I founded my nonprofit tutoring program in the fall of 2018, when I initially had only three young students and five volunteers. But by springtime, I had nine young students and 19 volunteers who worked 289 hours during the spring semester.
Fast forward to this month. The second month of my 2019 fall program has just ended, and I am serving 11 kids three days a week at the Oak Park Community Center with the help of my volunteers from area high schools, including Country Day, Christian Brothers, St. Francis, Rio Americano and Jesuit. Everyone who enrolled in the program last year signed up again this year and is succeeding in school. I have a waitlist of three youths and want to enroll them as soon as possible, but I need more volunteers.
Already, my program has truly changed my life and hopefully improved the children’s lives.
The kids have touched my heart in a way that nothing else has. It’s amazing to see kids grow not only as students, but also as people. And it’s amazing to see the wide spectrum of perspectives these children have and how such kindhearted children can come out of such challenging situations. It’s pleasantly surprising to see how eager all of the kids are to learn, and it’s a shame that they aren’t given the tools and attention in their schools to do so. But somehow, every single kid manages to show up one way or another, whether it be by car or running from stray dogs chasing them down the street — yes, that actually happened.
It’s incredible how much you learn from these kids about their personal situations in only a few sentences. I was at one of my kids’ basketball games and sitting with his little sister and his mom. The daughter was sitting on my lap and watching the game when she looked up at her mom and, on the brink of tears, whined, “Mommy, I’m really really hungry.” To which her mom leaned over and whispered to me, “We haven’t eaten since yesterday morning.” I looked at my phone to check the time — it was 2:30 in the afternoon.
I took another one of my kids to lunch one day, and he ordered a steak with a side of fries. He couldn’t finish the meal in one sitting, so we asked the waiter to box it up. As the waiter brought out the box and reached to clear the boy’s plate, the child looked up at me and quietly asked if he could keep the knife. I quickly responded, “No,” wondering what a 10-year-old wanted to do with a steak knife. He replied, “But how am I going to eat it? We don’t have any silverware at home.”
On a different day, one of the children was late to the tutoring session. I called her mom and asked if her daughter was going to be at tutoring. There was a long pause. Embarrassed, the mom responded, “No, I’m sorry. We don’t have any gas in our car, and we don’t have any money to put gas in the tank to get there.” They lived only a few miles away. She didn’t return to tutoring for over a week.
On yet another day during checkout, I saw one of the boys studying the volunteer sign-in sheet. My mom had driven me to the program and helped out with the children that day, so she and I were both signed in. I wondered what the boy was examining so intently. He ran his fingers over both of our names, and, pensive and confused, looked up at me.
He asked, “Is this your name?”
“Yes, that’s my name.”
Pointing to my mom, he asked, “Is that her name?”
“Yes, that’s her name.”
“You guys have the same last name?????”
“Yeah, we do!”
There was a pause as he looked back at our two names again. “Does that mean your parents are married?”
He was in awe of the fact that my parents were married and both were in my life. We all know that many parents aren’t married, but the fact that he struggled to even conceive of that family structure speaks to the transient nature of the father figure — or lack thereof — in his life.
The one time this boy met my father, they were inseparable. He couldn’t stop asking questions about my dad’s experiences playing college football, a sport the boy had just started playing. We all went bowling, and wherever we were, you could always find the boy chatting intently with my dad about something new — hanging on my dad’s every word.
When I tell people about my program and about the children I serve, I don’t think some of them quite grasp the depth of the children’s difficulties. What so many of us think of as everyday necessities (food, gas and a father), these children can’t take for granted.