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6 Volunteers Who Make a Big Difference and How You Can, Too

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Tony Helies — Inspire a Middle Schooler

Nothing excites Tony Helies more than watching sixth and seventh graders ooh and aah over the solar system. Helies, 66, a former Apollo moon-project engineer who spent most of his profession in a networking-software business, volunteers about five hours per week teaching afterschool astronomy in Boston-area middle schools.

But not just any middle schools: Helies heads to those where the previous year most of the minority students underperformed on the science section of the state's standardized tests.

His mission: to get those students so excited about learning that they consider a career in astronomy. Armed with space photographs, he assigns them irresistibly fun tasks — such as making pinhole cameras to learn which is bigger, the sun or the moon, or doing experiments to see how fast a moon orbits around its planet.

Then, never forgetting how his single-parent mom pushed him to excel, Helies introduces his charges to some of the world's top astrophysics professors — right in the lecture halls of local universities. Rather than sit for lectures, the kids get to present to the professors, then engage in enthusiastic debate.

"One seventh-grade girl was so painfully shy that for a long time she hardly opened her mouth in class," Helies recalls. "But she learned her material, and when it was her turn, she gave this great pitch about Pluto."

A boy who was forever being sent to detention for behavior problems got so hooked on the experience that he penned a note to Helies, pledging to do better in school: "I will give 110 percent.… Keep making astronomy fun. Peace Out."

Helies says this is the kind of affirmation that keeps him coming back. "How many times can you bring [a note] like that home to show your wife?" he asks.

How it works. Serve up the low-down on finance, gardening, rocket science — whatever your expertise may be — and expose disadvantaged students to career possibilities.
Time it takes.
An afternoon of training, followed by classes that meet for 90 minutes a week for 10 weeks.
Go to Citizen Schools online or call 617-695-2300.

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