A Happy Place Filled With Music

I love children and Porter Leath Early Head Start is definitely the place to be to get my kid fix. When I arrived, I had the opportunity to stick my head into all seven brightly decorated classrooms, filled with children aging from a few months to 3 years old. In each classroom, I was greeted by huge grins, waves and sometimes, even a little dance from the kids. How could I not instantly fall in love with this place?


Regis and I playing the drums!

There is no place in the world like a happy classroom, especially one full of toddlers. As I sat on the floor in classroom 3, I was immediately swarmed by kids. I had one little girl crawling into my lap, a boy grabbing my hand and another boy playing with my hair. I felt my whole being relax as I found my happy place.

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Dancing like jumping beans!

During my time at Porter Leath Early Head Start, I sat in on the weekly music sessions for each class. Led by the music teacher, the kids sang, clapped, played the drums and danced. There was nothing for me to do, but join in wholeheartedly! I was only too happy to sing about making cookies, building snowmen and drinking hot chocolate.

In each class, I watched a few kids particularly shine and glow with the chance to make some music. As I listened to these kids sing and play their instruments, I thought about how lucky they are to have these music classes at such an early age.

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Singing and drumming.

Throughout the morning, I always had at least one child leaning against my side and I basked in the closeness and the unconditional affection of them. Looking around the circle of little music makers, I realized that I was truly the lucky one to be a part of this experience. I walked out with a huge smile on my face and lightness in my step. I can’t wait to go back!


Leaving with a smile on my face!

I want to share one last image. As we were cleaning up after the last class, the fire alarm went off. The music teacher and I helped lead little ones out of one of classrooms. As I walked toward the grass with a little hand holding mine, I looked back to see the teacher from the infant room walking out the door. She was rolling a crib. As she passed me, I saw the bewildered faces of six babies looking up at me. I couldn’t help but smile.

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“Pure Joy”

It's tricycle time!

It’s tricycle time!

My journey at Porter Leath began with a tour by Angela Meekins, the Development Coordinator.  From the moment Angela greeted me with a smile, I knew it was going to be a wonderful experience.  Her eyes were bright and cheerful, and her voice was full of pride and hope as she gave me the historic background of the building.  I was taken back in time to an unfathomable epidemic of yellow fever and an orphanage full of children.  I immediately understood that Sarah Leath, a Memphis widower, had a special place in her heart for these children. I was awestruck at the realization that this woman made an impact in 1850 that she had no way of knowing would turn into what it is today. Now it’s a place that educates hundreds of high-risk pre-schoolers at no cost.

Now, I am the ultimate kid person and kid magnet, so just imagine for a moment how I felt when I learned that I would be hands-on in a classroom of my choosing!  As we walked towards the Early Head Start building (birth to preschool age), I felt my heart rate accelerating at just seeing the sign on the building. I chose to work in the room with a little boy who stole my heart the second I walked in the door.  His name was Jordan, and he ran up and immediately hugged me.  In an instant we connected and I knew I was where I was supposed to be for the next three hours.

My two little kiddos and magna doodle buddies.

My two little kiddos and magna doodle buddies.

Two teachers, Ms. Breka and Ms. Marquita, were very sweet and made me feel right at home.  I was immediately surrounded by five precious 2-year-olds vying for my attention.  They shared their toys and lots of hugs.  My immediate feeling was pure joy. My favorite part was when one of the children brought me a Magna Doodle.  I traced his tiny hand on the board, and every time I finished (this happened about 12 times), he would gasp then giggle at the sight of his outlined hand. This of course led to a line of little ones waiting for me to trace their sweet hands.  When it was time to clean up this became a problem with one little girl who couldn’t get enough of my tracing (oops).

Then came tricycle time.  Having been in charge of my children’s education, I naturally wanted to teach them how to ride, but the teachers were already ahead of me showing them how to pedal and teaching motor skills.  We had a couple crashes and traffic jams, but there were lots of giggles and happiness.  At the end of our time, we spotted a huge worm (gross!) that captivated the students.

Eewww! A worm!

Eewww! A worm!

At lunchtime, I was amazed at the constant organization and how well the kids followed the rules.  The lunch was healthy, and afterwards the kids brushed their teeth.  I was really excited to see this life skill being taught, as this is something many of us take for granted as “the norm.”  As I reflected on the day, I was moved by how much the teachers I worked with loved and adored these kids. It was obvious that it wasn’t just a job to them.  They clapped and were happy when one of the children realized he could pedal on his tricycle.  They were very encouraging and constantly praised the kids.

Where the moms use their points to purchase items!

Where the moms use their points to purchase items!

After a short break, I went to the Cornerstone side of Porter Leath where I met Patricia, a former Parent Educator, who gave me a lot of great information about Cornerstone’s mission.  Parent Educators work with pregnant women before and after they give birth, teaching them how to love and nurture their babies.  They have a caseload of up to 22 moms and make home visits to educate their clients on doctor’s appointments and abstaining from drugs, alcohol and smoking.  The moms can earn points to shop at a store for themselves and their child by coming to group meetings and making their doctor’s appointments.  My first thought was, “Shouldn’t they just want to help their baby?” but some just don’t know how.  While Patricia and I organized the store inventory later in the afternoon, I asked if she took her work home with her.  She said it was hard at first to let it go, but she learned to leave the work at the door.

Yes, I organized this room!

Yes, I organized this room!

I spoke with another Parent Educator, who told me her favorite part was meeting with the moms.  She told me of one mom in particular who is pregnant with her fourth child and had been given literature on talking to your baby as soon as they are born for good brain development.  When the Parent Educator met with her, the mom said she had never realized she was supposed to talk to babies and would start doing so.  She said it’s gratifying when a mom has an “Aha” moment.  This one skill would change the life of a child.  Again I was astounded at the depth of love and desire to help that the employees have.

We are all from different environments and backgrounds, and I was reminded today that not everyone has parents who teach the life skills I take for granted.  Not all people have been shown the love that I have, and I need to be more compassionate and understanding.  It is easy to blame others for our misfortune, and I’m an advocate of making change for yourself.  But today I realized that there are many who simply don’t know how.  Something that seems so “normal” to me like talking to your baby was an alien concept to a mother of four.  We all need a little Sarah Leath in us, remembering that it takes a village!

Thank you for reading!  Know an employer that’s looking for someone who’s great with kids? Need an event planner, organizer, or fundraiser?  Send an email our way: jobleads@volunteerodyssey.com or shelly2903@gmail.com.


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Day 4. Porter-Leath was originally created to help parentless children sustain life in Memphis when war and disease became widespread in the 1800s. It has since transformed from an orphanage to an organization that aids more than 10,000 at-risk families and children each year in becoming healthier physically, intellectually, developmentally, and socially. Now, Porter-Leath offers a plethora of programs for people of all ages to engage in, and each one is specifically tailored to the unique needs of the community. To learn more about the programs and events Porter-Leath has to offer, visit www.porterleath.org.

This was my first odyssey where I knew the person I would be volunteering with beforehand!

Alexandra & Angela getting ready for Rajun Cajun!

Alexandra & Angela getting ready for Rajun Cajun!

I had met Angela Meekins through the Junior League of Memphis’s Leaders Evolving and Developing (LEAD) course in 2013, and it was so fun to reconnect with her now. As the development coordinator, Angela is in charge of Porter-Leath’s social media accounts as well as planning and executing fundraising events. Since event planning and writing/educating are on my TOP five skills and interests list, I felt Angela was the perfect person to shadow.

Luckily, I was able to help with Porter-Leath’s two huge events: Mumbo Gumbo on March 30and the 22nd City Auto Rajun Cajun Crawfish Festival on April 27. At Mumbo Gumbo, registered teams come together to cook and compete to see who makes the best gumbo in the area, with the winner securing a spot in the Rajun Cajun Crawfish Festival Gumbo Contest. Speaking of the contest, The Rajun Cajun Crawfish Festival is a delicious event in downtown Memphis that includes some 18,000 pounds of crawfish, live music, various food vendors, and a gumbo competition. Visit the Porter-Leath website for more details on these awesome experiences! Back to my

I received my own desk and computer to work.

I received my own desk and computer to work.

odyssey…I updated and reformatted the Mumbo Gumbo Final Team Lists while Angela called all of the head cooks to confirm any last-minute specifics. I even used a paper cutter for the first time on the judging criteria slips and packed up all of the materials needed for Sunday’s festivities (Angela was ecstatic when I found the 4 ounce gumbo cups hiding in the kitchen). The experience basically included of the organizational details I crave, which meant I was in heaven! Angela then taught me some strategic and brilliant tips and tricks about how to more effectively use social media for an organization versus an individual. For example, Facebook accounts for individuals cannot schedule future posts, but business accounts provide that feature. Afterward, she let me pick Porter-Leath’s #funfactfriday post: Did you know 93 percent of Americans have eaten pizza this month?

Before I left, Angela gave me an informative tour of Porter-Leath. I kept referring to it as an old college campus because it had gorgeous brick walkways, a gazebo, and old buildings – some with beautiful red brick and one that resembled a fairytale cottage. It sits on nine acres,

Decor at the Early Head Start Program

Decor at the Early Head Start Program

so there was plenty of fresh air to breathe in while in route to our many destinations. Porter-Leath holds an “open-door” policy and it was interesting to walk around while every office door was open, welcoming any curious visitors. Angela was able to take me to the building where “Early Head Start” goes on, a program for children under the age of 4 to stay for at least six hours a day. The facilitators work with parents to identify and meet any developmental and health needs of the children. Most of the children had already gone home, but we were able to witness a few rascals running around on the playground. They were undeniably adorable. The last stop we made was “Sarah’s House”, where homeless teenagers under age 18 can be sheltered. We only briefly peeked into the cafeteria before leaving to give the residents their privacy.

I had such a great time with Angela and Porter-Leath that they invited me to come back next week! I really connected with their mission and learned critical development and marketing skills. Stay tuned for Day 5!

Thank you for reading! I’m searching for a job in writing, event planning, communications, or teaching. If you know of a great fit, please send it our way: jobleads@volunteerodyssey.com or aesamsell@gmail.com.


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7 Days of Service

Epilogue from Sarah Beth Jarnagin

I encountered a lot of different types of people and situations during my Volunteer Odyssey Week. I was blessed by a young Ethiopian boy’s grateful heart after I helped him with his geology homework; and a woman whose heart has gone out to families divided by homelessness. It all caused me to realize that instead of simply not doing enough “good things” in my life, I had been robbing myself of so many life altering people and experiences. The people I met, in need or meeting needs, appeared to me as courageous. Whether they were a young girl living life joyfully with only three swollen fingers on each hand, or a man excited to wake up early each morning and serve starving people breakfast, our city is full of people working hard to meet it’s needs. I was humbled to learn about the many creative ways people have cultivated to begin solving our issues. When one gives, more is required than time or money, sacrifice is necessary.  The individuals I served beside each made the decision to sacrifice something in their own lives.

A great reward of service is to receive love from those you have given it to.  People are grateful for the little things and those who share get to reap the benefits. Every volunteer experience was special in its own way, but there were a few people and places I can’t seem to get off my mind. There are images of children’s smiles that have stuck in my mind, people’s voices, their stories, and struggles. One eight year old African male who could barely read, without the help of his afterschool refugee program he might not ever have the chance to learn. After my week I had the chance to go back to Advance Memphis and volunteer again, there wasn’t one person that didn’t remember me. The students were so happy to see me even though they had only met me one time. I was moved to see such genuine love from people that I had only given a day’s time. I have been challenged to view people differently and to love them the way Jesus Christ has loved me. The people I encountered taught me so much. They have shown me courage. They don’t see color or poverty. I want to understand better and I want to see people as people. I know that the more time I spend with people who are different than me the more I will be able to relate to their way of life and the obstacles they face everyday. Living on the streets, living in dangerous places, being born into poverty, being treated differently because of where one is from or the way they talk and dress, all these things are normalcy to some.

I can’t relate to that. I don’t have any idea what it feels like to be treated differently because of how I look or how I’m dressed. I didn’t come from wealth, but I didn’t come from poverty either. I came from a middle class white family that had enough money for food, tv, and occasional extra things. As far as middle class I was never at the top. I didn’t own expensive things or go on lavish vacations, but I learned how to fit in with everybody else. People didn’t know the difference between my penny and their dollar. My clothes looked just as nice or better, I knew things, I spoke well. You see, the higher paid and lower paid middle class citizens all run together there is not much distinction. Yet, for people living in poverty there are always clear implications. I can’t imagine walking around with a sign on my back that said,” I have less money than you, my opportunities are more limited, my education wasn’t as good as yours.” I may not know anything about being treated differently, but I am aware of what it’s like to look at someone else and know that financial status makes one different; it means people don’t fully understand each other and the personal circumstances experienced. It causes my pride to swell up inside, and arrogantly it says they’ll never fathom a way of life that requires one to work hard for what they want and sometimes need. That pride causes dissension and resentment. I have come to realize that maybe if I looked to people who have less instead of more, then some of that pride might fade and I might begin to relate to people who live a lifestyle far different from my own means.

The majority of organizations I had the chance to serve depend solely on volunteers and support from people around them. It gave me much pleasure to see all the ways our city is being built up. I met numerous people that have answered a call on their lives. I definitely plan to revisit my volunteer sites and build relationships with the people serving and the people being served.

Head Start to a Making a Mark


 Lunch Time

After opening a colorfully decorated door to a small classroom, I was greeted by small, smiling faces. The class of eight was putting on their coats and hats to go to the playground. I followed the line of swiftly moving two-year-olds outside. When we arrived, they were eager to play with me. I pushed them on the see-saw; they practiced their hula-hooping skills and went down the slides as many times as possible in a 45-minute period. They were excited to see an unfamiliar face and eager to be loved by a new friend.


Funny Kids

Funny Kids

Porter Leath has several programs throughout Shelby County, including early head start, head start and preschool. They offer their programs completely free of charge to children of families in low-income brackets. All programs are based on educational fundamentals and structured in order for children to receive quality development and school readiness. Porter Leath also works with children’s families to obtain goals and assure that the child continues to receive a high standard of education.


After learning about Porter Leath’s free of charge policy, I was impressed to find that the education and structure of the program appeared to be equal, if not better, than any costly preschool or head start program I ever attended. The children have structured meal times and schedules for various forms of education presented each day. I had the opportunity to volunteer at one of Porter Leath’s early head start schools, which services children from birth to age two. I assisted a class of eight two-year-olds. Each class is allowed no more than eight children. With only eight children, the teachers can provide more attention to each student and classroom space is more useful with less children.


nap time

nap time

The staff was very welcoming and grateful for my help. As I assisted the children with their lunch and read a few books to them, I quickly noticed that what they enjoyed most was my attention and affection for them. I enjoyed showing them affection as much as they liked receiving it from me. The kids took turns sitting in my lap throughout the day and were not reluctant to come up to me to ask for help. I found that the time passed by very quickly. When the day was nearing an end, I felt that I had barely enough time to get to know the kids. Several children hugged me as I was leaving; at that moment, I was sure I would have to come back and visit them. I was sad to leave. I hoped that I would make time to return and play with them again, and wondered how I would build a relationship with them if I didn’t. I became attached to the toddlers I spent time with after just a couple of hours. They were easy to love because they loved and trusted me so quickly.

I couldn’t help but notice one little girl in the class with special needs; she was missing a thumb on both of her hands. Although her needs made a few activities difficult for her, she seemed just as joyful as the rest of the children. She came up to me several times with no words–only a smile and a hug. My heart went out to her because she brought joy to others when she needed it the most. Without Porter Leath, children like her might not have the opportunity to receive extra attention or care. All she wants is to be loved, and she receives that when she goes to school every day.

I definitely have intentions of returning to Porter Leath to build real relationships with the children I spent time with, and hope to meet other children in the program. This volunteer experience was enjoyable all around, as a result of working in an organized environment, having the company of a great staff and being around the entertaining children I had the opportunity to spend time with. Porter Leath appreciates volunteers for the many services they render to the communities of Shelby County, and they welcome any newcomers willing to help or donate to their cause.

Thank you for reading! I’m searching for a job that allows me to provide public relations for a faith based non-profit or Christian organization using my strengths in relationship development, social media, and writing.  If you know of a great fit, please send it our way: jobleads@volunteerodyssey.com or sjarnagi@mc.edu.


Head Start on Service

Today my Volunteer Odyssey brought me to Porter-Leath’s expansive campus on Manassas Street. I met with my contact Angela in the main building, a beautiful three-story red brick structure that was an orphanage in the 1880s. It was built with funds raised to combat the Yellow Fever Epidemic, and has retained many of its original fixtures. After a brief tour of the administrative building, I was brought to the home of the Early Head Start program on site.

Early Head Start provides intervention and child development services to pregnant women and children from birth to age three.  The center has dedicated teachers that guide children through meals, planned activities, and free play every morning and afternoon. This week, the center celebrated Fall Week by making autumn themed arts and crafts like finger-painted pumpkins, and coordinated days to wear fall colors. Today’s color was yellow, and it was a sight to see all of the yellow-clad little ones!

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Some of the lovely Fall Fest themed hall decorations at Porter-Leath!

I aided the site manager in refreshing some of the more worn-out signs along the main hallway, and then visited each classroom to help with administrative duties. After making a few copies, I got to have a little fun. I played the bongos with one little boy and then had a few dizzying rounds of Ring-around-the-rosy with a precious little girl. The kids showed me a pumpkin their teachers carved the week before. Some kids were not the biggest fans of the pumpkin, forcing the teachers to reassure the more skeptical kids of the pumpkin’s character and intentions. Spending time in the classrooms reminded me of a daycare center I worked in during high school. I had forgotten how much I enjoyed working and playing with kids!

More amazing hall decorations at Porter-Leath - Pinterest approved!

More amazing hall decorations at Porter-Leath – Pinterest approved!

When the class went outside, I helped another volunteer (and aspiring social worker) facilitate a game of “Pin the smile on the pumpkin” for classes coming in from outside playtime. The kids had a great time taking turns decorating the pumpkin. They planted more smiles on their own faces than the pumpkin!

Being at Early Head Start reminded me of the joy and fulfillment working with children brings me. Porter-Leath is an amazing organization, evidenced by the positive space the Early Head Start program provides for kids to learn and play.


Thank you for reading! I’m searching for a community outreach or partnerships position at a non-profit organization in Memphis. If you know of a great fit, please send it our way: jobleads@volunteerodyssey.com or dsvgdik@gmail.com.
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