Teens volunteer more than 2,500 hours for Leonardo's

Nevaeh Nichols, 15, a member of Leonardo's Children's Museum's apprenticeship program, helps 4-year-old Emerie Conner with an arts and crafts project during DaVinci Day Camp on Tuesday. The educational summer camp lasts eight week, and is held in the museum's education annex. (Mitchell Willetts / Enid News & Eagle)

Area teenagers have volunteered more than 2,500 hours assisting Leonardo's Children's Museum this summer through the learning center's apprenticeship program, with more help to come.

The museum is enjoying record high enrollment, with a total of 31 local kids taking on the role of apprentice, providing free labor and a more stable learning environment within its walls.

Throughout the year, teens 13-15 apply for the apprenticeship positions. If selected, they don a red smock and are tasked with keeping order in the classrooms of Leonardo's education annex, and helping guide students pre-K through fifth grade along the lessons of the day.

They also clean the desks and the floors, and escort students to the restroom, whatever needs doing to leave teachers free to focus on teaching.

As the summer goes on, their hours adding up to triple digits, they don't earn a cent. But their time is priceless.

"My main goal is to make the teacher's job much easier," education coordinator Joyce Fales said. "They're here to teach, not to take care of the classroom."

"I'm just always so proud of the way my apprentices work," she said, they keep things running smoothly and at no cost to Leonardo's.

If the record number of apprentices this summer were paid the state minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, the last five weeks alone would have cost the nonprofit museum more than $18,000.

Nevaeh Nichols, 15, has spent 124 hours assisting with the eight-week DaVinci Day Camp so far.

The remaining three weeks won't get her any closer to affording a phone, an item often declared essential in a world so tethered to tech, and one her parents insist she buy on her own. It's going on two years since she's had one. Instead of typing texts, she pens letters.

In such a predicament it might make more sense to spend the long break mowing lawns, but her work here matters for reasons outside herself, she said. There are children who depend on her patience, adults who rely on her dedication.

"It's really important to help nonprofit establishments like this because they're already not getting a lot of money ... they do so much for the community as is that I don't think we need (payment) to do something like this," Nichols said. "It should be out of the kindness of your heart."

Just because Leonardo's offers no money for the job doesn't mean there's a low bar for who can fill it.

"I kind of hand pick them," Fales said. "I pick them from my church, I pick them from my school that I used to teach at."

She also bolsters recruitment by visiting area schools and spreading the word about the program.

Not everyone is a good fit for an apprenticeship. There's a lot of responsibility that comes with managing large numbers of young children, and it takes the right personality and mindset to do it well.

Fales says a little bit of lightheartedness also is required of applicants.

"If I can't get them to smile at me during the interview, they're not going to be very good at being an apprentice," she said.

Schedules can vary from apprentice to apprentice. For example, Nichols works four days a week, six hours each.

Another apprentice, 12-year-old Nik Ramos, whose age is an exception in the program, works eight hours a day, five days a week. A full 40-hour workweek. Time where he would have otherwise been with friends, or at the pool, having a fairly standard summer.

That wouldn't be engaging enough for him, he said.

It's a different kind of fun working with second- and third-grade campers, he said, the sort of fun that might make for a fine bullet point on a resume one day.

It's fun that can feel like pressure at times, too, because it asks a lot.

"Showing up to work on time, developing a schedule, being in charge of so many kids and knowing that you are fundamental to their growth and education," Nichols said.

That pressure has shaped her in ways, she said, has helped her "grow a sense of responsibility."

It has provided, too, surer feelings of the future. Her experiences as an apprentice have helped beat a path to a singular conclusion.

"I want to be an English teacher," she said.

Immersion in the classroom, observing and interacting with teachers and students, has further solidified that desire.

At 15 years old, she'll be aging out of the apprenticeship program soon. At 16 she can take a job outside the education annex and work the museum floor for a change.

That job also is unpaid, and she's already asked for it.

"I really fell in love with the program and working with the children," Nichols said of her work with Leonardo's. "It's important to do things like this, and honestly, it's really fun."

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