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Gee whiz! Whiz Kids works

Whiz Kids tutor/mentor Edwina Drinkwater is pictured with a young protege at one of the program’s sites at First Freewill Baptist Church in Albany. In six years, the educational support group has grown from a single site in 2007 to eight Albany-area churches and additional programs in Donalsonville and Dalton. (Special photo)

Whiz Kids tutor/mentor Edwina Drinkwater is pictured with a young protege at one of the program’s sites at First Freewill Baptist Church in Albany. In six years, the educational support group has grown from a single site in 2007 to eight Albany-area churches and additional programs in Donalsonville and Dalton. (Special photo)

ALBANY — In June of 2007, Lee Don and her husband, Dale, had just moved to Albany from Atlanta to be closer to family. Alarmed by Dougherty County’s low reading scores in the first and second grades, the Dons reached out to Covenant Presbyterian Church to provide space for a once a week tutoring/mentoring program to help struggling students.

Covenant agreed to the plan and the seeds of Whiz Kids were planted.

“Most of the stuff we heard about the Dougherty School System was negative,” Don, a former high school teacher, said. “But the way we look at it, you are part of the problem or part of the solution.”

That first Whiz Kids class, comprised of 15 students from Magnolia Elementary, has grown in six years to eight Albany-area churches and additional programs in Donalsonville and Dalton.

The program served more than 180 first and second graders last year, and she expects a higher number this school year. What makes Whiz Kids unique is that each child is assigned a mentor who works with his or her student from late October until April of the next year.

“We think of ourselves more as mentors than tutors,” Don said. “We spend a lot of time telling our students that we care about them and we have found out that when young people feel good about themselves it makes them more receptive to learning and improvement.”

Local churches and their partner schools participating in Whiz Kids this year are Covenant (Alice Coachman), Evangelical Faith Vision Ministries (West Town), First Baptist of Albany (Jackson Heights), Porterfield United Methodist (Live Oak), First Freewill Baptist (Sherwood Acres), Victory Tabernacle (Turner), Pleasant Hills Missionary Baptist (MLK) and First United Methodist of Leesburg (TBD).

The groups will form after the first report cards go out on Oct.9, then teachers at the schools will recommend students who need extra work — mainly in reading.

Don said there are three requirements for being a tutor/mentor: the person must know how to read, be willing to serve, and undergo a background check. She added that community involvement has helped tremendously, pointing out that $2,500 grants from the Albany Rotary Club are used specifically to buy school supplies at new Whiz Kids site. The Kiwanis Golden K Club has also contributed money and tutor/mentors.

“Our kids and mentors span many religious dominations,” Don said. “These kids come to us labeled as failures, but they are special. We spend time with them and form bonds. It works. Now we have parents calling us about getting their kids in.”

Christine Daniel, who works with the First Free Will group and has been with the program since the beginning, said getting the churches to on board was slow-going, but that has changed as people become more familiar with the program.

“It took longer than I thought it would, but I’m not surprised that the churches are beginning to get more involved,” Daniel said.”When people hear about Whiz Kids and see what we are doing they want to be part of it. Our parents are always supportive and the teachers at Sherwood Acres have been wonderful. If we ever have a bad year at Whiz Kids, it would be a first.”

Don added that the Whiz Kids philosophy is not complicated.

“Keep it simple at one-on-one mentoring. Care for the child, help with any problems they are having, academically and emotionally,” Don said. “We can’t change the world, but we can change one life at a time. Our tutors and mentors are the true treasures of Whiz Kids, and they get as much out of it as the children do.”