At 5-foot-9-inches, it is not difficult to spot Cameron Douglas among kindergarten students, but at Mark Twain Elementary School’s annual Fall Frolic celebrations Friday, Douglas could not have looked more at home.
Douglas, a senior clinical laboratory science major and president of the Black Student Union, attended the frolic in his capacity as a mentor with BSU’s “Bridging the Gap” program along with five other Eastern students.
“Bridging the Gap” was established in spring 2012 after Terry Diss, the Mark Twain Elementary principal, approached Douglas about creating a program to introduce greater diversity into the school.
At the time Douglas was the BSU service affairs chairman.
Diss said he felt diversity was something not typical of east central Illinois, but Charleston was an exception because of the presence of Eastern.
“We’re fortunate here because of the university,” Diss said. “I think exposing children to positive role models from different races, different cultures and different places only helps them develop that understanding now and as they grow up.”
Diss said students look at people differently than adults do.
“When students see someone walk in, they don’t see white, black, orange, purple; they see people and I think that’s very important that that’s just how we look at people here,” Diss added.
Douglas described the aim of “Bridging the Gap” as trying to “defeat the stereotype of minorities in young children before it has time to grow and become an issue in ones life.”
This aim is achieved through a student committing to visiting Mark Twain Elementary for a minimum of one hour every two weeks to assist in areas such as reading, lunch, workshops and events.
“We have watched the number of college students involved with the program grow exponentially from the mere ten that started,” Douglas said.
The program was expanded at the beginning of fall 2013 to include students from Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, with Douglas hoping to include several more organizations by next year.
“Having thirty-plus college students helping out with this gives room for EIU students to go bi-weekly, yet we still fulfill our obligations of having one of EIU’s very own in their building every day,” he said.
Douglas said while students choose to become involved in “Bridging the Gap” for a variety of reasons, they gain feelings of happiness, importance and excitement about giving back to the community through doing so.
“I’m a member of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity incorporated and we stand for manly deeds, scholarship and love for all mankind, so this is definitely one of our manly deeds and love for all mankind,” he said. “We have a genuine ethic of wanting to do this.”
Latarius Ferguson, a senior marketing major, became involved with the “Bridging the Gap” this year through his associations with BSU and Alpha Phi Alpha.
“With my schedule being so tough on campus, it’s hard for me to get time to get away from a lot of the business aspect there one campus,” Ferguson said. “When I do get time in my schedule it’s great to come here for an hour or so just to be able to interact with the children and just to get to know them.”
Ferguson was inspired to participate in the mentorship program after having been involved in a similar program during his childhood.
“It was probably one of the best things to ever happen to me,” he said. “I got to meet a lot of people that I still know to this day.”
Parents, such as Lisa Bennett of Charleston, said volunteering at Fall Frolic were positive about the idea of having students from Eastern in the classroom with their children.
“I think it’s good for (the college students) because the small people look up to them,” she said. “It’s always good to have a good base with kids.”
Elliot Bennett, 5, and Charlotte Wiggins, 5, said they liked having the “big kids” visit school.
Melinda Wiggins of Charleston and Charlotte Wiggins’ mother, said having Eastern students at the elementary school provides the children with positive role models.
“I think it’s good for them to see kids going to college, first of all, because it gives them something to aspire to and also having different adults to interact with rather than just their teachers that way they’re learning good social skills,” Melinda Wiggins said.
Diss said having volunteers in the classroom, both students and parents, was beneficial to the relationship between students and those around them.
“I just think it helps bridge the gap between school and the community, school and Eastern,” he said.
Sitting in the gymnasium helping a little girl decorate paper pumpkins, Ferguson’s rapport with her was obvious, but he was humble about the fact he was giving up his own time to build such relationships.
“To see them happy is more than enough for me,” he said.
Douglas too was modest about his efforts in helping to establish “Bridging the Gap.”
“The most rewarding part of dong this is honestly seeing the effect you have first hand,” he said. “When you’re out somewhere and a kid comes up to speak to you and you can meet the parent, that’s worth a thousand words right there.”
Laura Hamlyn can be reached at 581-2812 or [email protected]