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A high school student with 2 younger students
Jana Hoglund

Homework Help. Though the name and the concept of this program may seem simple, students assisting other students with the homework once per week can make a big difference, especially when those being tutored are refugees learning English and working within the American education system for the first time.

Passionate to support the refugee students from River City scholars and knowledgeable about helpful services from her career as a social worker, Grand Rapids Christian High School parent Betsey Dracht started Homework Help earlier this year. What started as a small program to assist students adjusting to life in the U.S. and the demands of academic life quickly blossomed into an unexpected outpour of support from the community, and she looks forward to expanding the program in the coming years.

Learning of the 16 refugee students at River City Scholars, a local charter school, from a colleague, Dracht immediately felt the pull to assist in any way that she could. Most of the students hailed from Kabuye, Rwanda and had fled violence and unrest, eventually living in refugee camps—some of them for years. Others hailed from Guatemala and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The majority were unfamiliar with English and had had no previous formal education. "They were struggling to get stuff done," says Dracht, who at first simply volunteered to assist the students with their homework packets.

After volunteering and forming relationships with the refugee students. Dracht thought they could use some extra help. A parent of students at GRCHS, Dracht reached out to Counselor Nick DeKoster and requested a public announcement to call for volunteer tutors. "With their school less than two miles from our high school I thought it could be a perfect match for Grand Rapids Christian student volunteers," says Dracht.

"Within a week I received inquiries from 16 students expressing interest in volunteering…I was overwhelmed with the interest," she adds. After settling on a set schedule of Wednesday evenings for an hour and a half, six students and one parent were able to commit to weekly tutoring. These volunteers include: Anneke Roberts, Audrey Hoekwater, Lydia Sprik, Marielle Raterink, Isabelle Raterink, Noel Dracht and Karen DeVries (parent). With seven volunteers and 14 refugee students speaking a variety of languages (among those Kinyarwanda, Swahili and Spanish) signed up for this brand new program, Dracht hit the ground running.

Meetings began in March and ran through the end of the school year. Though Dracht admits that there were growing pains as each of the students and volunteers overcame language barriers and cultural differences, the group gelled quickly, allowing for learning on both sides. They even quickly found a home in the classroom of a River City Scholars teacher, who volunteered her space specifically for the group.

"I am proud of these students for many reasons," says Dracht. "They were brave enough to step into unknown territory and see a need that they could meet. They were real and normal with a group that is different from their own. They were consistent and on time. This was a huge message to the kids that we cared about them and that they were important. They persevered. Full disclosure: sometimes the group was utter chaos. But no one quit. They kept showing up."  

The Homework Help students and volunteers will celebrate with a year-end party later this week. Looking forward, Dracht hopes to continue to offer support to refugee students who may simply need to make a connection, and to be understood. "I am proud to be part of a community that shows up for people, she says. "I am proud of these students for who they are as individuals. I am grateful for who they became to the students they tutored."