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“I was feeling blah about faith and engagement with community. I wanted to invigorate that part of my faith and my relationship with God. I needed more than just work and family. Volunteering at Hope Horizon EPA has helped and I feel more life now.”

LaRena had been aware of Hope Horizon EPA for a while and was exploring ways to get connected. She was previously a middle school teacher before entering the field of professional development for teachers. She still loves students, especially middle school, and wanted an opportunity to be back with them again. Becoming a tutor seemed like a place she could quickly and easily jump in so she gave it a try.

As a tutor, she generally starts their session with some chit chat: how’s it going, how was your day, what’s going on at school, how about your family and friends, what homework do you have? “We go over what homework she has, we talk through each class, what she's working on, did she turn in last week’s assignment? Besides homework, we sometimes work on writing but mostly math. We take turns making problems for one another based on what they’re studying in class, and my student likes to make really hard problems for me to solve.”

"I’ve seen the student I tutor grow in courage and in confidence; she’s more willing to share her work, especially writing. We had fun with one particular writing prompt, where she could write about anyone. At first she was having trouble coming up with an idea, and we started talking about her brother. We ended up writing about him, how he does things like wear the same clothes all the time. We really got into it, even if it was a bit about all the things that frustrate her about her brother. It was fun to see her engaged with the writing project.”

Even though LaRena always envisioned volunteering in person, she started out as a virtual tutor because it was practical with her already juggling two young kids and a career. It was a way to see how it would fit with her schedule. The transition to in person tutoring started with a complaint from her student, “I look at screens all day. I’m tired of looking at the screen.” While it may have just been a ploy to get out of tutoring that day, LaRena said she could come in person, which wasn’t the expected response.

"It was an opportunity to show that it matters enough to show up. It was working out schedule wise and I knew I could carve out the space. I have really enjoyed being in person. She can’t hide her work, and it’s easier to flex when she doesn’t have homework. It also makes it easier to connect. I’m there to help with school, but I also value being present and building a relationship. Showing up and being consistent matters a lot and I hope that we are able to keep building our relationship. I’ve seen growth in her confidence, in her ability to be reflective, to ask the question ‘who am I,’ to navigate the journey of being a middle school student.”

We thank God for tutors like LaRena and many others who provide academic support and so much more to students in our programs. We pray that God would continue to bring life and hope to both our students and volunteers through their time together at Hope Horizon EPA.

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On Thursday, I watched as Miss Mona rolled out the coveted prize cart. I heard the pitter patter of students skipping in the hallway and saw heads peeking into the hallway to see if it was their turn to make a purchase at the cart. The prize cart. It's the reward at the end of a long week of working hard to complete homework and tutorials and reading and extra work. I watched as each student approached and grew wide eyed as they surveyed the loot. They held their fake dollars preciously as they contemplated carefully the sea of choices. Would it be Pokémon cards? Bouncy balls? invisible ink pens? Or the grand prizes of extravagant Lego sets, Squishmallows, blue tooth headphones?

I watched as Miss Mona coached, advised and also allowed them to make their own choices. I witnessed real life skills being taught and learned right before my eyes: saving today for something you really wanted in the future, counting and assessing value and percentages of what to spend and what to save, assessing the value of items that would last or be eaten and gone, the gratification of working hard for something and being rewarded and many more important life lessons.

Our academic program staff and classroom leaders have created a system that truly is teaching our students, discipling them in the most important lessons of life and equipping them with essential life skills: delayed gratification, integrity, work ethic, patience, perseverance, discernment, cost analysis, opportunity costs and much more.

I watched as the final student came. A second grade student, super cute, excited to spend her hard earned dollars. She looked at everything she could in the 60 seconds Miss Mona allows. And then she decided, "I'll take two Pokémon cards." She carefully picked a Cresselia and a Dialga. The money changed hands. Her smile followed as she clutched the treasure.

I leaned over and commented, "Oh wow, you got two legendaries. Good job.”

Miss Mona quickly realized that she had accidentally placed legendaries in the bag of basic pokemon.

"Umm.. oops" Miss Mona chuckled. "I guess you can keep the legendaries because I already sold them to you."

The student’s wide eyes turned and met mine, "They're for my brother."

I whispered, "God honored your decision to buy something for your brother. You could have chosen something for yourself, but because you sacrificed, God gave you something special, a gift you didn't purchase or deserve.”

Her smiled widened and she skipped away.

Truly, these leaders are not just loving students, not just affirming their value and worth, not just tutoring, not just helping, not just teaching life skills. They are changing lives. And they are creating opportunities for Christ’s love and truth to enter.

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“I sound like a kid, but recess and break time is one of my favorite parts of KidSmart. It’s the one time everyone is together: all of the students, classroom leaders and volunteers. I love hearing the students talk freely about their day at school, their interests, things they are excited about, and that they are looking forward to working with their tutor at KidSmart. Anything can be exciting at that age, and it brings me joy to hear about what they are learning, the simple moments where their minds are blown away by new and exciting information.”

Mona Tuitavake was first a summer intern at BCM and accepted the role of KidSmart Program Manager this August. Mona has a calm, peaceful spirit and is always in high demand during program hours, from 3-6pm every day after school. While Mona is the trusted leader of students and adults alike, she is collaborative in her approach and brings classroom leaders, volunteers, parents and teachers together to academically support our elementary students.

Mona grew up in East Palo Alto, attending Costaño, Chavez and Carlmont, and holds a degree in Urban Planning for Cal Poly Pomona. Family has always been central to Mona, and she loves that she can easily walk to a cousin’s home here in East Palo Alto and is surrounded by her extended family. If you ever visit her office, you’ll be encompassed by an oasis of green. Mona loves plants and has recently taken up gardening after many years of cultivating indoor plants. Mona also loves amusement parks; the Grizzly at Great America used to be her favorite, but now she enjoys letting her feet dangle on Flight Deck. You won’t ever find her on Drop Zone or sky diving, though.

“They are still young, but I want them to find value in their education,” said Mona. “Many students in the world don’t have the opportunities that they have. I hope that they find their niche, their interests, their passions. With our help and their motivation, they can explore and discover opportunities. When they find something they are interested in, you can see the light go on and they are eager to finish their homework or accomplish a task. We hope to create those moments where a door is opened for them.”

In these first three months, she has already seen growth in the students. In general, their grades and academic skills are improving, and they are also learning the expectations of the program. She also sees individual growth. “One of our students struggles to express and navigate emotions in healthy ways but this past week I saw significant growth. The student was having a difficult moment, so I went over to check in. Often, the difficult moment turns into a meltdown or tantrum, but this time the student was able to say that they were sad and frustrated because of a project they were working on. They were able to articulate the emotions they were feeling, explain why, and afterwards return to their peers. I have also seen this student have an improved attitude in the classroom.”

Mona sees God at work in the lives of the students as well as in her own life. “To me, the fact that BCM exists is evidence of God at work in the world. I feel God’s presence here in the building with us, in the way that we value and respect one another and love the students and families. I am grateful for the opportunity to work with these students, to provide guidance and support for them. I appreciate the wholistic approach, and I am assured knowing that our elementary students can go to SOL Kids, where they don’t just talk about school, but about life and God.”

And then there’s the KidSmart store on Thursdays. Mona loves feeling like a small business owner, pushing around her cart filled with toys and treats. The students earn money for their accomplishments, like finishing their homework, reading or doing math flashcards. Some of the students spend their money right away, while others save up for weeks for that perfect toy.

“I’m looking forward to KidSmart in 2022, to build on the foundation we are laying now. Every student deserves and needs one-on-one support. Many students have a hard time working independently and need someone to help them focus. I would love to have volunteers available who can read aloud with students, review their work or provide guidance when they are struggling with a concept. We have an amazing group of volunteers and I pray that God continues to send more caring adults.”

Join with Mona in praying for God to provide for the needs of each of our students, that they would be able to step into their futures with joy and confidence.

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