HCC student Melanie Acevedo had barely finished reading "Prize Pumpkin" to great acclaim when 8-year-old Leyska Rodriguez asked for an encore.
"I want you to come back again," Rodriguez said.
"I'll be back tomorrow," said Acevedo.
"Yea!" Rodriguez said, clapping her hands.
This was Acevedo's second day as a tutor at Homework House, a free afterschool program in downtown Holyoke for at-risk children. She is one of seven HCC students from the Gateway to College program who have spent the past two weeks there as volunteers.
She was clearly enjoying the work, which came after a full day at HCC taking two Intersession classes: Positive Psychology and Phys Ed (winter hiking).
"It's really nice," said Acevedo, 18, who lives in Springfield. "Helping them learn and see them understanding something, and how they light up -- I like that. It's very rewarding. I'd rather be here than doing something else with my spare time."
Gateway to College enrolls students who have left high school, for one reason or another. They take college classes, collecting credits toward an HCC degree while also earning their high school diplomas.
"So many of these kids have been the ones who have received help," said Gateway coordinator Vivian Ostrowski. "To see themselves as the ones who have something to give, the ones with the expertise, it's compelling. It changes the way they see themselves and how the world sees them."
This is the first time Gateway to College students have participated in any kind of volunteer community service project, she said. The opportunity arose after she received a postcard in the mail from Homework House seeking volunteer tutors for January, a time when their regular tutors -- college students from Smith College and Mount Holyoke College -- would be on break.
Her students had to fill out volunteer applications and go through orientation, just like any other volunteer.
Another development she's noticed is a sense of community building among her volunteers as they spend time together riding in the van to and from HCC. That's a big deal for the students who may have dropped out of high school because they felt like they didn't fit in.
"For them, this changes everything," she said.
"They love it," she said. "And we will continue to do it. They seem to be really 'in it,' and it's so hard sometimes to get them 'in it.'"
PHOTOS by CHRIS YURKO: (Left) HCC student Melanie Acevedo of Springfield reads a book to Paola Torres and Leyska Rodriguez at Homework House in Holyoke. (Right) HCC students help 8-year-old Keniyya Simmons with an art project at Homework House. . (Thumbnail) HCC student Melanie Acevedo reads to 8-year-old Paola Torres at Homework House.