers. He had such potential but was often swayed by the misbehaved kids around him. He needed positive reinforcement and support – skills I was trained and willing to provide.
I think back to my childhood in College Park; the neighborhood was not as crime-ridden as it is now but I encountered many of the same negative influences. Yes, I greatly benefited from my teachers’ support and afterschool enrichment programs. But I did not receive the compassion or empathy I needed when I went to school 15 years ago—and instead, I became aggressive later on in high school.
As a double major in psychology and sociology at Georgia State, I wanted to work with kids who were just like me—and knew I could do so as a WINGS Leader with WINGS. I volunteered in the program for two years and, afterward, became more determined to intervene positively in the lives of kids.
WINGS Inspires the Things that Make this World a Better Place
In my time with WINGS, I have been reminded time and time again the power of the relationships that are formed in the program. Everyday people from different backgrounds come together to enjoy the community that WINGS provides and we find ourselves in love with the powerful moments. The climate of social emotional learning can be a challenging one. Every person that makes the choice to participate in learning more about themselves and the world around them is bound to be transformed and inspired- and not always in the easiest ways.
When I think about the most powerful relationships that impacted my own SE skills, I can’t help but think of a WINGS kid I met in my second year as a WINGS Leader. I grew close to a girl who was brave, sharp-tongued and witty. You couldn’t get anything past her and she never let you forget it. She was bold and comfortable being herself. I admired her for that and wished I had that capacity for self-love at such a young age.
This same child was faced with lots of challenging life situations that I, even as an almost adult, was not sure I could have handled as gracefully as she did. In a moment, her life changed dramatically and she had to move away to live with an aunt she didn’t know very well. I have to admit, when she called to tell me about what was happening in her life I didn’t know how to comfort or support her.
I just knew that what we had learned from each other throughout the year pushed me to ignore my own insecurities about knowing what to say and just be there for her. I listened to her when she needed to talk. I used things I learned at WINGS and lines of the Creed to find the words that could help her in the scary moments of change. I felt like I wasn’t doing enough most of the time, but the Creed gave me the language I needed to do my best.
As she grew more comfortable in her new world, our calls and texts are less. There are times I feel sad that she doesn’t need me as much as she once did. But I am so thankful that we were given the opportunity to be a part of each other’s lives. Without WINGS, she and I would have never been given the opportunity to teach each other.
As a WINGS Leader, my role was to teach kids about life skills, but she taught me more than I could have ever imagined about resiliency and strength. The power of WINGS rests in the hearts of the kids and WINGS Leaders that are paired together to learn more about themselves and the world around them.