This week I had the privilege of visiting one of the after-school tutoring sites run by my friends at CHAT (Church Hill Activities & Tutoring). Several times each week they reach over 140 kids in the Church Hill section of inner city East Richmond with a variety of programs. I joined one of their tutoring evenings at a house called the Twenty Spot. CHAT has included my book, Summer of the Woods, in their fall reading curriculum and invited me to do a reading and give a brief talk to the kids about writing a book. A portion of the proceeds from my book sales go toward this great cause.
I pulled up to the house just as dusk was setting in and the kids were arriving and playing in the yard outside. A young boy was doing his best racecar imitation on a tricycle, cutting around a hairpin turn with expert precision. I met Daniel Payne, a VCU senior and leader of this particular study group. Following him inside, I watched him greet the kids, settle various disputes and questions and overall do an amazing job creating a controlled chaos with a fairly small row house full of 20 kids seeming to range in age from five to sixteen. Dinner was being served from the kitchen and everyone was spread around the house, finding a place where they could eat.
I sat down on a stool and talked with some of the kids, who were a typical mix of quiet and talkative. Most were generally disinterested in me, some were slightly curious as to what this new white guy was doing there carrying a couple books around. Before long, Daniel had them squeezed into the front living room, and, along with the help of a few older kids, went through some opening mottos, rules, and announcements and a couple of scripture verses. It wasn’t hard to see that the kids were glad to be there. I could only presume that they valued the opportunity to socialize in a safe and affirming place, and get a good meal and help with their studies.
Soon I was called up to the front, and I read to the older group (grades 4+) what I hoped was an exciting section from Summer of the Woods, where Sam falls into a surging creek and Derek tries to rescue him. From where I stood, everyone seemed to be engaged (of course!). Several were wide-eyed, taking in the idea of writing a book, something I tried to encourage them wasn’t out of their grasp. There were a lot of good questions afterward about how I wrote the book, how long it took, and was I going to write any more. I think they liked it! Then I went across the street and read to the younger crowd. Not surprisingly, they were a little more restless, but seemed to enjoy it. I promised that next time I’d bring a much less boring book and there were some giggles.
Daniel explained that while the tutoring sessions had gotten their start by helping kids with their homework, they now mostly concentrate on reading. If kids are so far below their proper reading level that they can’t do their homework, a little tutoring isn’t going to help much. We walked around the house together, room to room. Each kid was reading a book to their individual tutor. In a couple rooms, groups were reading my book. It was so cool to hear the kids reading aloud to their tutor the sentences that I knew so well.
Before everyone left, the students gathered back in the living room and shared several facts that they’d learned about their tutors that evening and vice versa. I gave Daniel a signed copy of my book, and he awarded it to the student whom he thought paid the most attention and asked the best questions. It went to a young man named Dink, who appeared to be in middle school. I won’t be able to adequately describe the smile on his face. He intently watched me sign my name and personalize it to him. It was pretty cool.
I’d brought along an advanced copy of my new book, Mystery on Church Hill, and as I’d hoped, they seemed to appreciate that it tied in so closely to their community. I hope I can get back for another reading in the future. Driving home out of the city and literally over the river and through the woods to my safe and comparatively cushy house in the suburbs, I couldn’t help but feel humbled. The experience definitely put into perspective a few things that had been stressing me out.
Thanks to CHAT for making the opportunity possible and for all the great work that they’re doing with the kids in Church Hill. I look forward to the next time!