Friends of Simon builds promising future for youth

Friends of Simon, an award-winning Simon Fraser University (SFU) faculty of education initiative, is committed to building a brighter future for school-aged children and teenaged youth through literacy tutoring and mentoring in local communities.

In 2011, the initiative received a Celebration of Community Award by the United Way of the Lower Mainland – a recognition that paved a prosperous path for the project.

10 years ago, the program was designed with the intent to assist children with challenging lives. Today, children from grades K-12 are offered educational support after school, on weekends and during the summer in small group settings or on an individual basis.

Friends of Simon team of tutors, Fall of 2014. | Photo by Ada Chao

Friends of Simon team of tutors, Fall of 2014. | Photo by Ada Chao

Mentors and students

Professor Kanwal Neel, a program coordinator for Friends of Simon, says the majority of children tutored are newcomers to Canada (often unfamiliar with the Canadian education system). Some are refugees and immigrants, while others are Canadian-born yet lack the facilities necessary to learn.

Parents of children from diverse backgrounds often approach local schools or libraries to learn more about what can be done to enhance their children’s learning capabilities.

At the heart of the initiative is a group of SFU undergraduate tutors recruited from a wide range of faculties. They are trained with care and supervised by members of the faculty of education, who share effective teaching techniques and ideas.

Tutors are assigned to various sites in the Lower Mainland, including community centres, local primary and secondary schools, public libraries and housing developments.

“At its peak, Friends of Simon operated at 20 different sites with over 80 tutors,” says Neel.

He outlines the three principles of the project: mentoring, helping children with their daily homework and enhancing their literacy and numeracy skills.

Mentoring involves organizing workshops and activities that tend towards topics such as bullying and its prevention, says Neel. High school students are also given university guidance.

The mentors’ work goes far beyond the academic realm. They hope to leave their students empowered by fostering positive relationships, and communication helps break barriers to integration into the Canadian schooling system.

Neel, now semi-retired, speaks from 35 years of experience as an educator and believes there is much to learn from students’ feedback as they are not the only ones doing the learning. Tutors learn an immense amount from the challenges and adversity some children face.

“The project is reciprocal,” says Neel upon describing the mutual and reinforcing relationship that develops between students and tutors.

Teamwork and training

Edrene Dol Cabantog, a fourth year health sciences major who has been involved with the program for almost two years, takes pride in her work as a tutor.

The coordinators, she explains, are experts in their field. The organization operates as one big family with the children’s best interest in mind. They are essentially resources to each other.

“I am very proud to be a part of this project,” says Dol Cabantog.

As a tutor in high school, Dol Cabantog says she sought to fulfill a similar role of leadership in university – her goals included being more resourceful, finding different strategies to reach out to students and nurturing their strengths.

At any given time, there are about 70 to 80 active tutors. They come together, says Dol Cabantog, as a large group for briefing and training. Candidates who join the program for the first time must attend 10 sessions to be trained under the guidance of their project coordinators, who pass on effective learning strategies and classroom management techniques.

Having the entire team gather regularly gives everyone the opportunity to share their experiences.

“Overall, it is a very enjoyable atmosphere even during our training sessions,” says Dol Cabantog.

As for the subjects she teaches, there is no one answer. She thinks it simply comes down to what the children require and need more support in.

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