Tutors help students succeed
Six years ago, retiree Marilyn Garcia moved to Columbia. Hoping to get more engaged with her new community, she heard about a local tutoring program called AOK Mentoring and Tutoring.
“In my previous residence, I had been involved with a school and public library that paired volunteers with reluctant students,” Garcia said.
“I absolutely loved working with the kids and seeing their progress. AOK seemed like a good replacement for that experience,” she said.
So AOK matched Garcia with three students, and she helped them with their schoolwork — while making them laugh once in a while, too.
“There are few things as rewarding as watching a child smile at their own accomplishments, especially when you have had a hand in getting them there,” she said.
The name of the nonprofit stands for “Assist Our Kids,” summing up its mission to help Howard County public school elementary and middle-school students succeed in school and life. But it also spells out the more precise of goal of a-okay students who are academically and socially strengthened.
AOK was co-founded two decades ago at Oakland Mills Interfaith Center by Chaya Kaplan, a retired pediatrics social worker, and Joseph Willmott, the organization’s current treasurer.
Volunteers are the key
AOK began in 2003 as a grassroots group, entirely volunteer-driven. In 2009 the group incorporated, and recently it has hired a small part-time staff.
Kaplan had to step down due to medical issues but remains a “wonderful inspiration” for the nonprofit, according to its current executive director, Amanda Mummert.
Despite the existence now of a part-time professional staff, “volunteerism is the foundation on which the organization is built,” Mummert said.
“It is the consistency of an adult relationship that the volunteers bring that is the crucial ingredient to helping the students served succeed in school.”
Primarily, the students in the program benefit from reliable adult attention to
improve their academics, behavior, social
development and self-esteem.
Beyond that, volunteer tutors can give assistance if kids encounter a stressful life situation, such as the illness of a parent or caregiver.
In the 2022-23 school year alone, the group sent 75 volunteers to assist more than 375 students, according to Mummert.
“Hundreds of volunteers have served AOK during its 20-year history,” Mummert said, and “thousands [of students] have been served by AOK.”
What volunteers do
No experience is necessary to become a tutor-mentor. Interested adults are screened, trained and paired with elementary and middle-school students in need.
Most tutors and mentors are retirees who must commit to working with students for at least one school year for an hour a week. They meet their mentees in school buildings during school hours, after school or during the summer.
Volunteers are expected to be flexible, friendly and positive. They’re expected to give “100 percent of their attention” to students, Mummert said.
During the two years Garcia has been meeting with Jeongmin Lee, an elementary-school student, she has formed a “great bond, and [he] is a super-kid,” Garcia said.
Lee, who first learned English in kindergarten, said Garcia helps him with his language arts assignments. The two have established a routine of sorts.
“I read a book of my choice, and Ms. Garcia does the same,” Lee recounted. “When Ms. Garcia and I read together, we often ask questions, and sometimes we laugh at the parts of the book that are funny. Also, we play some games at the end of the tutoring.”
Lee said he finds Garcia “very friendly. She makes tutoring much more fun, and she is very, very helpful” to him.
Garcia said her tutoring focuses on reading and English assistance. “However, depending on the child and his or her situation, my more important role has been as a trusted adult they could talk to,” she added.
Benefits flow both ways
Another AOK mentor is Natalie Rock, who has spent several years with the organization. She’s been a classroom aide in English language arts at Guilford Elementary School in Howard County for two years and plans to continue the work.
“Mentoring and tutoring have brought me much joy and satisfaction,” Rock said.
“The children are always happy to see me, and I have been impressed with the teachers, school counselors and office staff in Howard County.”
Another tutor, Renu Nath, found her position with AOK through a Google search. After being a stay-at-home mom for years, she was motivated to volunteer after her children started college.
Nath mentors one student, assisting her with social skills. “We come to think of our mentees like our own children. We want to help them as much as possible,” she said.
“All children need something like this — an opportunity for someone to just listen to them.”
And the benefits work both ways. As Mummert put it, “Working with children keeps us young.”
For more information, visit AOKMentor.org or call (443) 895-2457.