Jill Lacey for WORLD

The other Washington

Charity | Most of the news from the Capitol and the White House over the past year has been about government expansion measured in the billions or trillions. And yet, a short distance away from those historic building stand volunteer groups that-under the media radar-are making history of their own by tutoring children in the evening, educating them during the day, or giving respite to parents of kids with disabilities

Issue: "O Jerusalem," April 10, 2010

First you hear them coming: the squeak of rubber on linoleum, the squawk of excited voices in the hallway. Then comes the chaos of 40 elementary-school kids-yellow polo shirts and khaki pants in various states of disarray at this late hour-swarming the cafeteria. It's 6:30 p.m. and STEPdc's evening tutoring is about to begin. Children munch pizza and salad but keep an anxious eye to the door. "There's Miss Melissa!" A little girl's face bursts into a smile. Tutors in sartorial styles ranging from laborer to lawyerly file in, some with their ID badges dangling.

Operating on about $200,000 a year, and with only two full-time employees (but almost 200 volunteers), STEPdc-Strategies to Elevate People-has served the Petworth/Columbia Heights neighborhood of Washington, D.C., since 1992. There are 175 households in the government housing that surrounds Bruce Morton elementary school; only 11 are headed by men. STEPdc's goal is to build children's relationships with caring, committed adults. Its roster of programs includes Bible studies, summer book clubs, and camps and field trips around the city, but it's the tutoring that builds ties that bind, as adults make a year's commitment to a particular child, three Thursdays a month.

In the transition from pizza to curriculum the energy stays high. On Thursday nights Jamia Chiles oversees tutoring here at the elementary school. By day she is a fifth-grade teacher at a Prince George's County public school in Maryland. She tutored for STEP in college 10 years ago and returned to direct the tutoring program.

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One of STEPdc's volunteers, Melissa Carder, has been at it for 18 months and remains impressed by the diversity of families that she has met. She says she expected the typical "at risk" situation but has been surprised. Some families are financially stable but emotionally fractured; some are relationally intact but struggling financially. But for each child the need is the same: "Even kids who are in really solid families want to have a mentor. They just need that additional time with an adult."

She has begun to spend time with 8-year-old Maya outside of formal tutoring on Thursday nights. "Most of our interaction revolves around going to Subway and having lunch," she says, smiling. STEPdc requires a parent or guardian's permission for tutors to spend time with a child outside the program, so Melissa met with Maya's aunt and uncle. "Sometimes Maya just wants to run errands with me, so we do that. Her aunt is very supportive of the relationship."

Chiles says rarely has she had a bad tutor-student match, but when it happens she asks the kids to dig deeper, make it work, and leave behind feelings of entitlement: "I had one fifth-grade girl who came to me complaining that she didn't like her tutor. She was being ungrateful. I said 'They don't have to be here. They think you are special enough to come here and take time away from their own families.' I had her go back and apologize to him."

A more common complaint comes when students have to share a tutor. These kids relish one-on-one adult attention. It's one thing they don't give up easily. One highly placed, well-dressed Homeland Security official finds himself explaining to an 8-year-old where he has been the last two weeks before she allows him to get on with the lesson.

Phillip, a middle-aged truck driver, has volunteered with STEP for a year. He recently remarried and has four children. Even so, after a long day in the truck he fights traffic to head downtown to tutor 9-year-old Isaac on Thursday nights. Isaac is a challenge. He has a little extra energy, a little louder voice, and a little extra anger in his eyes. But Phillip's gentle strength is the antidote. He sees the possibilities rather than the frustrations. "He's smart. If I can get him settled, he gets the whole thing done in an hour. If not, he takes an hour on one problem."

How to get Isaac focused? Phillip's technique: "I just pull him in a little closer next to me and he gets settled faster." Isaac is still intense but now focused and wants to work. But all evenings don't end happily. On this one, Phillip begins to droop. He is becoming ill and has to leave early. He apologizes to Isaac, who looks crestfallen.

Volunteers do not have to be Christians, but they have to know and accept STEPdc's focus on Jesus. Most of the tutors come from large churches in the area that financially support STEPdc. Each volunteer must pass a criminal background check. After a day of training "we ask them to try it for three evenings," Chiles says. "After that they are usually hooked"-and then they tell their friends. One woman from the World Bank brought five friends from work, and they are now committed volunteers.


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