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In the Classroom or Over Zoom, These Tutors Created a Bond Across Generations

By Sarah McKinney Gibson | Feb 26, 2021

Charlene Young, a retiree, and Jordan Fong, a recent college graduate, probably wouldn’t have crossed paths if not for a mutual interest in helping kids learn to read.

Before the pandemic, Young, 69, and Fong, 33, were Reading Corps tutors in the same elementary school classroom in Stockton, California. They’re among dozens of AmeriCorps members of all ages placed by Stockton Service Corps to work as tutors 20 or 35 hours/week and helpK-3 students in Stockton learn to read.

“Our desks were right next to each other,” says Young, who retired from the postal service in 2014. “I would overhear things and if it seemed like he was having a problem with a student, I would interject,” she says.

Young first learned about the tutoring opportunity through her church. “I taught my own kids to read before they went to kindergarten, so I figured this was something I could do,” she says. “I just love it. I love seeing the kids progress. They always tell me, ‘I can’t read!’ and I say, ‘That’s just temporary! You’ll be reading soon.’”

Fong, who graduated from the University of the Pacific in 2019, saw becoming a literacy tutor through AmeriCorps as an opportunity to explore teaching as a potential career path and a way to pay it forward.

“I have a learning disability, so I understand what my students are going through,” he says. “I worked really hard to move from special education to mainstream, and I ended up having a mixture of both.”

When the pandemic hit, the Reading Corps program went online. “That wasn’t always an easy lift,” says Katie Jung, the program’s manager. “There was a huge learning curve, but our tutors were so focused on serving these kids that they were determined to learn quickly.”

That was true for Young, who reached out to her “techie” friend Fong whenever something from the training wasn’t sinking in, and he helped her out. “Thank God for Jordan,” she says through laughter.

These days, Young is tutoring 12 students virtually, most of them first graders. “We go through the lesson plan together and they really get the attention they need,” she says. “Some kids don’t know how good they are. I can see it. And they usually turn around.”

The pandemic has made one-on-one help even more important, says Reading Corps Executive Director Audrey Borland. “Tutoring is one of the key ways to help our students make up ground from this unprecedented learning loss.”

And, while many AmeriCorps members are in their 20s and 30s, Borland says older adults make great tutors. “They tend to stay longer and serve multiple terms, and that consistency is good for the students and the relationship with the school,” she explains. “Plus, they’re good at recruiting their friends and I love the feedback and guidance they give us.”

That kind of nurturing also seems apparent when older tutors are working alongside younger one. “When we first started, Jordan didn’t have the confidence,” Young tells me. “But now he’s got it.”

Fong says he’s still enjoying his time as a tutor. Seeing the growth in his students last year is what made him want to do it again. “This program is really great for students who are willing to put the effort in,” he says. “And, even now, with everything being online, I have really good relationships with some of my students.”

The bond he’s created with Young is pretty nice, too. “Getting to know Charlene on a personal level and understanding how she looks at things has been great,” he says. “If I hear about something positive she’s doing with her students, I’ll try it out and see if it helps me, too.”

“We just clicked,” says Young. “We help each other out.”

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Learn more about becoming a Reading Corps tutor here. And one final note: Sonali Nijhawan, who headed the intergenerational Stockton Service Corps, is now the Director AmeriCorps State and National.