AmeriCorps reading tutor finds new aspirations through work with students


Breanna Van Dellen has spent the past three years volunteering for AmeriCorps as a reading tutor at Chatfield Elementary. GRETCHEN MENSINK LOVEJOY/CHATFIELD NEWS
By : 
Gretchen Mensink Lovejoy
Chatfield News

Breanna Van Dellen is glad her first aspiration didn’t stick, because there was something about it that needled her.

She traded it in for the lightbulb moment.

“This is my third year here. I graduated from Chatfield in 2008, and I did just my generals at RCTC (Rochester Community and Technical College), was in school for a few years, but I didn’t really know what I wanted to be,” she admitted.

At the time, Van Dellen said she thought she wanted to go into nursing, but started to take nursing courses and found out it was not for her.

“But coming here, I love working with the kids in school at the younger age levels, from kindergarten to third grade, and I also do a before- and after- school program,” she related as she described her position as the Chatfield Elementary School (CES) AmeriCorps reading tutor.

She added that she has come to appreciate that her first vocational aspiration didn’t work out the way she’d hoped because it means she has gotten to rise, shine and meet Chatfield’s youngest readers where they are and lift them up academically.

Van Dellen was inspired to become an AmeriCorps reading tutor after some experiences witnessing adults who lacked reading skills attempting to cope in a literacy-required world.

Plus, being an AmeriCorps volunteer — even though receiving only a stipend — allowed her to fulfill her passion for contributing to society and the world around her by keeping her busy with remedial teaching efforts throughout the school year and spending summers venturing abroad to lend a hand and heart to other causes.

“I’ve always been really drawn to volunteer projects and giving back,” Van Dellen said. “The first year, during the summer, I went to Africa and taught in Kenya in a kinder-school, and the second summer, I went to Costa Rica and worked with an organization for sea turtles. Then I got to go back to school and do AmeriCorps.”

Each year, as she returned to the school, Van Dellen said there was an air of excitement. “You get so attached to the kids, and you get to see them come back and how much they’ve grown. It’s going to be really hard to leave at the end of this year, I had done a lot of work internationally and abroad, but Chatfield is where I was raised and so I really wanted to give back to my community. That’s why I wanted to come back,” she said.

Van Dellen and AmeriCorps’ requirements didn’t agree with one another at the outset, as the remedial program set before the tutors involves them learning specific sets of responses to students’ literacy troubles. However, Van Dellen adapted well enough and soon found that the students’ progress and personalities transcended her frustration with scripted responses and prompts.

“Starting out, the program seemed kind of rigid because I have to say what I’m supposed to say, to follow their script, and I though that after a year, it would be worn out,” she explained. “At first, it was hard to remember all the different scripts and all the interventions, but the kids make the routine different every day. The unpredictability of kids is cool. The first year, I was just kind of learning the ropes and how to handle doing this, and the second year, I hit the ground running and could be effective. It’s cool to be in a tight-knit, small school district where I can check in with some kids I had last year and see how they’re progressing. Chatfield has been amazing and so welcoming…I feel so supported by the principal and teachers.”

Van Dellen has particularly enjoyed the moment when a student realizes that a reading concept makes sense, and how students’ attitudes have changed since she was first assigned to pick them up from their classrooms for remedial reading attention.

“It’s huge leaps and bounds…it’s crazy,” she said. “It’s so encouraging, the coolest to see the kid who’s been working so hard all year have that lightbulb go on…and they get it. Maybe…a kid started out, when I picked them up, ‘Oh, I have to go.’ They were really disconnected, but after solid months of improvements and gains, when I’d come to pick them up, they’d hop over and be so excited to come with me. The hard part is when a kid I’m working with every week would suddenly move away or is gone.”

She observed that she has changed while serving as an AmeriCorps volunteer.

“I’ve just grown the last few years to be more compassionate, to see the little things every day how I can help, and it’s given me direction where I want to go from here. It just gives me so much joy,” Van Dellen said. “I want to make sure that these kids have the tools to do something I enjoy so much, that’s helped me so much. I’d love to do another year — and I totally would be if I were going to be here — but I’m leaving in October on another mission trip for The World Race, which is an 11-country, 11-month mission trip to share the love of Jesus and serve others around the world.”

She’s very appreciative of AmeriCorps and the Chatfield school district’s willingness to welcome her and give her an opportunity to teach youngsters how to learn to read well so that they may someday read to learn well.

“The district couldn’t be more welcoming. I feel literally like I’m part of a family. The kids are amazing, and the help that I give them doesn’t come close to the help they give you…every day, coming to work is a joy to see their growth,” Van Dellen concluded. “The things we work on here help with all aspects of education down the road.”

Chatfield Elementary School is currently seeking a replacement for Van Dellen, as well as an AmeriCorps math tutor. For more information, contact Principal Craig Ihrke at Chatfield Elementary School at cihrke@chatfield.k12.mn.us.