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After a decade, USM-Boys & Girls Clubs partnership continues to flourish

Every Tuesday this spring, Catherine Scheirer ’23 showed inner-city Portland kids how to Highland dance like native Scots. 

They met over Zoom, the young members of Boys & Girls Clubs of Southern Maine and Scheirer, a USM Elementary Education major trained in the traditional Scottish dance. When they weren’t Highland dancing, there was tap, hip hop, ballet, and African dancing. 

A photo of USM student Catherine Scheirer

Catherine Scheirer ’23 is one of many USM students who have become caring adults for the region's children through their service to the Boys & Girls Clubs of Southern Maine. 

For the kids, the classes were a welcome break in the day and a fun way to learn something new. For Scheirer, they were a chance to help out the community and try her hand at teaching. For everyone, the 45- to 60-minute sessions were a way to connect during a pandemic that offered so little connection. 

“Just being able to meet these students was the best part of the whole experience. Dance felt like something we could connect on, and seeing them really get into Highland dance and tap, in particular, was just so amazing,” Scheirer said. “One of the best moments, though, was at the end of a class. We were sitting down (over Zoom) doing some stretches, and it was a group of girls and me, and we were just really able to start talking about things we enjoyed, etc. It was such a great moment.”

USM and Boys & Girls Clubs of Southern Maine create experiences like that every semester, part of a long-standing partnership that sends University students into local Clubhouses to spend time with young people there. It’s good experience for the USM students, most of whom are studying to become teachers. And it’s good for the young Boys & Girls Clubs members, who get another caring adult in their lives. 

For more than a decade, USM students have served as dance teachers and cooking instructors, mentors and tutors, playmates and confidants. 

“Their contribution to the club is unbelievably helpful,” said Tiffanie Panagakos, unit director for the Clubhouses at Riverton Park and Sagamore Village. “I hope they’re learning a lot; we’re learning a lot. It’s really nice to tap into their talents. You know, the kids really get tired of looking at the same faces all the time, so having these new faces is just really great for the kids.” 

A photo of Tiffanie Panagakos

Tiffanie Panagakos, unit director for the Boys & Girls Clubs of Southern Maine's Clubhouses at Riverton Park and Sagamore Village, says USM students' contributions are "unbelievably helpful."

The partnership initially started about a dozen years ago. It grew stronger and more formal 10 years ago, when Linda Evans became Field Placement and Certification Coordinator for USM’s Office of Educator Preparation. She invited Panagakos to speak to students in the Cultural and Linguistic Diversity class. 

“At the start of every semester, Tiffanie would bring some of her staff members and a PowerPoint presentation, and she would show the students what it looked like, the things that happened at the Boys & Girls Clubs,” Evans said. “Afterward, the students would be interviewed one-on-one. I participated in some of those interviews and we would ask students about their talents. Students may not think they have a particular talent, but students were knitting, they were playing sports, and music, and dancing.”

A photo of USM professor Linda Evans

The USM-Boys & Girls Clubs partnership grew stronger and more formal 10 years ago, when Linda Evans became Field Placement and Certification Coordinator for USM’s Office of Educator Preparation and invited Panagakos to speak to students in the Cultural and Linguistic Diversity class. 

Panagakos’ visits sparked student interest. When it came time to choose a place to do their required field placement hours, more students started choosing the Boys & Girls Clubs. And they were more engaged and dedicated to the work when they got there.

“Each year it just got better and better,” Panagakos said. 

This past semester, Scheirer taught a weekly dance class. Another student worked on art projects with the kids and served as a mentor. A pair of students held art classes and game sessions. Another student taught cooking lessons. 

“We really want our boys to cook, and the boys won’t do it if it’s a girl (teaching). But when they saw one of the students this year — and he came on Zoom with a chef’s hat and he was just really fun — the boys were like, ‘Well, I want to cook!’ That was really great.”

While the kids get to learn a new dance or spend time with a mentor or learn how to cook a healthy snack, USM students learn how to teach students from a different country or navigate a language barrier or handle a class full of students from vastly different backgrounds.

“Students who are in these classes primarily are those who are planning to become teachers, and as a teacher they need to know how to develop that cultural awareness and sensitivity, and think about what’s important to them as a teacher going forward,” Evans said. “I think it really sets a tone for teaching and learning.”

The USM-Boys & Girls Clubs partnership is now one of the longest-running community field experiences run by the Office of Educator Preparation. 

“It just works,” Evans said.

It’s worked so well that some students stick around the Clubhouses long after the semester is over. Some return to volunteer. Others have been hired as staff members. 

“Students bring a whole level of excitement. . . they come with this enthusiasm,” Panagakos said. “They just bring a huge sense of new ideas to the club.”