Alexandria, VA – When she was a sophomore two years ago, West Potomac High School senior Sofia Verich wanted to start a tutoring program. She didn’t know where to begin or how to do it, and she didn’t even have her driver’s license yet. But she loved tutoring, knew there was a need, and never gave up.
Fast forward two years and one pandemic later. Sofia’s dream has come true, not exactly as she envisioned, but she’s ok with that.
Sofia began volunteering as a student at Fort Hunt Elementary School. She helped younger kids with math and reading, and she helped with Odyssey of the Mind groups. “I think tutoring is the most fun way to volunteer,” she said. “I love sitting with the kids, forming relationships with them, and helping them learn how to solve problems.”
Sofia was a junior and in the National Honor Society (NHS) at West Potomac when she decided to launch her tutoring idea. She knew a need existed at Creekside Community Center, so she reached out to the director about tutoring some of the elementary school-aged children. A handful of NHS peers agreed to tutor with her, and soon they had a small group meeting at Creekside four afternoons a week. Sofia said, “We set it up so each tutor had the same group of kids. It was nice to have that relationship and build trust.” They noticed the kids would listen better and accept help more easily once that foundation was established.
While the tutors helped the students with reading and math, they also provided guidance and advice in emptying backpacks, organizing assignments, and showing the students how to be more independent. The tutors and students hit their stride through the winter into spring 2020, but then the pandemic hit and in-person interaction was cancelled.
It was frustrating, but Sofia didn’t give up. She did tutor one student over the summer, and when school resumed in the fall, she again sought to make the tutoring program an NHS initiative. Sofia reached out to the program’s leadership and queried her peers about tutoring via Zoom, and 36 students from NHS were interested. “I was so happy that so many wanted to tutor,” said Sofia. “It made sense to me. There’s not much else going on and they have the time to help.”
Amanda Jackson, Youth Development Specialist at Creekside Community Center, noted the dire need for tutoring and personal engagement among the school-aged children at Creekside. She said, “The tutor is more than just help with academics. We’ve encouraged tutors that while we need to get students caught up, the most important part is being a safe person during this time of chaos. We utilize games and breaks, and encourage tutors to use the students’ interests to keep them engaged. By doing this, students are receiving more than academic support. They are getting mentorship, connection, and the opportunity to feel empowered to learn, which is crucial to moving forward and not being discouraged because of this challenging year.”
Tutoring benefits both tutor and student, which is not surprising. West Potomac junior Isabella Gattuso joined the program, knowing the need for help was huge. She said, “Tutoring is an incredibly rewarding experience for me. Nothing is sweeter than a kid finally understanding something or opening up about things they are passionate about. I feel incredibly lucky to give back to the community by renewing a joy for learning in kids.”
Stephanie Kulinski, 9th grader, said, “I tutor because I love helping and working with kids, and ever since I was little, I always said I wanted to be a teacher, so this is a great way for me to explore what it is like to help and teach others.”
Sofia’s younger brother and sister are also tutors in the program; 9th grader Anna said she’s grateful for the opportunity to mentor young students, and Matthew, in 11th grade, said, “The reason I am tutoring with The Empower Hour is because I genuinely enjoy helping out kids. I also want to test my academic and leadership skills to see if I could help teach kids how to engage in their own learning in the most effective way. My dream would be to be the person who motivates young and less fortunate kids to love education and truly value the importance of it.”
Allison Verich is proud of her children. “These kids are self-motivated to meaningfully impact their community. Sofia saw a problem and resolved to do something about it. Even the pandemic did not deter them – the program only grew as it moved online. Everyone wins with grassroots action like this.”
The students need headphones, and Sofia is working to gather donations. The students have laptops from FCPS and there is WiFi at the community center, but the room is large, and headphones would help reduce some of the noise distractions.
If you can make a donation for headphones and school supplies for the kids, visit Unitedcommunity.org/give-to-United-community.html. Please indicate “To be used for Creekside Village Community Center only” in the comments.