UCF Knights take a page from local literacy program
Most college students don't spend their Thursday nights helping younger kids with homework — but that's how Nicole Sorensen consistently chooses to spend hers.
Sorensen, a junior elementary education major, volunteers at the after-school Homework Room program, a free service offered four days per week by Page 15, an organization that aims to provide literacy enrichment for kids to inspire them with a passion for reading and writing.
In the mellow, vibrantly-colored room in the Downtown Recreation Complex, about 15 children from second to twelfth grade spend their afternoons and evenings reading with volunteers or doing homework with tutors.
Sorensen started volunteering at the Homework Room last spring as part of a class requirement, but said she enjoyed it so much that she decided to continue helping weekly — the kids drew her to stay.
"When you see that 'aha' moment, when their eyes light up, it's just the best feeling in the world — you can't compare it to anything else," she said. "I've learned that every student is different, and you really have to use unique methods to keep them motivated to do their work."
In 2008, Julia Young, executive director and founder of Page 15, started the organization as an Orlando native with a thirst for giving back. Young wanted to infuse the community with her love for language and literature. Her grandmother, a voracious reader, had a single rule when it came to books: always read to page 15 of any book before giving up — hence, the namesake of the organization.
Page 15 functions under the Urban Think Foundation, a nonprofit organization that funds and supports educational and creative programs in Orlando. In March 2014, Page 15 received a $40,000 Disney grant to fund programs like the Homework Room. Phil Zoshak, program manager and UCF alumnus, has been with the organization for four years.
"It's my dream job, still, after four years," Zoshak said. Along with being a role model for the kids, Zoshak added that he enjoys being a mentor for the volunteers.
UCF LEAD scholars Sean Dovale, junior biomedical sciences major, and Johnathan Chee, sophomore aerospace engineering major, carpool from campus every week to volunteer at the Homework Room. Dovale was reading a book with Hannah Kinnitt, 8, who said she likes the program and the volunteers.
"They're nice, kind and they help you with a lot of stuff, like with your homework or if you need help printing any papers," Hannah said.
Dovale and Chee agree that the program allows students to learn while having fun in a relaxed atmosphere. Chee said that he chose to volunteer at Page 15 because he wanted to directly help kids instead of maneuver through monotonous tasks at an office job.
While some kids may be shy to ask for help, Sky Walton, 13, wasn't hesitant about asking her tutor for help on math homework, which happens to be her favorite, but toughest, subject. The ambitious student said she enjoys writing and wishes she could stay at the Homework Room for longer than an hour to work on creative writing prompts.
"We can actually build a relationship with them that isn't stale, that they can embrace … and understand the kids on a more personal level," said Sky's tutor, Kevin Zipper, a senior English literature major.
Sky is not alone in her love of writing. Zuha Syyeda, 8, once asked Sorensen if she could write an essay — for fun — about how paper was invented, and insisted that she pull out her smartphone to help research information about paper. Sorensen said she cherishes watching kids like Zuha flourish.
"[Teaching is] one of the most rewarding careers anyone could ever have … because you're actually making a difference in the moment when you're helping them learn."
Page 15 is always in need of volunteers. Students can fill out forms at Page15.com/volunteer.