Big Buckeye Lil’ Buckeye volunteers and mentors kids in the Asian American community who come from low-income, struggling families. Credit: Courtesy of Big Buckeye Lil’ Buckeye

Nearly three years ago, Lily Lin met a girl named Ellie, who was about 4 years old at the time.

Ellie couldn’t read or write, didn’t know any math and barely spoke.

But now, all that has changed.

“Now, she’s so talkative. She’s so fun,” Lin, a third-year in biology and psychology, said. “A lot of that is just growing up for her, but it’s still so cool to see that, to think that three years ago she literally could not talk to me … and now she’s just this super funky girl, and it’s great to see that.”

Lin met Ellie and saw the change with her own eyes through Big Buckeye Lil’ Buckeye, a student organization that provides volunteers and mentors to kids who participate in Healthy Asian Youth.

HAY, a program run by the Asian American Community Services — a nonprofit organization based in Columbus that serves the needs of Asian, Asian American and Pacific Islanders in Central Ohio — seeks to provide after-school programs for at-risk, inner-city Asian American children.

According to AACS, there is a problem in that society expects Asian American children to not need help, that they are “hardworking, wealthy, smart and docile,” also known as the model minority myth.

“A lot of the times, they have this stigma that surrounds them saying that they have their lives together, like that they have everything together, and that’s not true,” Lin, president of BBLB, said. “These kids are struggling in their own ways because they are inner-city kids, and ultimately our goal is to give them all the educational support and personal support that they can so that some day they can go on to college or higher education.”

Franchesca Brown, HAY program coordinator, said the program began in the ‘70s as a way to provide local, low-income Asian families, along with immigrants, with academic help and English education for their kids.

Lin said BBLB began as HAY-U — an offshoot of HAY — about four or five years ago, becoming its current iteration about two years ago with more of a focus on the mentoring aspect.

Normally in the fall, BBLB goes to the Glenwood Recreation Center and hangs out with the kids every other week, Lin said, helping out with whatever programming the kids have through HAY. Spring semester is when the mentorship program actually begins, when mentors are matched up with a mentee.

BBLB also provides programming itself, such as inviting student organizations that teach the kids literacy and environmental friendliness.

“The mentoring program is just a lot more structured,” Lin said. “It also gives the mentor and the mentee a better opportunity to build a longer lasting relationship instead of just going every week and hanging out with any kid.”

Ohio State students interact with HAY kids during a visit. Credit: Courtesy of Big Buckeye Lil’ Buckeye

Along with the mentorship program, Lin said BBLB holds fundraisers so it can provide other programming for the kids, such as bringing them Christmas gifts and writing Halloween and Valentine’s Day cards.

Although HAY has kids who are Hispanic and African American, Brown said a majority of the kids in the program are Cambodian and live in the Hilltop community — a low-income neighborhood on the west side of Columbus.

Brown said the kids come from families in which the parents might not have jobs, and the Cambodian community itself faces issues of deportation; for example, one of the children’s uncles that many of them looked up to had recently been deported.

“He would come and volunteer, he would help out during the summer, and in the after-school program, tutor the kids. When some of them ran out of food at home, he would buy them food,” Brown said. “He got deported, and there’s others in the community that got deported. And then some of the kids, they feel discouraged, and they don’t show up for school and stay home and miss a lot of schooling.”

But that’s why Tayla Davis, a third-year in journalism and a volunteer for BBLB, said she tries to go almost every week to give the kids some consistency in their lives.

“It makes them realize that they have people they can depend on, or someone they can see every week that they can talk to or that they can trust,” Davis said.

Lin said that providing volunteers for the Glenwood Center not only gives the center more help with all of the children who go there after school, but also gives them individual attention they don’t normally get at home, as well as academic help.

“Kids are really impressionable in every little thing they remember, and they’ll remember that these kids are from college,” she said. “That is really our goal, to try and steer them towards higher education.”

Lin also said another benefit of volunteering and mentoring the children at HAY is working with them to fight the model minority myth, to help those who are underrepresented — in this case those of Cambodian and Southeast Asian descent — fight for representation.

While the myth typically stereotypes Asian Americans with having a more quiet and conservative personality, Lin said the kids at HAY are just the opposite. They love dance and rap music and are not afraid to say what they want, which she said is a good thing.

Even so, she believes people today still don’t see them that way and that it can be a struggle for the kids, being put in a box that tells them how to behave. But that’s what she said BBLB and its volunteers are trying to combat by trying to help them embrace their own personalities and know how to deal with the myth in the real world.

“It can hurt you when you’re like struggling to fit into someone’s stereotype but also you want to be who you are, so I think it helps to also just see people who are kind of like them in college,” she said. “We do have some volunteers that are of Cambodian descent, and I think that is really awesome. I think that the kids love them and to see someone like them in higher education, they see that it’s possible.”

In the past few years of volunteer work, Davis and Lin said they have both seen changes in children — like Ellie.

Some of the kids, Davis said, might not have seemed like they were the academic type because they would run around and not want to do homework. In reality, they were really smart once they put their minds to work.

“That was kind of shocking to me, just because a lot of them don’t want to do homework and don’t want to sit still, but then you’re like, ‘You can actually do this. Why do you think you can’t?’” Davis said.

Looking into the future, Lin said she hopes that BBLB can extend itself not just to helping the kids, but to raising awareness for the program and the issues they face.

As for the kids, Lin hopes that for them, having the Ohio State students volunteer and mentor will show them that there are people who care about them, who value them and that they can become empowered to believe that anything is possible.

Even more, she said she hopes that the kids remember the students.

“Some day if this experience is as impactful to them that we hope it is, we hope that some day they’ll decide to come here to OSU and be a mentor themselves and help other kids that are in the same situation that they were in,” she said.

The Engaged Scholars logo accompanies stories that feature and examine research and teaching partnerships formed between The Ohio State University and the community (local, state, national and global) for the mutually beneficial exchange of knowledge and resources. These stories spring from a partnership with OSU’s Office of Outreach and Engagement. The Lantern retains sole editorial control over the selection, writing and editing of these stories.