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Pandemic Pivot: Nampa Church Welcomes Students For Tutoring

Troy Oppie
Boise State Public Radio
Retired teacher Deana Thornhill tutors student Josh as part of Grace Episcopal Church's 'School at Grace' program.

While some may cringe at the mere suggestion of finding a silver lining in the pandemic, for others, this time has sparked a new sense of what’s possible; finding new ways to get things done — for ourselves, for our neighbors and for our communities.

At Nampa’s Grace Episcopal Church, services are still all digital. The Parrish Hall — normally booked solid with weddings, quinceaneras and church events — was quiet and empty. Reverend Karen Hunter saw an opportunity.

“I knew that since we had the shut down for COVID that many children simply were not engaging in school,” she said. “Schools were trying to engage them. But given the situations with their parents trying to work and just the whole situation, that this was really a need."

Reverend Hunter, known to many as ‘Mother’ Karen said she’d looked at the big empty space and knew how she could put it to work. But it took a chance conversation with a member of the congregation to get the ball rolling.

“One volunteer that was working here with the house next door,” Reverend Hunter said, “I found out that she was a teacher and was passionate about teaching and working with kids. She said, ‘Too bad we can't just do something,’. And I said, 'Well, we could, but, you know, I need people to help with that.'"

That volunteer is Marilyn Griggs.

“We took the Sunday school room," Griggs said. "I got books from rummage sales; anywhere I could find books, we just gathered up materials. And Karen knew the kids and I got the materials. And, so, we started.”

They also called a friend. Deana Thornhill's teaching career took her across the United States, including many years in Coeur D’Alene. She retired to Florida more than a decade ago.  

“I flew out here August 28, and I was at school the next day," Thornhill said. "So we're by the seat of our pants, getting things organized and getting supplies."

The idea was simple: get help to members of the congregation who needed it — parents with essential work, no childcare and limited time to guide children through online schooling.

Eleventh-grader Itzanayhi Sanchez-Guzman hooks up her computer to the newly upgraded wifi to complete her online classes.

“They help us when we are struggling with our work,” she said. “And I'm able to focus more here too.”

Sanchez-Guzman has three younger siblings. At home, she might be busy watching them instead of completing her class work. They are all among about 10 kids Reverend Hunter drives down to pick up for the two-hour tutoring. They wear masks and can spread out in the large parrish hall, but also go downstairs for one-on-one work.

That’s where Thornhill, the retiree from Florida, walks third grader Josh through multiplication tables.

“We are giving children here a lot more education than I think that they would get right now, with what they have to deal with,” she says, quickly adding that’s not a reflection on teachers.

“I admire the teachers in the school so much beyond words. We're here to actually support the schools, to help them with the children, with their work and do what we can to support them," Thornhill said. “To make up for what they lost last year and to help them get started this year.”

The opportunity has so excited Thornhill that she’s selling her Florida home and moving here. She wears her passion on her sleeve, and relishes the opportunity to teach to the ability of the kids in front of her — but she knows it's risky. Both Thornhill and Griggs, the other tutor, are at higher risk for complications if infected with the coronavirus.

“Is it a risk? Yes, it is,” Griggs said. “There's just no way around that one. But I think for everybody here, of all the adults, we felt it was more important to provide for these kids' education and do something with them. Otherwise, they're just staying home and watching TV and eating snacks.”

Reverend Hunter says the tutoring program has about doubled in size because of word of mouth in the community — but she needs more volunteers and transportation to grow any more.

“One of my volunteers said to me this morning, ‘I'm so happy to be here. I have a reason to get up in the morning,’” Reverend Hunter said.

“And so I think sometimes we think of life as breathing, but there's other ways of thinking of life and thinking of life as activity, you know, that gives me meaning, is also profoundly important when we think about life.”

And important especially to the families it’s helping — those with few resources for childcare and in many cases, language barriers and no income if they can’t go to work.

Follow Troy Oppie on Twitter @GoodBadOppie for more local news.

Copyright 2020 Boise State Public Radio