YSU Student Tutors for United Way

By Sam Phillips

Tutoring children at Youngstown City Schools was daunting at first for Marissa Gray, but she quickly began to enjoy it.

“I’m not an education major, so I was a little bit iffy about what I would be able to do,” Gray said. “But really quickly I started to fall in love with the kids.”

Gray, an English major at Youngstown State University, is a volunteer tutor for the United Way of Youngstown and the Mahoning Valley Success After 6 program, which provides supplemental programs, tutoring and after-school support for kindergarten to third grade YCS students.

She became involved through the Honors College at YSU. Megan Evans, an Honors College student who helps coordinate volunteers for SA6, said the students who volunteer for the program enjoy it.

“No matter how bad their week’s going, they go for an hour, and they get mental relief as they help the kids and see their smiles,” she said.

Gray is in charge of tutoring six students and usually spends three to four hours a week tutoring them. She puts an emphasis on literacy, but she’s there to help with anything that needs improvement, whether it’s academic, social or technological skills.

“I realized that what I can do for the kids [is] make them realize they matter and are seen. Isn’t that what we all want?” she said. “If these kids know that, their whole outlook changes on life, and their visions come to life. It’s a great thing.”

One rewarding part of the job, she said, is seeing the impact she makes on the kids. A young girl was struggling to learn how to read, so Gray dedicated hours to teaching her literacy, and eventually she watched the little girl make progress.

This touched Gray’s heart, she said. After reading a book about fireworks, a young girl told her that she wishes she could be a firework, because then she would be seen, and she would be beautiful.

The hours of teaching paid off — the little girl won an award for being the top achiever in her class in literacy.

“I had to choke back tears,” Gray said. “Her dreams and my dreams were one in that moment.”

Engaging with these young students means engaging with the future of Youngstown, Gray said.

“We need to come together and believe in the children’s dreams, show them they can achieve what they believe they can achieve and we’ll support them every step of the way,” she said. “It’s time we start giving back to the community.”

Some children find it easier to trust a young adult tutor than an older teacher or principal, because there is a smaller age gap, Gray said.

“They saw me as a friend at the end of it, and what that allowed me to do was get into their lives and see which kids needed assistance,” she said.

Students were facing problems at home that hindered their ability to learn in the classroom, she found — basic needs like running water and food were unmet, and some students live in abusive homes. Gray said they do their best to rectify these problems.

“We are here for the kids if they need to cry, laugh, celebrate,” she said. “We are there to do all of it with them.”

According to the United Way of Youngstown and the Mahoning Valley website, SA6 “brings together school and community resources to provide an intentional focus on academics, health and social services, as well as social and emotional development.”