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Study Buddies program pairs teens with children in need

Paul VI Catholic High junior Coleman Johnson volunteers to help elementary school students through the nonprofit Study Buddies.
Paul VI Catholic High junior Coleman Johnson volunteers to help elementary school students through the nonprofit Study Buddies. (Shamus Ian Fatzinger/fairfax County Times)
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By Holly Hobbs
Fairfax County Times
Thursday, October 14, 2010

It's homework, but it's fun.

On Tuesday and Thursday evenings, a couple dozen schoolchildren flood the back parking lot of Christ Lutheran Church in Fairfax City. The children, most of whom live in motels or government-subsidized housing, come for help on homework provided by Study Buddies, a volunteer tutoring group staffed by teenagers.

Volunteers with the program say the children, who are mostly 5 to 11, are unlike their classmates. For one, they enjoy the extra help and time spent on homework. Second, they cannot always rely on help from family members, who often speak limited or no English.

During Study Buddies nights, children get about 20 minutes of playtime with their teen tutors, one-on-one help on homework and -- if they finish early -- an opportunity to play board games.

"Look at them. They get so much attention from these big high school boys. Where else would they get that kind of attention?" said adult volunteer Margie Urano, who has been with the program since 2001.

The attention the children receive at Study Buddies often replaces negative influences in their communities, volunteers said.

"It kept me out of trouble," said Fairfax High School senior Abele Tekle, 17, who for seven years received homework help on English and science. Although Tekle was born in Alexandria, his parents are from Eritrea, in eastern Africa.

"I really connected to the mentors. . . . They weren't my parents, so I could talk to them about stuff I couldn't talk about with my parents," he said.

Now, Tekle is giving back by volunteering as a tutor two nights a week. "In my neighborhood, there was a lot of gang activity," Tekle said. "So this gave me something to do."

Among the students volunteering this fall, Tekle is one of the few from area public high schools. The majority are from Paul VI Catholic High School in Fairfax, which neighbors the Lutheran church. Juniors and seniors at the school fulfill community service requirements by volunteering with Study Buddies.

"It's pretty fun and rewarding," said junior Coleman Johnson, 16, of Paul VI. "I wasn't expecting this many kids. When I was growing up, I had a lot easier time than some of these kids. Some of my [basketball] teammates came from rough backgrounds. I feel like I'm helping them."

In the church's kitchen, tutors such as Johnson pair off with elementary school students. Johnson is teamed with a 6-year-old. As they sip juice boxes provided by adult volunteers, the pair works on a math assignment, both smiling through the work.

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