Keeping it in the family: One corps member’s grandfather inspired a passion for serving students


Jessie Lewis is a corps member in Washington, DC, and she was inspired to serve with City Year because her grandfather, David Caplan, is Dean of City Year New York. This morning to a packed audience at City Year Washington, DC’s monthly Breakfast of Champions, Jessie shared her story about why she decided to serve with City Year and about the impact she’s having on students. Click the video link above to watch.

Today, coincidentally, is David’s birthday. Happy Birthday, David!

lewiscaplanfrancoRead the story:
Good morning everyone. My name is Jessie Lewis, I am twenty-three years old from Boston, Massachusetts, and I proudly serve in a second grade classroom with the DC Promise Neighborhood Initiative Team at Neval Thomas Elementary School.

While I am the first person in my family to be a City Year corps member, I am not the first person to work for City Year. My grandfather, who turns 89 years old today, has worked as the Dean of City Year New York for the past 10 years. My grandfather could talk about City Year for hours, and he does whenever he gets the chance. He believes in the mission, the people, the work and anything else involving City Year. I am so grateful that my grandfather’s passion opened my eyes to an organization to which I now feel such a personal connection.

I love being able to connect with my grandfather through City Year, and I am honored to be following in his footsteps. My grandfather’s passion, however, was not the only reason I decided to serve with City Year Washington, DC. School was always a very big struggle for me. I was an extremely hard worker, but struggled with tests, and so my grades never reflected my work, and most importantly my abilities. This left me feeling stupid and frustrated, and that is not how kids should be feeling in school. I decided to serve because I want every student to understand that they are smart, and they all have potential. I want these kids to be confident in themselves, and understand that school can be a place they feel supported, believed in and enjoy coming to everyday.

I spend most of my day in the classroom with my teacher, Mr. White, and our 27-second graders. It did not take me long to realize that while my students are only 7 and 8 years old, they tend to act as if they are about twice that age.

I was relieved to connect with many of my students very quickly. With some it took longer as they were inclined not to trust me. Khyree is one of the brightest and most mature students in my class, but if someone does something to upset him, a switch flips, and he becomes a very different person. For a long time Khyree seemed very uninterested in me. I tried to talk to him or help him when needed, but he usually declined my offers. I did not give up on him, but I also wanted to give him his space if that was what he needed.

Even though Khyree was not opening up to me, I was still getting to know him through his behavior in the class, and his interactions with other students. Yes he had bad moments, but aside from those, Khyree’s maturity was unlike any of the other second graders, and I saw so much potential in him. Learning more about Khyree helped me understand the best ways to interact with him. I focused on highlighting his good behavior, and making sure to tell him verbally when he was doing what he was supposed to at a time when it would be really easy not to. I wanted to help Khyree avoid fighting with classmates, but I learned that at times it would only make the situation worse if I intervened.

After winter break I realized that Khyree was opening up to me a bit more. He started asking me for help when he was struggling with his work, and he seemed to actually enjoy talking to me (at least a little bit). In February Khyree’s mom came to pick him up from after school, and I waved goodbye to her and Khyree from the other side of the cafeteria. I had never met his mother before, but I had seen her many times when she picked Khyree up. They both walked over to me and his mom said, “Are you Ms. Lewis? I just wanted to thank you so much for looking out for Khyree. He talks about you all the time, and loves working you. I just wanted to say thank you so much.”

She has absolutely no idea what this meant to me. This job can be very draining, and the results of your hard work are not always very clear, but it is amazing how just a small positive thing can take you a very long way. I was not only thankful for what she said, but I was so happy and relieved to hear that I was a positive person in Khyree’s life. This gave me the confidence to keep doing what I was doing, and continue to try and connect with Khyree. I cannot claim that his behavior is now perfect all the time, but I can say that bit-by-bit his maturity is beginning to outshine everything else.

I have really come to believe in the beauty of all this work. An alumnus we met during our training in August described his Corps year as a “beautiful struggle,” and that phrase has not escaped my mind since. There is no doubt that this work can be a struggle, but the outcomes from the work we do are real, and the outcomes are beautiful.

I got through my personal struggles in school because I was lucky to have a very strong support system of people who helped me believe in myself. My hope is that I have supported my students in giving them what they need to begin to believe that they can be whatever they want to be in this world. Thank you.


One response to “Keeping it in the family: One corps member’s grandfather inspired a passion for serving students

  1. This is amazing. Jess, I am always so proud of you but particularly at this moment as I read this wonderful, wonderful essay. I love you to pieces.

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