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City of Seattle

October 14, 3:28 PM click here to comment > 0

Leveraging volunteer service in pursuit of social justice

The opportunity and achievement gaps facing Seattle’s children and youth are a critical social justice issue for our city. Helping all children and youth be successful in school and in life while closing those gaps has been one of Mayor McGinn’s top priorities both on his campaign and since the beginning of his administration. It’s the reason that he launched the Youth and Families Initiative during his first week in office, and it informs our work as a “City of Service” — one of the first ten in the country.

Cities of Service began in New York City under the Bloomberg administration and over 100 cities across the country have since joined. Through Cities of Service, mayors are making a call to action to communities to volunteer and help address the most pressing community needs that can’t be solved through policy change alone. In Seattle, Mayor McGinn has chosen to focus on three key indicators research says support children and youth to be successful:

  • helping children read at grade level by third grade;
  • supporting middle school students with quality out-of-school programs;
  • and mentoring youth at-risk.

We do this by recruiting caring adults to become community leaders and volunteers while at the same time building the volunteer capacity of the schools and organizations who are supporting these youth. Each of these initiatives in early literacy, out of school programs, and mentorship emerged as top priorities from the Youth and Families process last year. The initiatives include key partners such as WA Reading Corps, Seattle Public Schools, Seattle Parks & Recreation, YMCA of Greater Seattle, 4C Coalition, Seattle Cares Mentoring Movement, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Puget Sound, the United Way of King County and Seattle Works. And, we recently welcomed two AmeriCorps VISTA National Service volunteers, Jennie Morrison and Jennifer Kim to spearhead these efforts over the next year.

Third-grade reading levels have been proven to be one of the most important indicators of educational success later in life, but in Seattle, of children reading at grade level by 3rd, they are:

  • 90.7 % of White students
  • 65.4% of Latino students
  • 50% of Native American students
  • 63.2% of low income students
  • 57.5 % of black students
  • 41.2% of English Language Learners
  • 78.9%of Asian students
  • 60% of Pacific Islander students

Meanwhile, a 2011 study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation showed that children not reading at grade level by third grade are four times more likely to drop-out.

Our Early Literacy Initiative seeks to address that problem by recruiting and developing volunteer reading tutors for these emerging readers. Last year we were able to engage 46 community volunteers in 4 elementary schools by working with the Washington Reading Corps; this year our focus is on increasing the number of organizations we work with as well as getting more community members involved as volunteers. To that end, Early Literacy Coordinator Jennie Morrison coordinates volunteer trainings, meets with various stakeholders to support and sustain effective partnerships with schools across the district, and does outreach for the program to recruit and develop additional volunteers.

What happens in the classroom is only part of the picture, though. Students need support outside of school hours and in the challenging transition to high school too — our Out of School Time Initiative works to address those needs by partnering with the Seattle Parks & Recreation Department and the YMCA who operate middle school Community Learning Centers (CLCs) in partnership with the schools. These CLCs offer students programs in academic support, enrichment, and recreation, for which volunteers are recruited by individual CLCs based on students’ needs and interests. As the Cities of Service Coordinator for Out-of School Time programs, Jennifer Kim is in charge of recruiting volunteers for the existing CLCs and helping to grow the program’s capacity to take on additional community volunteers. She’s currently working on a needs analysis to determine the most pressing needs that the centers at Aki Kurose and Mercer have right now.

But not everyone can volunteer during school based hours and yet the value of mentorship and having a caring adult in a young person’s life has long been recognized as an important way to support youth and youth affected by violence. Through our Mentorship Initiative we’re partnering with Big Brothers Big Sisters and the 4C Coalition to recruit mentors and develop their capacity to utilize volunteers in new ways that support the mentor-mentee relationship.

According to a study by Big Brothers Big Sisters, after 18 months with their Bigs, the Littles, compared to those children not in their program, were:

  • 46% less likely to begin using illegal drugs
  • 27% less likely to begin using alcohol
  • 52% less likely to skip school
  • 37% less likely to skip a class
  • 33% less likely to hit someone

I get asked a lot about volunteer opportunities with the Mayor’s Office; the short answer is that these three programs are the best ways for you to volunteer and make a difference in our communities if you’re interested in helping us support Seattle’s children and youth. Our office also just helped to launch a city-wide attendance campaign called Be Here, Get There that’s focused on reducing absences for at-risk youth. For more information on getting involved with Cities of Service, please talk to Mariah Pepper with Youth Tutoring Program at, Danielle Holling with United Way of King County at, or Daisy Catague at or 206-615-0303. To learn more about how you can get involved with Be Here, Get There, contact Ainsley Close at or 206-233-2661.

Posted by: Candace Inagi