South Summit after-school program feels like family |

South Summit after-school program feels like family

Taylor Eisenman, of the Record staff

Many people have more than one "family." We have friends that might as well be our own flesh and blood. We have coworkers we develop weirdly close relationships with. And we have groups or clubs we belong to where people just understand each other.

At the South Summit Mentoring and Tutoring after-school program (SSMT), 18 middle school students and two leaders have become one of those untraditional, tightly-knit groups.

"We’re one big family, yelling and screaming included," Heidi Lawrence, the physical education leader for the SSMT middle school program, joked.

Her counterpart, life skills leader Trish Wheeler, agrees with Lawrence. She said SSMT gives these kids "a family within the community."

It’s a diverse "family," according to Wheeler, with several different kinds of students, including a Russian girl who is learning English, kids who are physically handicapped, a child that has Down syndrome and another with autism.

"It can be challenging to make it so that everyone can do the activities, but the students really help each other out to make sure everyone can participate," Wheeler said. "They open doors, carry backpacks it’s so nice to see them take care of each other."

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"Students learn a wide range of social skills," Onsite Director for SSMT Sheri Leavitt said. "It’s amazing to see them interact. They’re very compassionate. "It’s just so great to see them helping each other without being asked."

SSMT started out as a homework-tutoring program with South Summit Middle School, and has expanded its curriculum to include life skills and physical education, as well as its school involvement including a program at South Summit Elementary School, where 60 kids participate.

The middle school has 18 kids in its program, but there’s the capacity for 20, according to Leavitt. Students are recommended to the program by teachers or they are signed up by parents.

Leavitt said that while the programs at the middle and elementary school function as separate entities, the two are funded by the same grant a grant whose money will expire this school year.

"We’re always looking for funding," Leavitt said. "That’s our biggest challenge." She estimates that it takes about $50,000 to run SSMT each year.

The program occurs every Tuesday and Thursday after school until 5 p.m. and is run by a staff of 12 teachers, Wheeler and Lawrence are the only permanent leaders for the middle school, but there is one leader who goes back and forth between the elementary and middle school to help tutor.

Leavitt said they are in the process of trying find subsidies for program. Health Community Coalition sponsors SSMT and is also helping to look for funding.

"I plan to approach the county commissioners for help as well," she said. "It would definitely take an advantage away that these kids have if the program could not be funded."

Sixth-grader Ayman Al-Rekabi said coming to SSMT is important to him for several reasons. "If I wasn’t at the after-school program, I’d be at home miserable

with nothing to do," he said. "A lot of my friends are here, and I get to hang out with them. Plus the teachers help me if I’m behind on an assignment and don’t even know it."

Al-Rekabi is not the only one who feels this way. Sixth-grader Jose Ruelas said the program really helps him get his homework done. "We can get help in math, and work on stuff if we’re failing something," he said.

Leavitt said getting help with their schoolwork is the primary reason this program is so important. She said they’ve seen improvements in testing scores for English Language Learner students and grades have come up at the elementary level.

SSMT is essential for children whose parents are gone after school, she said, as well as those that are ELL students or just any student who may need a little extra help.

Seventh-grader Carla Gimenez said she really likes going to SSMT after school. "There are nice teachers that help you and fun activities, and we do nice things for other people."

SSMT plans a service project for each month, Leavitt said. For December, 15 middle school students in the program visited Primary Children’s Medical Center in Salt Lake to donate polar-fleece blankets and dolls they made. Local women also made burp cloths and receiving blankets to give to the medical center.

"The students are learning to serve someone else and serve the community," Wheeler said.

Sixth-grader Laura Lance said she really likes when they get to make things in SSMT, "especially when everyone pitches in."

The students got to do just that this past Tuesday when they made chocolate- and caramel-covered pretzel candy for their parents. The kids gathered around the table where two trays of gooey pretzel goodness sat ready to be mixed by eager hands. The students dug in, mixing the sweet concoction with their fingers. Lawrence’s mom, who owns a candy shop, donated the supplies for the project.

"Oh my gosh it’s good," Lawrence said, picking up the bowl with leftover chocolate on it. "I just want to lick that up don’t you?" The students huddled around her for a chance to get a taste of the extra chocolate.

Being a leader for SSMT was a lot different than Lawrence thought it would be. "In a good way," she said. "I thought it was going to be really hard and that I’d be dealing with troublesome teens."

But, instead the biggest challenge for her has been coming up with new ideas for what to teach the students that’s both fun and will help them learn new skills.

One of the projects Lawrence and Wheeler implemented was a journal that the students write in each Tuesday and Thursday. "It’s a place for them to express themselves, no one reads them, and we lock them up after each day," Wheeler said.

Getting to know the students has been the most rewarding for Wheeler. "I appreciate the friendships that we’ve developed," she said.

Lawrence feels that closeness with students as well. "I think they feel comfortable enough with us to tell us about things like troubles at home, which a few of them have," she said.

The students also come to Lawrence and Wheeler in times of success. "It’s so fun to watch them come in and be excited about getting a good grade," Wheeler said. "It’s heart-felt pay one of those jobs that you do and it’s like a panic at first, but then afterwards you feel great about it.

"We’re just thankful that they get to do the program. It’s too bad there’s not more funding, so that more children could be in it. It gets them off the couch if that’s where they’d be otherwise and gets them doing something."