Sept. 12, 2022
Nelson Mullins' early literacy interventionists attended an end-of-year party where they got to meet their students in person, eat snacks, and play games. From left, Michelle German, Charles Huddleston, Amanda Holcomb, Hana Njau-Okolo, Tinicia Thornton, Karen Duncan, and Katie Deriso.
In a law firm, reading and writing are as essential to survival as eating and sleeping. That’s why law firm professionals make great reading tutors. This year, a group of volunteers from Nelson Mullins’ Atlanta office helped second graders at Parkside Elementary School learn to read so that by third grade they know how to read to learn, staying on track in school.
In 2018, of counsel Charles Huddleston attended a breakfast presentation where former Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Meria Carstarphen spoke about the district’s involvement with TutorMate, an online tutoring platform for first and second graders. The program provides online tutoring once a week for students who have fallen below grade level. Historically, students in TutorMate have seen their reading improve by more than two levels. Charles, who comes from a family of teachers, was sold. The firm has participated in 2018, 2019, and 2022 — only missing two years during the pandemic, which shut the program down temporarily.
To get the project started, Charles secured firm funding and asked administrative assistant Hana Njau-Okolo to take the lead in coordinating the program, which she has enthusiastically done for three years. “For me, it’s just an honor to serve as a liaison for TutorMate and the firm as a community service project because I feel that helping students, providing them with a needed mentorship — there’s so much that you get back from giving,” Hana said. Hana recruits tutors each year and keeps a bird’s eye view on the tutoring schedule. She is the bridge between Nelson Mullins and the program, and she makes sure both the tutors and students are on the right pathways. In addition, Hana also finds time to tutor one student each year.
As tutors start to see students evolve in their reading skills, they reap the rewards of teaching. Hana had a student whose dad bought him a watch as a reward for his improvement at school. Administrative coordinator Katie Deriso worked with a student who was shy at first. Throughout the year, she noticed that he was stuttering less, reading faster, and sharing more of his personality. Administrative assistant Tinicia Thornton had two students who phased out of the program, meaning they reached their reading goals. One of them asked her if he could keep taking lessons because he enjoyed them so much.
“Even though it’s 30 minutes once a week, that 30 minutes could make a difference in that child’s life. We are not privy to what they’re going through whether it be at home or even in the classroom. That 30 minutes could be their temporary outlet. Some kids also learn differently so that one-on-one interaction could be the boost that they need,” Tinicia said.
Lessons are conducted virtually, but at the end of the year the tutors always do a classroom visit where they get to meet their students in person, eat some treats, and play games together. Tinicia always makes the day special by bringing TutorMate’s popular word games to life for all the kids (and tutors) to enjoy. One year she made a giant Tic Tac Toe board and created a puppet show that required class participation. This year, she brought to life “Word Sort,” another popular game for TutorMate students.
“I guess that’s just my niche. If I could go all out, I would! It gives the other students the opportunity to see, and participate in, some of the same learning games used to build their reading skills,” Tinicia said. “I believe that kids need to be celebrated, especially when they reach certain milestones. What better way to do that than to bring to life some effective mechanisms that helped TutorMate students get to where they are and spend time with them in person!”
It’s clear that TutorMate is one of those programs that means as much to the volunteers as it does to the students. Not only is it rewarding to watch children learn, but it creates more opportunities for connection and camaraderie among colleagues.
“Sometimes when you work in a supportive role at law firms, there can be a sense of sterility in the environment — you don’t really touch and feel people. They’re a client behind a client matter number,” Hana said. “When you’re actually dealing with kids and hearing their voices and seeing their faces and seeing what they’ve accomplished, it just makes you feel more connected.”
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