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More Than Volunteering

The author (middle row, far left) with the Students Run Philly Style team from Mariana Bracetti Academy Charter School.

If you asked me five years ago if I ever saw myself completing a marathon, the answer would have been a stern no. Despite the fact that I loved team sports, I never considered myself a runner. However, this fall, when two students told me they wanted to complete the Philadelphia Full Marathon their senior year, I could not say no; I was their running mentor after all.

Students Run Philly Style (SRPS) is a nonprofit organization that provides youth with mentorship, training, and opportunities to run nationally-recognized races without cost. SRPS encourages kids to “run” the streets instead of being consumed by the violence often found in their neighborhoods. I became involved with SRPS in the fall of 2016 while I was still a high school English teacher. Within three months, alongside four of my students, I was crossing the finish line of my first half marathon. Since then, we have completed the Philadelphia Half Marathon a second time, the Broad Street 10-miler twice, countless other informal races, and most recently, the 2018 Philadelphia Full Marathon. Despite beginning my law school career, SRPS has remained a priority that teaches me to set goals, train harder, and persist longer alongside my former students.

By 8 a.m. on Saturday mornings a group of SRPS running mentors and students can always be found gathered at City Hall. From there we run, at various paces, based on our training programs. I had never intended to run a marathon. This fall, at our first Saturday practice, two students from my team—one a first-time runner and former student of mine and the other, our would-be first female marathonist—were determined to complete the Philadelphia Full Marathon as seniors. This would be a tough feat for all of us. After countless hours training from August through November, we each crossed the finish line, aghast at what we had just done—together.

Personally, I have never considered the hours I spend with SRPS “community service.” For one, the term service has a connotation of duty or even sacrifice. Admittedly, my early morning alarms on Saturdays are often met with a reflexive begrudging groan, but by the time I arrive to City Hall, my disposition has been completely overhauled by the realization that I get to spend the next few hours laughing, training, and growing with young runners. Furthermore, SRPS is a community within itself: all running mentors and students throughout the city create bonds akin to family. Thus, while my time spent with SRPS may check the “community service” box, in reality, it truly is so much more.

My desire to volunteer in programs that partner with students and families stems from being a former teacher but has also extended in to my experience at Temple. Since 1L year, I have been a volunteer advocate with School Discipline Advocacy Service (SDAS), a student-run organization. SDAS’s main mission is to provide trained, volunteer advocates for public school students and their families during transfer and expulsion hearings within the School District of Philadelphia. This year, I have also attained the position of Program Director, providing oversight for the program as a whole.

We partner with students and their families because they have a right to be represented in these “informal” hearings. While they are statutorily considered “informal,” for students and their families, these hearings are scary, difficult, and intimidating to navigate on their own. Moreover, with a student’s education on the line, the stakes are especially high. Therefore, beyond representation, SDAS advocates provide comfort to families during this tumultuous time. SDAS has taught me the invaluable skill of communicating with families in crisis. It has also solidified my aspirations to become a public defender in the hopes of continuing to provide representation to those who need it most.

The difficulties of the hearing process for families mirror the complications many people face in the legal system, especially youth. Across the country, and particularly in Pennsylvania, youth are stilled tried within the adult system on daily basis. The complexities of both the juvenile justice and criminal justice system can be extremely harrowing for youth. Just as students and families may be unaware or ill-informed of their rights in disciplinary hearings, the same occurs in the justice system. In my eyes, the necessity of access to counsel, in the form of public defenders, mirrors the access to advocates, in the form of SDAS volunteers; while neither can guarantee an end result, both can assist in representation, comfort, and securing rights.

Though law school is and will remain an educational priority until graduation, it has not extinguished my desire to partake in community service, particularly as it pertains to partnering with youth in low-income communities. Volunteering with SRPS and SDAS is often the highlight of my week that grounds me back in the communities in which I live, study, and one day, hope to work as a public defender.

To learn more about Students Run Philly Style, visit www.studentsrunphilly.org.

To learn more about School Discipline Advocacy Service, visit https://sites.temple.edu/sdasphiladelphia/.

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