It’s 3:55pm on a Wednesday as ten-year old Harris runs down the stairs of his apartment building, and starts sprinting to the Creekside Community Center. His virtual school day technically ended two hours earlier; but his favorite part of virtual learning — the emPower hour — starts in 5 minutes. And he doesn’t want to be late.
Harris is one of eight kids at Creekside Community Center participating in emPower hour — a brand new tutoring program launched by United Community to support young kids as they adapt to the challenges of virtual learning.
But the most exciting part of the emPower hour for these kids is that they’re not meeting with adults. The emPower hour is run almost entirely by High School students.
“As a High-schooler, I feel like tutoring is one of the best ways I can give back to my community,” Sofia Verich shares.
A Senior at West Potomac HS, Sofia is one of emPower hour’s most experienced tutors. She first started tutoring by herself at Creekside Community Center in 2018 — long before “COVID-19” and “online learning” became the norm. Now she helps coordinate emPower hour’s 36 tutors through West Potomac’s National Honor Society Chapter.
Sofia explains that it all started one night at the beginning of her Sophomore year. Sofia overheard her mother — a teacher at Ft. Hunt Elementary — talking with her colleagues about how much their students really needed access to quality tutors — and how hard it was to find them.
“I remember thinking, “What about teenage mentors?”, Sofia recalls. “If I were an elementary schooler, I think I’d really benefit from learning from someone closer to my age. Why not give it a try?”
So Sofia reached out to the Creekside Community Manager, Yolonda Earl Thompson — now the Director of Collective Impact — to see what she thought. Her response revealed a whole new level of need that Sofia hadn’t recognized.
“Right now, I have two sons who are about the same age as most of the kids at Creekside,” Yolonda explains. “Sometimes, I don’t know how to help them with their homework because the way that their teachers have taught them math or fractions is totally different from when I was their age.”
Sofia recalled running into this same issue with her own mother when she was in elementary school.
“As a High-schooler, I feel like tutoring is one of the best ways I can give back to my community!”
“As highschoolers, it wasn’t that long ago that we were sitting in a classroom, learning the same things that they are learning right now,” Sofia says. “The only difference is that their learning is all virtual.”
“Virtual learning has really been hard for our kids,” Creekside Village Community Center Manager Amanda Jackson (AJ) explains. AJ joined the agency at the height of COVID and has witnessed first-hand the struggles that many families face with virtual learning.
“Most of our kids live in small crowded apartments, that are just not great learning environments — it’s noisy, there’s lots of distractions, there’s limited tech support. These are things that are outside of their control, but are having a serious impact on their ability to learn.”
That’s where the emPower hour comes in. Once a week, kids ages 6-11 can come to the Center for scheduled 1-on-1 sixty-minute tutoring sessions. Students sit at socially distanced desks, where they log-on to their computers and meet with their specially assigned mentor.
“I was shocked that we had so many mentors this year,” Sofia adds. “I thought I would have to beg people to sign up because I was sure no one would want to do extra work — especially with all the zoom meetings we already have to go to, everyday.”
In years past, high school students were required to complete a certain number of service hours to graduate. However, because service opportunities are sparse due to the pandemic, most schools have waived those requirements.
However, that has not stopped new students from getting involved. Sofia says that last year, she was one of just five student tutors volunteering at Creekside. This year there are thirty-six — ranging from graduating seniors to younger freshmen.
“I genuinely love helping kids out,” Sofia’s brother and fellow tutor, Matthew — a [freshman] says. “It never feels like I’m teaching them; it feels like I’m just having fun with a friend.”
“We live in a world where it seems like nothing we see in the news is happy,” (Junior) Isabelle Gattuso says when asked why she volunteered. “This is my way of giving back something good to the world.”
Want to get involved? The “emPower hour” is in need of volunteers ages 18+ who can act as “Zoom Facilitators”. Facilitators will help set up zoom break-out rooms and serve as mentors for both tutors and kids. Click here to learn more! You can also check out our VOMO profile for a complete list of our latest volunteer opportunities!
For more information about the emPower hour, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org!