Vanessa Laureano, 25, of Hudson, New Hampshire, is learning Spanish—one word a day—from Lawrence elementary school students so she can communicate with and play alongside them on the blacktop. As a coach for Playworks New England, Vanessa serves as a leader and mentor to students, grades K-5, using the power of play to teach them essential life skills such as leadership, empathy, collaboration, and conflict resolution. Vanessa's students learn and practice these skills during recess which ultimately helps them succeed in the classroom, workplace, and beyond.
Vanessa works full-time at Leahy School in Lawrence where many students are immigrants or first-generation Americans and hail from Latin America and the Caribbean. She starts and ends her work days walking down the hallways high-fiving and giving handshakes to each of her students, and using positive gestures to make sure they get to classes or their buses on time. In between, she runs six recesses organized by grade, creates lesson plans, and meets with classes during their individual Class Game Times. Through her Playworks position, Vanessa has become a source of inspiration and support for her students. She is credited with helping to shape a positive school climate.
Some of Vanessa's students face various challenges, from instability at home to trouble expressing their emotions in a healthy way. Coach Vanessa helps create a safe, positive environment for all students through Playworks programming. Through organized and cooperative games, such as foursquare and tag, students learn throughout the year to interact with one another in a safe and all-inclusive environment.
“At the beginning of the school year, it’s about playing with your students, learning to communicate with them, and building that trust with them and between them,” says Vanessa. “That’s why I’m learning Spanish because of a language barrier. The kids are very helpful. Speaking to them in Spanish makes them feel more comfortable around me. Now, it’s about students implementing conflict resolution tactics, such as rock, paper, scissors, and showing good sports behavior such as giving high-fives or winning and losing on their own. It’s remarkable to see each student’s growth not just physically, but socially and emotionally.”
After school, Vanessa manages the Playworks Junior Coach Leadership Program at Leahy School which gives select fourth and fifth-grade students the tools they need to navigate through school and through life. She prepares Junior Coaches to lead their peers through games during recess. The goal is for Junior Coaches to help classmates engage with one another, develop teamwork, inclusion, and conflict resolution skills, and have fun while developing their own self-confidence and leadership skills.
“I had a student this fall who struggled with controlling his emotions on the playground and often bullied his peers,” says Vanessa. “After speaking with his teachers, I recruited him to become a Junior Coach. At first, he didn’t want to listen to me or help me to help his peers. By February vacation, he was like a completely changed kid. He now leads his classmates through games during recess. He even came up to me to thank me for not giving up on him. All these kids need is for someone to constantly be there for them and to lead by example.”
This is Vanessa's second year working as a Playworks Coach. Last year, she was placed at the Trotter school in Boston. Prior to Playworks, she taught language comprehension to preschoolers as an employee at Jump Start, an early education organization that prepares youth to enter kindergarten. She has a Bachelor’s degree in Criminal Justice from UMass Lowell. And, she was a member of her high school’s soccer and track teams.
“Playworks was the perfect merge of teaching education and sports to children,” says Vanessa. “I love going to work every single day because I know I am changing the life of a student. Teaching students how to lose and how to be honest when playing a sport is important because these are transferable skills that will help them to succeed academically, professionally, and personally. I have students from last year who still ask their principal about me because I have made such a positive impact in their lives. It’s an honor.”
A Call for Coaches
Currently, Playworks New England is seeking more Playworks AmeriCorps Coaches to serve in elementary schools across Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire. At Playworks New England, full-time AmeriCorps members commit to serving at least 1,700 hours, which is one full school year, starting in August. The position requires 40+ hours of work per week, with some nights and weekends dedicated to sports leagues and community engagement events.
Join the movement and become a Playworks AmeriCorps member. To learn more information about Playworks New England or to apply to become a Playworks AmeriCorps Coach through the Massachusetts Service Alliance, see Playworks AmeriCorps Coach.
AmeriCorps is a national community service program where people commit to serve with an organization. Nationwide, AmeriCorps members commit to either a part-time or full-time position. At Playworks, a full-time AmeriCorps member commits to serving a 1,700-hour term of service. For more information about AmeriCorps, see AmeriCorps FAQ.
About Massachusetts Service Alliance:
The Massachusetts Service Alliance (MSA), established in 1991, is a private, nonprofit organization that serves as the state commission on service and volunteerism. MSA promotes and supports service and volunteerism by investing public and private resources in community-based organizations that rely upon volunteers and people engaged in service to meet their community's needs. MSA administers the AmeriCorps State program for Massachusetts and the Commonwealth Corps program, as well as support for community service learning, and volunteer generation initiatives.