Chain of Love

It was my first semester at the University of North Georgia, and I was looking for a place to volunteer in the university’s volunteer fair. When I got to Boy With a Ball (BWAB)’s table, I met these two wonderful women that were asking so many questions about me, and that showed so much love for what they did. By the time I finished my conversation with them, I was immediately in love with Boy With a Ball’s purpose. I started volunteering for them on October 21st, 2017, a few weeks after I met Molly and Anna at the volunteer fair. I remember walking through Sarah Court for the first time and feeling a little lost because of the language, but at the same time, I found a piece of me that I was missing since I moved from Brazil to the U.S.. I felt that warmth of home; it surely came from the people, from the kids, and from the culture since Sarah Court is mostly composed of an immigrant population from Latin America. Also, BWAB’s team was the first group that welcomed me like no other person in that country had done. They embraced who I was, and they wanted to know more about me. Because of the warmth of the community and the welcoming environment of the organization, I became increasingly interested in getting to know both the team and the community better.

As the months passed, the connection between Sarah Court community and BWAB’s team became greater in a way that at some moments, one could argue that we were all the community. We were all a living body connecting, helping, and loving. In December, BWAB did its 2017’s Christmas Fiesta, and that was also my first deeper connection with the kids in the community. I was taking care of the corn hole activity, and I remember this little boy coming back to play with me many times. I started talking to him. He went from not saying a word to telling me all the things that he had done and all the art he had produced during the Christmas Fiesta as well as their meaning. Time passed so quickly and, suddenly, the party was over, but I still carried the meaning of the connections I made on that event with me during the whole week. I have carried all those kids’ huge smiles, and their happiness with me and I am sure I will never forget them.

After that Christmas Fiesta, my connection with the kids in the community grew, and I kept hearing that kids needed help with school and homework. One day, we started the tutoring center, and since that day it has not stopped growing. Tutoring started at one of the family’s apartments in the community; we would call two or three kids known by the family who was hosting us, and we would help them with their homework on the apartment’s couch and dinner table. We saw great change in so many aspects from the first day. For instance, the connection between that family and BWAB’s team grew in a beautiful way. The mom became one of the leaders of the community, and she also hosted the English as a Second Language classes in her apartment. Similarly, we met and got to know her children, Bryant and Diana, and created incredible bonds of trust and friendship with them; we would laugh together, respect one another, and create a wonderful relationship. Diana is a math genius, and Bryant now read texts that are one grade level higher than his official grade. They too have become essential leaders in the community and my heart.

After only a few weeks, kids and families were already aware of the existence of a tutoring center, and they started sending their kids to the apartments where tutoring was happening. At some point, there were so many students that we had to expand the tutoring center to other apartments and even outside apartments in the stairs of the community or at the sidewalks. It was surreal; the tutoring was growing so rapidly and so intensely that it started looking like a big chain of love spread throughout the front of Sarah Court. Every Saturday I felt more alive, more willing, and more passionate about those kids. Saturdays became the best day of the week, and the kids were shining so bright that my heart grew with the tutoring center; that is when I realized that I was learning with them as much as (or even more than) they were learning with the tutors and me.

There are particular cases that I like to use to illustrate all this growth and learning process of the tutoring center. Jason is one of these cases. Jason is the sweetest boy in the world and one of the first students to come to the tutoring center. As most students in Sarah Court, his mom speaks only Spanish, and she is not able to help him with his homework. Because of the unfamiliarity with English, he initially never talked but when he did, he had the most wonderful ideas about different subjects; and suddenly, he was talking very often, sharing his feelings and secrets with me and asking me to come back next weekend so he could work on that math homework that he enjoyed so much. During his process of growth, he has also taught me to see the world from a completely different lens, one that I would have never understood if I had not met him. When I heard that Jason had moved to Kentucky, I was selfishly sad, but at the same time I knew that he would have a better life there. With the potential that he has, who knows how far in this sky he can go? Also, something tells me that he is going to remember us in the future and no matter how much time we were present in his life, we already had a huge impact on it– hopefully as big as the impact that he had on my heart.

As the tutoring center started growing outside of the apartments, and kids started spreading to different locations, we decided to bring tables to accommodate them better. This greatly improved their focus and attention on the activities, and the presence of the table called attention from more and more families. Not long after that, we moved to the green area in which the Christmas Fiesta was held. There, we had at least two big tables every week as well as a tent to protect children from the sun and trees also helped shade the area. I cannot describe the feeling of seeing the tutoring center grow in that green area. As it grew, more and more kids started coming, and organizational strategies had to take place. Because of that, I was often helping both the kids and the tutors to find activities or answer questions. However, there were a few moments when I stopped to pay attention to the whole scenario, and it was always breathtaking. Imagine big beautiful trees and their leaves laid under them. Imagine now that on the carpet of leaves that those trees produced, there were tables full of children wearing different colors, showing different expressions, pointing to different places, and expressing different ideas (maybe revolutionary ideas that will once change the world). Imagine also tutors full of love for those kids, laughing with them, paying attention to what they say, getting to know them, and helping them plant the seeds to their amazing ideas. Imagine all these aspects working together as a whole, as (again) a body that is alive, moving, and hugging whoever comes on its way. I felt its hug, and I knew that I would never forget those moments; I knew I would live for those moments.

During the time that we started the tutoring center in the green area, two extremely important people joined the team and changed tutoring and me forever. Pat and Rebekah are not only educators of school subjects, but they also teach love, respect, and care. Pat got more involved with BWAB when she felt a strong love pushing her to go on the trip to meet BWAB’s Costa Rica team. Rebekah joined BWAB as soon as she met the team at a Chipotle fundraiser for the organization. I am extremely grateful for having them in my life, and I do not believe the tutoring center and BWAB would ever be the same without them. We worked together and developed many of the aspects of the tutoring center. We built strategies to accommodate more kids and organize tutoring better, we created a color code for grade levels, and we analyzed the case of each kid and worked together to come up with the best way of attending the needs of all the kids. I could not have asked for a better tutoring team. As everyone in the community and the BWAB team, Rebekah and Pat taught me so much and they greatly inspire me to be intelligent, responsible, kind, and loving like them. We are still growing with the tutoring center; and as we have once mentioned, Saturdays are an essential part of our weeks and our lives.

We moved to the green area in July, and in December the winter came, and we did not know what to do. Students could not be exposed to weather and families would not even allow their children to come when it was so cold. I was sad that we would have to tutor under those weather conditions with consequently fewer kids and fewer tutors when I found out that the Kroger right next to the community had allowed us to use their break room to tutor the kids. The first partnership with the tutoring center had started, and it was amazing! One would expect that not as many parents would allow their kids to go with us to Kroger to have tutoring, after all, tutoring at Kroger?! Well, one is wrong. Parents trusted their kids to go with Boy With a Ball. Parents trusted that the most important pieces of their lives would be safe with us. I could not be happier. Well, winter started, and the Kroger’s break room was full! There were kids everywhere- some working on reading, some working on educational games, some just doing magic tricks after reading a book.

Every day we have a new kid at the tutoring center. On the first day, they are a little shy, but then they start making friends, they start connecting, improving at school, having more friends, learning, and becoming leaders. Clarissa is a wonderful example of this. Clarissa was very quiet when she started at the tutoring center; she did not talk, and she thought little of herself and her abilities. As I got to know her, I discovered this beautiful and intelligent girl with a huge heart. I see now an incredible process of change in her heart. I see her opening up, laughing and having fun, willingly asking to read more, and do more exercises. She is wonderful! Clarissa is only one example of growth. Every student in the tutoring center has changed for the better. We are surely still figuring out what is in their hearts, but as soon as we do, the friendship is immediate. I say this not only for me but for other people of the team like Rebekah and Pat (as well as all of the tutors). Once we get to know the hearts of the kids we are working with, we cannot stop thinking about how great they are and how great they are going to be. We think about ways we can increase our relationship with them, ways to help them succeed, ways to enable them to follow their dreams, and strategies to make them the leaders they are! We love them; we love each of them.

I could write about my experiences with the tutoring center and the people I have met for hours, but I am going to summarize all of this by saying that Boy With a Ball is revolutionary.

We have learned during our entire lives that school is about getting in a classroom enclosed by walls, sitting in desks, and noting what the teacher is saying to then memorize the content to write it down on tests. This system works and forms great professionals, but that is not all of what life is about. We need critical thinkers; we need leaders. We need people with love and capacity for empathy and relational qualities. The idea that we have for BWAB’s tutoring center is not that of a place in which kids sit and listen. It is a place in which we, the tutors, prioritize creating relationships. We ask questions instead of answering. We influence instead of dictating the rules. We become not only tutors but also friends and mentors. We teach them how to teach themselves. We empower the students so they can be their own change.

– Maria Julia Muller Bortolucci, February 2019