Student Tutors Give Homeless Children a Chance To Just Be Kids

Gloria Villarruel, a child learning and development senior, said working at Kids’ University has been a life-changing experience. “These kids inspire me,” she said.

Samantha Ascencio placed a pile of colorful plastic blocks on the desk and asked Ricky to build a cube.

“Make sure it looks like a cube,” Ascencio told Ricky. “What’s missing?”

Ricky took a second look and added a few blocks to one side. Then he and Ascencio exchanged high-fives.

Ascencio, a criminology senior, watched elementary students work on the assignment at the 24th annual Kids’ University, an educational camp for homeless children hosted by The University of Texas at Dallas in partnership with the Dallas nonprofit Rainbow Days.

The camp drew 300 children ages 4 to 12 during two weeklong sessions. The highlight of each week is the graduation ceremony in cap and gown at the end.

UT Dallas provides the tutors to help kids boost their math skills. The camp also is a learning experience for the college students, said Dr. George Fair, vice president for diversity and community engagement and dean of the School of Interdisciplinary Studies.

Healthcare studies sophomore Ayomide Irabor-Musa served as an algebra tutor at Kids’ University, which also features other STEM and arts activities.

“From the student standpoint, people hear about homelessness, but not many people have a chance to meet people who are homeless and see that they are just like anyone else — that some are just children, and they do everything other children do,” Fair said.

Kids’ University also features other STEM and arts activities taught by volunteers from organizations including the Perot Museum of Nature and Science, Cranium Kids and Frito-Lay.

The UT Dallas students said they had a great experience as tutors.

“I love being part of a group that is bringing joy into these kids’ lives,” healthcare studies sophomore Ayomide Irabor-Musa said. “Some of these kids come from really difficult backgrounds. The camp provides an opportunity for them to have fun while learning, and it lets them be kids rather than having to focus on other things in their lives.”

Serving as a tutor at Kids’ University last year led to part-time work for Gloria Villarruel, a child learning and development senior. Known to kids as “Ms. Sprinkles,” Villarruel asked the 4- and 5-year-olds in her group to sit “criss-cross applesauce” on the floor during a recent session.

“What did you like about the camp?” she asked.

“The pickles,” a boy said.

“These kids, they make me so happy,” Villarruel said. “I come here, and I forget about everything else.”

Kelly Wierzbinski, director of Family Connection at Rainbow Days, said she hired Villarruel to work at the organization’s events year-round after the UT Dallas student helped calm two children with special needs in separate incidents during last year’s camp.

Individual attention from a caring adult can work wonders, said Wierzbinski, known as “Ms. KitKat” to the campers. She said some children treasure the one-on-one time because their parents may be focused on getting housing, food and employment.

“Both children didn’t act out again once they returned to camp the following days,” Wierzbinski said. “The one-on-one, special time that Gloria gave both of them made a huge difference. Her sweet and gentle spirit, big heart and willingness to take the time to work with these kids made all the difference.”

As Villarruel works with the Teacher Development Center at UT Dallas to earn her teaching certification, she said her work with Rainbow Days has sparked her interest in early childhood education.

“These kids inspire me,” Villarruel said. “This has been such an amazing opportunity. It’s really been life- changing.”

Samantha Ascencio, a criminology senior, gives Ricky a high-five after he built a cube during a hands-on algebra tutoring session at Kids’ University. The University of Texas at Dallas hosted the 24th annual educational camp for homeless children this summer in partnership with local nonprofit Rainbow Days.

Media Contact: The Office of Media Relations, UT Dallas, (972) 883-2155, [email protected].