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Reading Eagle - In Reading, a youth mentoring program gets renewed funding

U.S. Rep. Chrissy Houlahan presents a grant to Olivet Boys & Girls Clubs, tours Pendora clubhouse

Originally published in Reading Eagle

By Jim Lewis

Anya Ohlinger, 18, listens to the children walking past her house in Reading on their way home from school, and sometimes their conversations, their sharp words and anger, trouble her.

She wonders if their parents know, if the children talk to them, if the adults at home provide a friendly ear.

“They experience more things than the typical student in the suburbs,” said Ohlinger, a 2018 Reading High School graduate. “They need guidance.”

So Ohlinger decided she would listen.

She joined the AmeriCorps program at the Olivet Boys & Girls Clubs' Pendora clubhouse on South 19th Street, tutoring children in kindergarten through eighth grade, reading to them, playing games with them and mentoring them.

She's one of 23 AmeriCorps members at Olivet who help with after-school programs, assist with homework, play games and serve as a friend and role model for the children who arrive each day at the clubhouse. Founded 25 years ago, AmeriCorps is a national service program that provides grants to community organizations to enlist high school and college students to work as mentors for youngsters.

On Thursday, Olivet's Pendora clubhouse received a $200,000 grant from the Corporation for National and Community Service to provide 68 AmeriCorps mentors for after-school and summer camp programs this year. It's a competitive grant that the club has received annually since 2015. U.S. Rep. Chrissy Houlahan, a Chester County Democrat whose district includes Reading and several southwestern Berks County municipalities, delivered a ceremonial check, toured the clubhouse and met with 15 of the AmeriCorps members, including Ohlinger.

Afterward, Ohlinger sat at a table in the club's game room, a large room filled with pool tables, foosball tables and other games, and joined two children snapping Legos into shapes. She talked to the children about their school day.

“Bullying is an issue today and a lot of it is that parents aren't listening because they have to work or don't pay attention,” Ohlinger said. For the kids at Pendora, “I try to be that person I needed when I was younger,” she said. “I try to tell them it's OK to be different, to be their own person.”

AmeriCorps members serve 450 hours each school year as mentors and tutors at Olivet clubs in Reading and Pottstown. In return, they get an allowance, an award for college tuition and experience to add to their resumes.

Houlahan, who had served as an executive for a Philadelphia nonprofit that focuses on early childhood literacy, said she has learned that life outside a school classroom affects a child's ability to learn in the classroom.

“It is important to understand the challenges in our communities,” she said after touring the Pendora clubhouse. “I think places like this have an impact.”

When children find a friendly listener like Ohlinger and other AmeriCorps members, they are more likely to return to the clubhouse for homework help and other after-school programs, said Katharine Royer, director of Olivet's AmeriCorps and other grant-funded programs.

“They're more excited to come back because they see more people they're comfortable with,” Royer said. “They're going to see a smiling face.”