Without in-person school because of the novel coronavirus outbreak, Johara sought to teach and engage children while being safe. The 8-year-old’s solution was a small reading program that would occur twice per week in her front yard.
“I was getting really emotional when I heard I wasn’t going back to school,” said Johara, a third-grader at Cory Elementary in Denver. “I was wondering whether I could start a nonprofit to help other kids go through this, because I think they would be feeling the same way. If a third-grader would feel that way, I would think a kindergartner or preschooler would feel the same way.”
In early-August, Johara received news she wouldn’t return to her public school until October at the earliest. She sat in her bed crying and slammed toys on the floor. She had been craving social interaction while stuck in her house during the coronavirus pandemic, and she has always loved school.
Her mother, Leigh, sat down with her daughter to discuss how other children missing school have worse home environments, such as not owning a laptop or having numerous family members living with them — and that they will also suffer. Leigh Benrahou asked Johara how she wanted to help.
Johara decided she wanted to be a tutor, and after more discussions, the idea holding reading sessions with other children emerged.
Right away, Johara sat at her desk with colored pencils and created a flier for her reading sessions. She listed her address, that the sessions would occur Mondays and Wednesdays between 4 and 4:30 p.m., that masks would be required and that only five children were permitted to attend each session.
A message on the flier read: “My name is JOHARA. I love little kids, I am in 3rd grade and I am 8. My inspiration for this program is to help kids have something to look forward to. I really want to go back to school but as we all know, we can’t. I hope this can help all of us feel more connected.” She asked her mom to make 50 copies and post about the program on Facebook.
The next day, Benrahou drove Johara down their street. Johara searched for bikes or toys in front yards as an indication children lived there. When she saw some, she taped a flier on that family’s front door. The program is intended for children between 3 and 6 years old. She hopes to continue the sessions after the pandemic passes.
“When she found out that she wasn’t going to school, honestly it was like seeing a person for the first time experience desperation or grief or sadness,” Benrahou said. “We’ve all experienced it, but at 8 years old, these kids, the worst they’ve ever been told was you can’t have a toy, you can’t have a snack. At this age, they’re old enough to realize that this is a real loss for them and an impact on their lives.”
One of the children who participate, Juan Alvarado, had been looking forward to attending school since he was 2 years old. He watched “Dora the Explorer” and memorized the show’s song about Dora’s backpack. This fall, however, Juan is beginning kindergarten online. His mother, Tammy Alvarado, signed him up for a child-care program so he could learn alongside other children in a gymnasium through their laptops.
Johara’s reading sessions provide Juan a chance for hands-on learning.
“My kid never wants to leave. He could listen to in-person stories forever,” Tammy Alvarado said. “But if you try and put him in front of a computer to do that story, forget it.”
Johara has always loved reading. She grew up enjoying bedtime stories, and she often reads books about famous women and minorities, such as American civil rights activist Ruby Bridges and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. One day, when Johara stayed home from school sick, she read four biographies.
She has also always thought of helping others. Instead of asking for gifts from friends for birthday parties, she asks if they can instead donate books. At her request, she and her mother have visited and donated food to homeless shelters.
That’s why Benrahou thinks her daughter will make a difference when she grows up, working in social justice or a similar field.
“Kids naturally want to be kind, and that’s how we are as human beings,” Benrahou said. “We all get away from that because we get into our self-interest of working or what we need to do. Most kids, they want to help and they want to be helpful and they want to make people happy.”