Elena Chavarria is originally from Costa Rica. When she moved to Saint John, she looked for a way to get involved with the community. An acquaintance suggested she check out the options offered with the YMCA, and after meeting with our Volunteer Liaison Elena realized these were exactly the types of opportunities she was interested in.

A volunteer position as a Homework Club tutor – offering help after school to high school students – was one that stood out from the rest. Newcomer families face certain challenges when it comes to integrating into a new society and becoming part of a community. For young children, learning a new language and adjusting to a new culture can be considered fairly easy if it’s a part of their early development. Teenagers can sometimes have a harder time adjusting, as they’re often placed in a school setting while still working on their English language abilities, and have to relearn their school subjects in a new language. Homework Club at the YMCA is there to offer them that extra bit of help they need to catch up in their studies.

“I have tutored before, so I wanted to be able to help school students with their work,” Elena said. “Not only was it helping students, but it was also about helping newcomers, which – as a newcomer myself – I could relate to.”

The most common subjects Homework Club tutors offer help in are math, English, and the sciences. Elena works as an engineer - a background that gives her an advantage in tutoring teens in these subjects.

“I really like helping kids learn science, hoping that it will encourage them to study and imagine a brighter future,” Elena said. She credits people in her life who have always emphasized the importance of education for giving her the drive she has for teaching others, especially young women.

“I enjoy helping kids discover how fun learning is, and how important it is for their future,” Elena said. “I also try to discourage preconceived notions they might have based on their backgrounds, or what they hear from their peers. Especially with young women, I consider it to be extremely important for them to know all the things offered, how they can take advantage of it, and to never settle to live as a stereotype.”

There are some challenges involved with working at Homework Club as a newcomer. Elena found her biggest difficulties came in tutoring in English, but luckily there are always other tutors available who are skilled in the areas she couldn’t provide as much help in. Language barriers also presented a challenge in communicating with the students, as they often do when working with newcomers.

“My first language is not English, and neither is theirs,” Elena said. “It was hard at times trying to find different ways to explain the same thing in English, until you could find a way to understand each other. Although challenging, these opportunities provided a learning experience for both the students and myself.”

The students who attend homework club often come from different backgrounds and cultures. Elena could be working with a student originally from Syria, and then turn to help someone with a Somali background. The students at Homework Club often speak many different languages and have different levels of English speaking ability, as well.

“Being from a different culture myself, and being exposed to different people and cultures throughout my life, it was easy for me to relate to the kids,” Elena said. “The members of Homework Club were very enthusiastic about learning and improving at school, so it was easy and fun to teach them.

Elena has since moved from Saint John but hopes to volunteer at the YMCA in her new city. Her experience here has made her realize how much the Y contributes to communities, and has had a positive impact on her life.

“It has made me more aware of the different situations that bring people out of their country and into a new one,” she said. “I think of newcomers as brave people. No matter the circumstances, starting a life in a different country is a challenge.”

It’s encouraging to hear that the Homework Club students have such enthusiasm for their education – Elena feels that if she can encourage them to keep learning and have fun, she has successfully accomplished her goals as a tutor.