Tutors Show Children a World Beyond Poverty : Volunteerism: An Orange County group helps needy and homeless children gain academic skills. They also teach self-confidence and love.


Steven Ketsdever has it pretty tough.

The 7-year-old freckle-face is a middle child. His father is gone, his mother is on welfare. During the past few years, he has been shuttled from shelter to shelter, apartment to apartment. His family lives in a two-bedroom apartment in a noisy complex on the west end of Anaheim--but they may soon be evicted. Steven, a shy boy who loves Batman and big trucks, has been held back in first grade.

He cannot read.

“A lot of people in the shelters--the adults--I kind of feel like it’s their fault, but the kids just get stuck,” said Lindsey Foster of Buena Park, who for the past year has spent at least an hour a week with Steven, working on his reading, math and self-esteem.

“He’s never seen anything,” Foster said as she took Steven to the local fire station last week to check out the ladders and hoses, try on the bright yellow helmet and heavy fireproof jacket and learn the emergency number 911. “I try to just broaden his horizons, let him see what’s out there. Let him see that he can be a normal person.”


Foster, 34, a customer relations manager, is one of about 100 volunteers with the Bridge Learning Center, a loosely formed network that pairs Orange County residents with needy school-age youths in half a dozen shelters.

Some volunteers, like Foster, follow the children: She met Steven at a shelter and has met with him weekly for academic sessions or field trips. Others stick with the shelter, rotating children every month or two as their families move on.

The tutors start with spelling, math, maybe reading a story. But the program is less about lessons than it is about love.

“It’s not good enough just to educate kids. You’ve got to motivate them to stay in school and motivate them to become something,” said Bridge coordinator Howard Levin of Laguna Beach. “We deal mostly with self-esteem, letting them know they have someone who cares about them.”

The only qualification for the volunteers, Levin said, is commitment. Among the tutors are a high school student, professionals, blue-collar workers and senior citizens. They are screened but get no real training before starting one-on-one sessions at the shelter.

Because homeless adults are consumed with the struggle to find jobs, food and a place for their families to live, some children’s needs are ignored.


“In an environment like this when they’re under a lot of stress, (the program) gives them an opportunity to look forward to something and get some special attention,” said Marie Rainwater, a case manager at Anaheim Interfaith Shelter.

Sharri Upton, 35, joined Bridge last fall thinking, “I waste at least an hour a day, so why not do something worthwhile?”

Upton, a secretary who is studying communications at Cal State Fullerton, has taught a first-grader to read, helped a 17-year-old care for her new baby, built a solid trust with a shy teen-ager, reviewed animal sounds with a kindergartner and done scores of math problems with an 8-year-old.

When Foster picks Steven up at his apartment, she sometimes drops off used clothing for Steven’s little sister, and soon they are sitting in the quiet oasis of Foster’s back yard less than a mile away, the boy’s books spread on a picnic table.

First, Steven sketches the progress of his newly potted marigold on a pad and records the date--they keep the plant at Foster’s house so it will not be disturbed in the hubbub of the Ketsdever apartment. Then Steven slowly forms the letters of his vocabulary words and sounds them out.

“That’s about the neatest you’ve ever done. You must be thinking hard. That’s real good,” Foster said after Steven finished writing his name on the wide lines of the pad.


“Can I do that one?” Steven asks, pointing to “food” on the chart and then, following Foster’s lead, sounding out “f,” “oo” and “d.”

In the year they have been together, Foster has become a key part of Steven’s life.

She speaks to his teacher on the telephone for tips on what kinds of academic help he needs most. They share projects such as the marigold plant, and special trips such as the visit to the fire station. Foster also has taken the whole family to the beach, and twice to the movies.

To get ready for tutor time, Steven eagerly showers and waits for Foster with his hair freshly combed. “He likes going with her,” said his mother, Janice Hicky, whose older son, Jesse, also has a Bridge tutor. “Every week he’ll always ask: ‘Is Lindsey coming?’ ”