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Students ‘GIVE’ Back to Fairfax County

Expanding student organization at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology offers tutoring to disadvantaged children throughout Fairfax County.

Three years ago, Kevin Cao was volunteering at Belvedere Elementary School, working with third-grade students. By the middle of the academic year, he noticed a lot of kids were falling behind in their schoolwork compared to their peers.

After inquiring about resources that could help these students and finding there weren’t many, Cao started a tutoring program of his own with the help of some of his classmates at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology and other area schools.

Thus, Growth and Inspiration through Volunteering and Education — better known as GIVE — was founded by Cao and Kartik Gupta from Thomas Jefferson and Abrar Omeish from Robinson Secondary School.

GIVE is a completely student-run nonprofit organization that offers tutoring programs for disadvantaged children in Fairfax County. The organization started off with one tutoring center in the county. Three years later, the Board of Directors are preparing to open 12 centers — 11 in Fairfax County and one in Loudoun County.

GIVE provides tutoring for students from kindergarten to sixth grade. The organization also arranges for high schools and their students to donate their used AP and SAT preparation textbooks for high schools and students who may need them.

"Education has always been something that's close to my heart because coming to the United States as refugees from the Vietnam War, my mother and father had to sacrifice parts of their education in order to find a job and to support the family," Cao said.

"So growing up with that influence has really helped to shape my outlook on education. I really believe that it’s kind of like a catalyst to bring people out of poverty and to lift themselves back up and really open doors to so many opportunities."

Though GIVE’s tutoring program is set to start in October, the members have been hard at work all summer preparing for orientation. Last year, GIVE had four centers, and this year will be their largest expansion yet.

In preparation for this year's program, Cao and Gupta created the Core Team which includes the administrative and tutoring committees. The Core Team will also be essential in continuing the program after Cao and Gupta graduate next spring.

"More than likely, we’re going to be moving away from this area, which is really what motivated us to start the Core Team over the summer, so GIVE can really be a self-sustaining organization," Cao said. "Even if we're not here — maybe we’re out of state or not in the area — there will be people to come in and take our place and be able to keep the organization running without us here."

Although GIVE takes a lot of responsibility and time, the directors of the organization seem to be taking it all in stride — often balancing GIVE, social lives, school, family and extracurricular activities.

Samyu Jothishankar, a senior at Thomas Jefferson and GIVE director, is involved with three other nonprofits, Model U.N., plays piano and enjoys singing Indian classical music during her free time. Jothishankar said she balances everything she does and enjoys the work she does with GIVE.

"One of my most memorable experiences I have is with a boy who had Tourette's  Syndrome and was also dyslexic. So he came into my tutoring center and I think he was in third or fourth grade, and he was not able to do simple addition problems," she said. "At the end of the year, he was able to work on multiplication problems with three digits. Seeing him progress from where he was to where he is now was really rewarding."

One thing GIVE directors seem to be in agreement about is the responsibility they have running the organization. The students coordinate the entire program using their own knowledge, connections and experiences.

"There's a lot of responsibility especially when you have a student-led organization," said Sebastian Lerner, senior at Thomas Jefferson and GIVE director. "There's no one you can go and ask for help. To get things done, you have to take care of it yourself. You learn how to manage all of that responsibility."

The students have also learned from their experience running an organization on their own. Time management, administrative skills and communicative skills are all areas in which they have improved and can take with them into their post-secondary educational careers.

"It's been a large lesson in time management. It's practice for college where you just have to manage your time and make sure you handle everything," Gupta said. "It can be very stressful sometimes, but it’s also doable because there are aspects of it that I really enjoy doing."

Many of the GIVE directors will continue to volunteer in their college careers. Some of them even hope to continue tutoring throughout college. They find working with children in their local area rewarding and are proud of the progress the organization has made.

"Giving back is rewarding and you learn a lot about yourself and other people. The interactions that you develop and the relationships you develop are really meaningful," Gupta said.

Cao said GIVE really believes in "grassroots fundraising," so they support the organization with bake sales and going door-to-door. By doing this, the members are given the opportunity to raise money and get the word out about their tutoring program.

Although many of the Board of Directors are graduating, they're hoping to see the program grow once they graduate.

"I've just been really proud to see GIVE grow from this small thing to such a big organization in the community," Lerner said.

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