Mar. 22, 1999
Volume 51, No. 24
Eyal ties service to fun for Emory students, community
For all Nir Eyal talks about wanting to "give back to the community," to "make a difference," to effect some kind of "social justice," the real reason he's launched projects like the Emory Read program is embodied in a little girl named Ashley.
When Eyal first began working with Ashley, then a second grader at Slaton Elementary in Atlanta's Summerhill neighborhood, she read on a kindergarten level. Two-and-a-half semesters later Ashley had caught up to the rest of the kids in her class. Eyal had formed a bond with her, one that takes more than a single day or a weekend, and it's tough to tell who got the better end of the deal.
"After a while, she gave me this card that said, 'I love you, Mr. Nir,'" recalled the Emory sophomore. "It takes a while to get a kid's trust. And I just thought to myself, I've earned this kid's love--and all I did was teach her how to read. That's my goal, to make reading fun."
To help achieve that goal, as a freshman Eyal founded the Emory Read program in collaboration with Hands On Atlanta, with whom he'd spent the previous year working through AmeriCorps. Eyal admits to growing up "very privileged," and after high school he wanted to spend some time on his own "giving back" to the community. So for a year he spent his days at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School as an AmeriCorps volunteer, logging 2,000 hours of service and working two other jobs to pay the bills. He accepted no financial help from his family. Afterwards he enrolled as one of Emory's more mature freshmen--one whose sense of civic responsibility didn't fit into any of the University's existing outlets.
So Eyal launched Read in the fall of 1997 for students who wanted more than a "one-shot service opportunity." Volunteers had to commit to two, two-hour sessions per week for a whole semester. Eyal's initial goal was eight volunteers--24 students signed up that first semester, 64 the second semester, and Emory Read now numbers 170 volunteer members, a burst of growth its founder calls "absolutely amazing."
Eyal defers most of the credit for Read's success to the volunteers. He has stepped down as president of the organization, serving now as "founding advisor" on its board. Instead he's moved on to create another service opportunity at Emory, one that demands an even greater commitment from its volunteers but has the potential to yield equally great rewards; in cooperation with Big Brothers/Big Sisters of Greater Atlanta, Eyal has launched Emory Bigs.
Like its metro Atlanta counterpart, Emory Bigs will train volunteers to develop and nurture one-on-one mentoring relationships with at-risk children. Students must commit for a year and a half of service and go through a careful screening process that involves an interview with a panel of BBBS members and a background check. The ultimate beneficiaries of Emory Bigs, Eyal said, are too valuable to risk.
"Some people who volunteer with kids are just experimenting with their service," he said. "The worst people to experiment on are children because the last thing they need is another face going in and out of their lives. A lot of these kids don't have anything stable in their lives, and they need someone to give them undivided, one-on-one attention."
Sixty-nine undergraduates have applied to Emory Bigs, which is also recruiting graduate students, faculty, staff and even alumni. JoAn Chace and Johnnetta Cole (a Big Sister for years) serve on Emory Bigs' board. And just as with Read, the turnout has far exceeded Eyal's expections--the board hoped for 25 initial volunteers and his "absolute top-end" expectation was 40. "The commitment didn't scare people at all," he said.
It didn't scare Eyal either, who will serve as a Bigs mentor into his senior year, juggling that responsibility with continuing duties as a Read volunteer, not to mention his classes (Eyal is a journalism/ political science co-major) and a part-time job as an intern in The New York Times' Atlanta bureau.
"Writing and reporting are skills I'd like to harness," he said. "I want to go into journalism for all the idealistic reasons; I think that information is the key to prosperity, and informing people of the truth is essential."
Eyal, whose desire to report on public policy might eventually lead him to law school, would like to go into broadcasting, and classes are not his only preparation. To blow off steam he performs in Rathskellar, Emory's improvisation comedy troupe that bills itself as the oldest college improv group in the country. "It's a great release," Eyal said.
It's also fun, which is what Eyal seems to have no matter what he's doing. Throughout all his volunteer work, he keeps in mind that the kids he works with have enough gravity and sadness in their lives, and what they need is to laugh with someone who cares. Eyal recalls his own difficulty in learning to overcome dyslexia as a child.
"I had a third-grade teacher, Mrs. Dulski, and she was the first person outside my family to say, 'I believe in you. You can do it,'" Eyal said. "That's what Read and Bigs are all about. Everybody has a Mrs. Dulski. All the volunteers have to do is think about that one person who changed their lives--everyone at Emory has that power."