It’s 6:30 p.m. on a Wednesday in the Washington D.C. Third Ward meetinghouse. The multipurpose room is filling up with excited youth. Tutoring doesn’t begin for half an hour, but it’s hard to study on an empty stomach.
A young man offers a blessing on the all-you-can-eat hot dogs, gives thanks for the tutors, and prays for the academic success of the youth and adults who have gathered for the ward’s weekly tutoring session. The ketchup and mustard flow freely, as does the friendly banter. Half an hour later, every classroom is buzzing with questions and answers, encouragement and mentoring.
In this crowded inner-city meetinghouse two miles north of the U.S. Capitol, hot dog consumption is up. More important, so are test scores, grades, motivation, and hope.
“Our Youth Were Failing”
When Tenisha Barnett received her report card at the end of her junior year, she knew that her chances for higher education were waning. If she hoped to get back on track for graduation and college, she needed help in a hurry—especially with math and English.
Tenisha wasn’t the only student in her ward struggling with school.
“At the end of the 2006 school year, a lot of our youth were failing,” says ward member Bethany Spalding. “Because intellectual development is a key to spiritual development, our bishop felt that if we lose them in school, we could lose them in church.”
That summer Bishop Richard McKeown called Sister Spalding and her husband, Andy, as ward education and literacy specialists. The Spaldings, with help from the bishopric and ward Young Men and Young Women leaders, and with advice from other urban wards, developed a tutoring program designed to meet the difficult challenges that face many of the ward’s youth. Those challenges include single-parent homes, lack of motivation and parental support, assimilation following immigration, and inner-city attitudes that often hinder education and promote a cycle of dependency.
A Remarkable Response
One of the greatest challenges was finding tutors for approximately 20 young people.
“Everyone fundamentally believed that one-on-one tutoring was preferable,” says Bishop McKeown. “Yet the person power needed to do that is a little staggering when you have 15–20 youth that you’re trying to serve.”
To meet the need, Bishop McKeown approached Bishop Brad Bryan of the Washington D.C. Second Ward to see if any members of his young single adult ward would be willing to serve as tutors.
Bishop Bryan hoped for at least a dozen volunteers. To his surprise, 60 ward members signed up.
“Our ward members accepted the assignment not as a Church calling but as volunteer work in addition to their Church callings, schoolwork, and jobs,” he says. “That’s what is remarkable.”
Bishop McKeown was gratified by the overwhelming response. “It just points out the goodness of people who are willing to give to a cause when they believe they can help and be effective.”
As the program blossomed, the youth began inviting their parents and friends, missionaries began bringing investigators, and students from the Spanish-speaking Washington D.C. First Ward, which meets in the same chapel, began coming. During tutoring, youth receive help with reading, school assignments, study skills, and personal responsibility, while adults receive training in the use of personal computers and help preparing for examinations, including the General Education Development (GED) test.
The program complements the Washington D.C. Third Ward’s efforts to encourage higher education, help unemployed members find jobs, and assist underemployed members in finding better jobs. It also generates confidence, self-worth, and retention.
In matching tutors with students, ward leaders seek spiritual guidance. Often the result has been what Sister Spalding describes as “a perfect, inspired fit.”
“I’m Accomplishing Something”
Many of the youth receiving help know the blessing of having the right tutor. Diehl Mutamba, a hard-working athlete and high school senior with hopes of becoming a lawyer, needed help preparing for the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT).
“We were trying to find Diehl a well-matched tutor when we received a call from Rob Roe, a single adult in our ward who wanted to become involved,” says Sister Spalding. Robert happened to be a lawyer with a background in preparing people to take the SAT. He praises the tutoring program for giving him an opportunity to get to know the youth in his ward and to become involved in their lives. Diehl, who recently retook the SAT, is grateful that Robert helped him prepare.
LaMar (“Twin”) Tyndle, on the other hand, was performing significantly below grade level. When Bishop McKeown, who describes Twin as “both a smart guy and a very capable worker,” asked him why, Twin admitted, “I can’t read.”
The ward matched Twin, who was baptized soon after becoming involved in the tutoring program, with Regan Brough of the Washington D.C. Second Ward and Elder Ray Mecham, a retired elementary school principal who at the time was serving a full-time mission with his wife, Charlotte, in the Washington D.C. North Mission.
“The other evening I walked out of my office during tutoring and there’s Elder Mecham, perhaps sent here by virtue of the fact that he has an elementary school pedigree, reading with Twin,” says Bishop McKeown. Shortly afterward, Twin had enough confidence to read a scriptural verse aloud for the first time in priesthood meeting.
“It’s been amazing to see his progress,” says Regan. Twin’s mother, in fact, was so impressed with his improvement that she requested tutoring for Twin’s two brothers, LaMain and LaVontay.
“I feel like I’m accomplishing something,” says Twin, whose grades have improved dramatically. His favorite book? An illustrated Book of Mormon given to him by Elder Mecham.
“You Can Do It”
With a daughter suffering from asthma, JalShalley (“Shalley”) Lynch developed a personal interest in pharmaceuticals. She worked for a while stocking shelves in a pharmacy but later decided to become a pharmacy technician. Achieving her goal, however, turned out to be harder than she anticipated.
Shalley failed the technician exam her first try and fell five points short her second try, which cost her her job. But thanks to her tutors, she is pressing forward and has since found another job.
“As much as I’d like to give up, the tutors keep encouraging me, telling me, ‘You can do it,’ ” Shalley said. “The tutors give me the inspiration, hope, and encouragement I need. This program is the best thing that could have happened in this area.”
Shalley’s tutor, Andrada Tomoaia-Cotisel, also feels blessed by the program. “Tutoring brings me a sense of happiness and peace, especially when Shalley calls to share her success stories and happy moments,” says Andrada, who works for a health center that serves the less fortunate. “Tutoring is a way I can invest in other people and help them succeed, which makes me happy.”
“It’s Good to Help Others”
High school junior Jeffrey Akame had never heard the term valedictorian until learning that his tutor, Michel Call, had earned top honors in high school. “I think I could do that,” Jeffrey said at the time. He admitted later, however, that his grades “were not so good—C’s and below.”
Michel, an engineer with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, helped Jeffrey tap his academic potential by tutoring him in chemistry, math, and entrepreneurship. Jeffrey’s grades soon rose, as did his motivation. With help from Brother Spalding, ward education specialist, he transferred to Bell Multicultural High School, an academically challenging institution with limited enrollment and high demand. Jeffrey now receives straight A’s, even in concurrent-enrollment classes that earn college credit.
“What I’m trying to do now is at least give myself the opportunity to be what I choose to be—either an architect or an engineer,” Jeffrey says. He thanks Michel not only for his help but also for the sacrifice he makes in time and travel to tutor students.
“It’s good to help others,” says Michel. “Tutoring gives me a chance to help them get to where they want to go.”
Olivia Trusty, a member of the Colonial First Ward who is helping Nnennaya (“Naya”) Lantion earn her GED, agrees. “Being with Naya, watching her progress, and helping her earn her GED has been a great blessing,” says Olivia, who recently finished a master’s degree at Georgetown University. “It’s great to see Heavenly Father’s children working on their education, wanting to learn, and wanting to be better. I’ve been so blessed with my own educational opportunities; why not share what I know with others?”
Naya, a single mother who emigrated from Nigeria in 1990, learned of the tutoring program from her son, C. J. His progress in the program piqued her curiosity. For years she had wanted to earn her GED, but the demands of work and family had prevented her from preparing for it. The ward’s tutoring program fit perfectly with her schedule.
“I always wanted to do this—not just for myself but to set an example for my children,” she says. “It’s never too late to go back to school and get your education.”
A Blessing to Serve
Janna Blais had been faithfully attending her Sunday meetings and fulfilling her Church callings, but she was looking for an additional way to increase her spirituality, especially in preparing to receive her temple endowment. As soon as she began tutoring Tenisha Barnett, she experienced the spiritual lift she had been seeking.
“When you spend your time the way the Savior would spend His time, you become closer to Him,” says Janna, who is majoring in marriage, family, and human development. “When I do things like this, I feel a sense of purpose regarding who I am and why I’m here on earth. That’s been the greatest blessing for me—that regular reminder of why I’m here.”
It has also been a blessing to serve those who have less, she adds. “Many of our students haven’t been given what we tutors have been given. It’s good for us to be a little bit uncomfortable, to see the reality of their challenges, and to be able to help out.”
With help from Janna and tutor Eric Cragun, Tenisha raised her grades to a B average before graduating from high school. In the process she gained a testimony that education can help her achieve her goals—both intellectual and spiritual.
“I wasn’t very active in the Church before coming to tutoring,” says Tenisha. The program, she testified during a recent sacrament meeting, has brought her closer to the Lord and His Church.
“The Door of Opportunity”
“This program is not a miracle cure,” says Bishop McKeown. “It is hard work, diligence, and a lot of patience on the part of tutors, some of whom are disappointed that their student didn’t show up on a particular night. But over the long haul, benefits are occurring.”
President Gordon B. Hinckley (1910–2008) has counseled the youth of the Church to get all the education they can. “Education,” he said, “is the key which will unlock the door of opportunity, and the Lord has laid upon you the responsibility to secure an education.” 1
With help from dedicated tutors and leaders, youth in the Washington D.C. Third Ward are striving to accept that responsibility—with a hope in the opportunities that will follow.
Photographs by Michael R. Morris, except as noted
Photograph by Bethany Spalding