It’s Tuesday afternoon and as the school day at Cunningham Park Elementary School draws to a close, kids are abuzz with excitement. A question on many minds: “Is today our day to visit Ms. Karen?”
Karen Covell, known for her white hair and jovial hospitality by dozens of neighborhood families, is Program Director for Belong!, a nonprofit organization that provides material, relational, and spiritual support to under-resourced families – the working poor in our region. Many of these families hail from Central America, a region where Covell lived and worked for five years. Other Belong! families are recent immigrants from Egypt, Morocco, and Sudan.
And what has the kids so excited? “We like to see our tutors!” exclaims Rose, a 1st grader who clearly delights in the opportunities to engage with adults and older youth who faithfully volunteer as tutors for Belong!. “And we play games,” she added. Math and word games figure prominently in Belong!’s curriculum.
Sonia Samontoroy is one of Belong!’s volunteer tutors. A senior at Madison High School, Samontoroy has been working with Belong! since the spring of 2020. She starting tutoring a 6th grader over Zoom to improve her reading and math skills. In two months of virtual tutoring, Sonia noticed marked improvements in her student’s reading skills, as well as her command of basic math facts.
This fall, Samontoroy has been tutoring a 1st grader in person, and has enjoyed seeing him progress from barely connecting letters with the sounds they make, to sounding out entire words.
“Being a tutor has opened my eyes to service in the educational system,” noted Samontoroy. Since getting her start in tutoring with Belong!, she has also participated in Madison’s peer tutoring program, helping out underclassmen in AP Psychology. She plans to major in environmental science in college, but remarked: “I have a new passion for tutoring.”
Samontoroy was recruited by a fellow high school volunteer, and that fellow highschooler was in turn recruited by Maya Varghese. Varghese got to know some of the neighborhood kids through a local mission camp of her church, and was one of the first people to volunteer for Belong! in the pre-covid days. As they pivoted to on-line tutoring, more tutors were needed for more individualized attention. Varghese knew her friends had spare time as the public school system retooled for internet learning. She recruited 10 of her classmates.
Belong! was launched in 2017 to support a range of community needs in Vienna, many of which became overwhelming in the Covid pandemic. In 2020, Belong! channeled hundreds of thousands of dollars in food and rent assistance to families in need because many front-line service workers had lost their jobs.
While short-term aid was needed, Belong!’s vision is to invest in the long-term success of at-risk children. A collaboration between eight Vienna churches, Belong! is committed to helping families flourish, who otherwise struggle to get by in a high-wealth neighborhood.
It all started with a simple question based on the Lord’s prayer, says Covell. “We asked, ‘What would it be like if God’s will were truly done on earth—right here in Vienna—as though it were heaven?’
It became evident that education was a critical need. “Kids from immigrant and low-income families attend the same schools as everyone else,” remarked Covell, “but they do not have the same academic preparation and support.”
In response, Belong! developed tutoring programs for elementary students, and hired a teacher, Laura Kohloff, to manage the Education Program. It also supports a mentoring program at Madison High School and established a college scholarship fund so that kids could look forward to continuing education.
The differences between the relative “haves” and “have-nots” were exacerbated by the pandemic. While many students have adjusted well to on-line learning, it has raised the barriers for many others. Belong! staff spent a lot of time simply helping families connect to the internet.
According to Kohloff, “The pandemic has been especially hard on families already struggling with limitations of language and computer access. Many of our kids started this year one or two grade levels behind their peers.”
In recent weeks, 46 kids and 28 volunteer tutors have participated in Belong!’s elementary tutoring program, with high rates of attendance.
John Stone is another regular tutor. Stone started volunteering with Belong! in 2019, and has seen the tutoring effort evolve from its early days into a well-organized, professionally-run program.
Stone notes that a third-grade scholar he works with has trouble sitting still and paying attention. “It’s a real challenge, for sure,” he says. “Laura recommended that we try doing jumping jacks when he begins to lose focus.” Is it working? “I think so.”
There is no doubt, however, in Pam Thrasher’s mind. She retired recently from a career in teaching children with special needs, and continues to find opportunities to teach. She is struck by how joyful the kids are, which she attributes to Belong!’s familial environment and the strong relationships forged between children, tutors, and Belong! staff. “The kids feel comfortable. It’s a time for them to feel honored.”
Thrasher recalls working with a 4th grader on a history lesson when the word “save” led to a conversation about the young girl’s future. She is saving money for college, even though she only knows one person in her family with more than a high school degree. She is behind grade level, but declared nevertheless, “I’m going to college.” She asked for help studying for a history test because she couldn’t get much support at home. She asked Thrasher: “Will you come back? Will you stay to the end of the school year?”
“Yes,” replied Thrasher. “I’ll stay to the end of the school year.”
Thrasher also recalls the minor triumph of helping a five-year-old form the capital letter “E”, the first letter of the child’s name. “Sometimes the kids need encouragement,” she says.
Super recruiter Varghese found the kids’ receptivity to be surprisingly high. “They are tired after a full day of school, and especially after a day of school on Zoom. But they show up every time excited to do more math. I sure wasn’t that way.”
Varghese believes they come for both the learning and for the relationships. “The program celebrates learning, without punishing mistakes. If it takes 45 minutes to understand a single problem, the end result is a sense of accomplishment for both the students and tutors.”
Additionally, “The social environment also helps. Students and their friends go together.”
For Thrasher, the retired teacher, the experience is deeply spiritual. “Our aim is to show God’s love to the children and the community. We want them to know that they have somewhere to go when they have a need. Any need.”
That sentiment resonates with Sue Hamblen, Director of Missions at Vienna Presbyterian Church (VPC), one of the eight congregations that launched Belong! to love and care for vulnerable members of the community in very practical ways.
Hamblen couldn’t be more pleased with the outcomes thus far. She quotes Leviticus 19:4, “‘You must treat the foreigner living among you as a native born and love them as yourself.’ That’s what Belong! volunteers do,” she says. “They build relationships with people who wouldn’t naturally come to our church. And when people wonder why we invest so much in the lives of these children, the answer’s simple. It’s because we love them.”
The impact of Belong!’s educational work became obvious to Hamblen at its 2021 summer camp, hosted by the Korean Church for All Nations right across Cedar Lane from the Vienna Park Apartments. Despite serious academic objectives and 104-degree heat, Hamblen recalls pure joy on the kids’ faces. “There was a lot of laughter. Without the summer camp, I know many of them would have been stuck at home watching TV while their parents were off at work. Each day I left the camp sky high.”
A first grader by the name of Maria, Rose’s best friend, summed up Belong!’s impact this way: “It’s easier to learn math here than it is in school.” Of course it’s easier to learn with personalized tutoring. That’s why many wealthier parents hire tutors.
Scoring better on their tests in school boosts kids’ confidence in themselves. And having adults and older youth from the community pour into their lives enhances their sense of belonging. Even the tutors come away with an enhanced sense of community. “I find it personally rewarding,” says Pat Terrell, another retiree/tutor. “It’s a win-win.”
So what could be better? Sonia Smaontoroy, the James Madison Senior, says: “I’d like to see it expand to other elementary schools and help a bunch more kids.”
Hamblen agrees, and sees potential for growth beyond replication of its educational work: “The relationships we’ve built through Belong! are seeds that will allow us to grow our programming tremendously in 2022 and beyond.”
For anyone wanting to tutor for Belong!, Thrasher has this advice: “Make connections with the students, and let them guide you. They know where they need help. And you’ll get the help you need from the program. If you love children, you have the perfect qualifications.”
And so it would seem that our communities in Northern Virginia have the perfect qualifications to enable all kids have the support they need to thrive, and to Belong!