Big Red Buddies support learning in Head Start classrooms

Isabel Szarfarc ’26 joined Big Red Buddies – a student-run organization supporting underserved families – partly because it was in line with her human development major, but also to be a part of the community.

“I wanted to put myself in the community in a way that is impossible if you’re just a standard student attending classes,” said Szarfarc, now secretary of the organization, part of the David M. Einhorn Center for Community Engagement. “I wanted to see the challenges facing Tompkins County and then collaborate with community members to find actionable solutions.”

Szarfarc and the approximately 30 students in Big Red Buddies are volunteering their time to assist in classrooms with the Tompkins County Early Head Start and Head Start program, which promotes healthy child development and provides access to early childhood education for low-income families. The student volunteers assist in providing one-on-one time with the children, helping the children build fundamental social and emotional skills.

“Buddies collaborate with teachers to figure out how they can help create the supportive learning environment children need,” said Bethany Resnick, assistant director for K-12 programs at the Einhorn Center and adviser for Big Red Buddies. “Sometimes that means reading a book to the kids, or playing games with them, or cleaning up after breakfast while the teacher is busy doing other things.”

When Big Red Buddies began in 2011, students in the program volunteered at the Cornell Childcare Center. In 2021 they partnered with Head Start, exposing Cornell students to the wider Ithaca community while also supporting a program that is often understaffed and under-resourced, Resnick said. Student volunteers visit Early Head Start and Head Start classrooms on a weekly basis, for an hour at a time.

Szarfarc arranged for her shift to cover breakfast each week with the same children, so she could establish a relationship with them and with the teachers. “It’s a great skill to be able to communicate with children,” she said. “And to see how they change and develop over the months is incredible. By the end of the year, their social and cognitive skills had developed so much, they were completely different kids.”

Together, Early Head Start and Head Start served 223 newborn to 5-year-old children in Tompkins County in 2022. “We work to give the children and their families the tools for early learning that will continue to follow them as they move through the school districts,” said Amanda Reinard, Tompkins Community Action education specialist. “Our program is vital to our community, and the enthusiasm and collaboration of the Big Red Buddies help us achieve our goals.”

The volunteers’ impact can be significant, Reinard said.

“Children learn best when things are modeled, such as conversational turn-taking and emotional cues from others,” she said. “One-on-one time with an adult allows a child to be engaged and supported so they are truly the center of the world for that moment. Many of our parents work full time and have multiple children, so getting that intentional, uninterrupted time with an adult can be difficult at home.”

Buddies build up relationships with the children over time. Each commitment lasts a semester, but many Buddies remain longer. “They get to know us,” Szarfarc said. “Their faces light up when we come through the door. You never know if you’re going to see these children again once your time as a Big Red Buddy is over, but to be able to make an impact during such a formative time in their lives is a really cool thing to do for them and for yourself.”

Jackie Swift is a freelance writer for the Einhorn Center for Community Engagement.

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