I was tired and hurting from arthritis at the end of a cold-to-the-bone day, wishing I could beg off one of my volunteer nights. What would one night matter? That voice you hear, but not with your ears, said, “It matters.” So I went and learned why.
I am part of a small corps of volunteers called the Norfolk Initiative for Chess Excellence (NICE), and we teach chess to children and their families while coaching life strategies and anti-bullying. It was a NICE night.
One of my most enthusiastic players, a girl, age 10, came in with a big Band-Aid across her face. She had been playing with the family dog, a pitbull, and was bitten. The bandage riding high on her cheekbone made me shudder at how close the dog had come to her beautiful brown eyes. “It was all my own fault for bothering the dog so much,” she explained hurriedly as she expertly set up the pieces on the board.
She looked tired. She was off her game. Her hair, usually loose and sassy, was scraped back from her face and run back in tightly braided lines.
So why had she come? Did she love chess that much? Was it the company? Turned out it was for honor.
I have been giving gently used chess sets donated by good Samaritans to the children who make good grades, or who improve their behavior. Sometimes other items such as books and clocks are donated as well, and they, too, become incentives.
This young lady was determined to have her very own chess set. When the boards began arriving a few weeks ago, she tended to them like some girls play with a baby doll — lovingly. She counted and sorted pieces and began carrying her favorite set around whenever she was in the room.
It was just before Thanksgiving, and report cards were not due until December, but when she told me her grades were stellar, I took it on faith and gave her the board and set in advance.
But she was bound by the promise and an honor instilled in her at home, by her family, to make certain I knew she was deserving of what she considered to be a blessing: the chess set of her choice and a log book for her scores.
Her report card came in that day, and she would not let a little thing like a bite in the face and a trip to the hospital stop her from showing the hard evidence of her success in school.
I made a promise to be there and kept it. No matter what.
People wrote and promised to send their old equipment, and they followed through.
Volunteers from Norfolk State and Old Dominion universities and the neighborhood promised to be there to mentor, and they had kept their promises each and every week.
So she made a promise and kept it. No matter what.
Turns out she made straight As this semester.
Here’s the “It’s a Wonderful Life” movie lover’s moment: Imagine how this would have ended if I had chosen to stay home, too achy and tired after a full day to be there for her. What would she have thought when she walked into a dark, empty room?
Never underestimate the time you volunteer with children and the impact it has.
This little girl is tougher than a pitbull, and she plays chess. She’s already a winner. All she and the others need is someone to show up regularly and let them know that they and their efforts matter.
Guest columnist Lisa Suhay of Norfolk is a children’s book author and director of Norfolk Initiative for Chess Excellence.