Time Well Spent

Time Well Spent

By Stan Hochman

Tutor Time brings med students &  inner city kids together to learn.

The decibel level was approaching triple digits, rattling the windows facing Jefferson Street. Two kids were at the front of the whiteboard playing a bristling game of tic-tac-toe. Two kids were at the back of the whiteboard, drawing cats and dogs. Three kids hunched over math homework; two kids read aloud, stories about princesses. One rambunctious boy tilted precariously in his chair.

“This,” sighed Jessica Meehan, her eyes sparkling, “is my favorite part of the week.”Favorite part of her week? Jess is 24, a second year medical student at Cooper Medical School at Rowan University (CMSRU). Spends much of her week peering into microscopes, studying obscure parts of human anatomy, attending classes, cramming for exams. That’s in addition to the required 40 hours of community service per semester.

You could stuff her spare time into a thimble, yet she looks forward to Tutor Time at the Ferry Avenue Library, three hours on Wednesday afternoons, because she loves kids, loves helping them with their homework, loves especially the ones who show up even when they’d had no school that day, an in-service day for teachers.

“The 40 hours,” Jess explained, “that’s required. Most of us get involved in 100 hours of community service. You somehow find the time. And this, mentoring kids, is something I really want to do.”

Kids have a built-in truth detector. They know Jess is genuinely happy to be there, which explains the five hugs, three high-fives and the fist bump she got from the first nine kids to show up.

The six medical students arrived carrying a small harvest of fruit, a rainbow of red and green grapes, three kinds of apples, oranges, strawberries.

“Healthy snacks,” she explained. “Every kid picks some fruit at the start. And then it’s kind of an incentive…finish a segment of your homework and you come up and pick some more.”

The budget for the fruit comes from a fund provided by Judy Nadell, a philanthropist. She and her husband own Townsend Press, which provides free books to the library, now run by the county.

“The downtown library was deteriorating badly,” Freeholder Ian Leonard explained. “The city had no money to restore it, to maintain it. They were going to shut the library system down. The county took over in January 2011.

“Built a new one on the Camden-Rutgers campus. Ferry Avenue branch is in a neighborhood. Lots of people use it. I tell people a library is no longer just a place to borrow the latest Stephen King novel. A library offers all the new technology, computers to use, videos to borrow.

“And the kids use it. A chance to do something different. A place to stay out of trouble. A place to learn. The after school Tutor Time is great. Those med students are volunteers and somehow find the time in their very, very busy schedules.

“They bring healthy snacks so they’re teaching those kids something about diet, about nutrition, about exercise. There’s the chance they might inspire one of those kids to be a doctor someday. There are a lot of people who want to see Camden come back to what it once was.”

Leonard is one of those people, which is why he recently started a city-wide literacy program. “You apply for a job, you want to be able to read the application, follow instructions,” Leonard said. “We discovered that some adults were interested but couldn’t come because they were also responsible for child care.

“So we made it possible to bring the kids, providing a tutor for them to polish their reading skills. First two weeks, 36 people signed up.”

There are 19 computers for adults at the Ferry Avenue branch now, plus three more for kids. It is neat, orderly, welcoming with a staff that cares. There’s a banner tacked to the front desk that says “Dream, Explore, Imagine.”

It is on the other side of the tracks. I know because I sat in my car for four minutes while a loooong freight train rumbled by. That gray Wednesday afternoon at Ferry, Jess and five other medical students came bustling in, bearing fruit, buzzing with energy and enthusiasm. They were wearing Land’s End, but they looked like they’d just come from a Dolce & Gabbana photo shoot, the men handsome, the women pretty.

They also brought a box of toys and games, plus a globe of the world, and uh oh, an electric pencil sharpener. The boy craving attention got up from his precariously tilted chair and soon reduced a six-inch pencil to a two-inch nub, fascinated by the whirr of the sharpener.

At the start, it was practically one-on-one, one tutor, one child, but other kids trickled in, lugging backpacks big enough to comfortably hold a St. Bernard dog. At the peak, there were 18 kids, amazing on a no-school in-service day.

Outside the bustling room, Jess talked about the philosophy that is the heartbeat of the program. “We want the kids coming back,” she said. “There is one boy, let’s call him Prince William, and he can get wild at times.

“If he’s provoked he can be difficult to handle. We have to have discipline, so there are times Prince William has been asked to leave. But not without me saying, ‘See you tomorrow’ and giving him a hug. Next day, it’s ‘Glad to see you.’”

That’s called “Discipline with Love,” and Vince Lombardi once summarized his coaching philosophy with that phrase, explaining that if he screamed at a halfback during practice, he’d rumple the guy’s hair before the day ended.

A medical student in the first class at CMSRU named Brian McCauley started Tutor Time, but he’s up to his eyebrows in clinical rotations. Brian Park and Jess are in charge now. Two minutes after Park arrived he encouraged Emelda to show a visitor how she does the “nine times table” with her fingers.

“She was proud of that,” Park said later. “Learning three times nine is 27 is nice, but that’s memorizing. We want them to appreciate the process of learning. They are not aware yet of what we hope for them down the line.”

They are a diverse lot, the med students. Ethnically, geographically. Jess from Bridgeton, James Tur from Santa Monica, Sherri English from Deptford, Michael Hidalgo from New York. They have one thing in common, besides the ID badge worn at the hip: the desire to build a better Camden, one child at a time.

They worked diligently with kids on antonyms, on unscrambling words, on math problems that also required creating a one-paragraph story. They seemed to be getting as much out of the tutoring as the kids.

What, the visitor asked Jose, Emelda’s big brother, does he get from Tutor Time? “Don’t Give Up!” he answered swiftly. “Don’t Give Up!”

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Date Published: Wednesday, March 4, 2015 - 14:45
Source URL: Jersey Man Magazine