Young Leaders of OC’s high school volunteers serve low-income elementary students during the pandemic

Young Leaders of Orange County volunteers would gather to tutor low-income students.
Before the pandemic, Young Leaders of Orange County volunteers would gather on Saturdays at community centers and libraries across north OC to tutor low-income students in their neighborhoods. Now, they’ve pivoted to making online tutorials.
(Courtesy of YLOC)

For the last year, Stella Hong and Laura Park, juniors in high school, have been co-presidents of the Buena Park branch of Young Leaders of Orange County (YLOC), an organization of mostly high school volunteers who provide free tutoring for low-income elementary school students.

Before the pandemic, the Buena Park branch’s 30 volunteers would tutor about 80 students every Saturday at the Walter D. Ehlers Community Center.

But as social-distancing mandates prevented in-person tutoring, Hong and Park had to figure out how to continue their services.

“A lot of our students emailed us telling us they were having a difficult time with [their school’s] online learning,” said Hong.

They emailed all the parents to make sure the students had access to the internet and created a new Young Leaders of Orange County YouTube channel to upload personalized tutorials for the students.

While it’s been a challenging new project for them to manage, Park, whose father is a teacher, said “it taught me a lot about how to be a leader and how to be comfortable and flexible during these unprecedented times.”

YLOC was started in 2011 by Helen Youn, a Fullerton resident who immigrated to the United States with her husband when she was in her early 30s.

When she heard about the steep education budget cuts taking place nationwide that year, she and her then-teenage daughter started informally tutoring kids in their Fullerton neighborhood.

While Youn had earned a teaching credential in Korea, she had never used her skills in the U.S.

Soon, she started hearing about a need for educational support for low-income students in the neighboring city of Buena Park, so they approached the city to start the organization.

“When I made the presentation with my daughter and the volunteers in front of the Buena Park City Council meeting, I was so nervous,” she said, explaining that for years, she had sheltered herself within the comforts of O.C.'s Korean-speaking community. “I wrote the script and just read it, but they really welcomed and encouraged us.”

It started with 10 volunteers that mostly consisted of her daughter’s friends, tutoring math in Buena Park. In the last decade, they’ve grown to include branches in Fullerton, Anaheim, Stanton, La Mirada and La Palma, as well as subjects like reading and music.

But Youn, who now works part time for the Cypress School District, always wanted leadership to be part of the goal.

Each branch not only has presidents, vice presidents, secretaries and board members, but there are also team leaders that create worksheets each week for the tutors to use during their sessions.

“I did not plan to grow it, because it’s a lot of work, but we sensed that it was a win-win situation for everybody,” she said. “It was good for high schoolers looking for opportunities to do community service in a safe environment, low-income families could get tutoring for their kids for free, and cities also welcomed the idea, because through our service, they can serve the community.”

YLOC members volunteered for Operation Christmas Child
A group of YLOC members volunteered for Operation Christmas Child, where they assembling shoeboxes filled with small toys, hygiene items and school supplies for children around the nation in need.
(Courtesy of Laura Park)

Though Youn jokes that she’d like to retire and have someone else take over, she’s extremely proud that she, as a first-generation immigrant, was able to have such an impact on the community.

She remembers about a year after they started the organization, she received an email from the Buena Park city manager explaining that the city could no longer offer them discounted rates to rent their space.

Youn thought she had no choice but to close YLOC down.

But when the parents of their students heard, they showed up to the City Council meeting to protest.

“I was so surprised,” she said. “With a lot of the Hispanic parents, I cannot communicate with them very well, because they don’t speak English, and I don’t speak Spanish. It was so unique and special to me, personally, that they really supported me.”

She remembers the parents spoke to the City Council in Spanish, and one of the security guards translated their comments for her. Some of them were crying and telling stories about how YLOC was the only place that they could send their kids to get tutoring for free.

“They saved it,” Youn said.

The council reversed its decision and allowed YLOC to continue.

Now, the organization is partially funded by Hannam Chain, a Korean supermarket in Buena Park which donates a percentage of its sales whenever a YLOC member shops there.

And the group has an annual garage sale and fundraiser at the parking lot of the Buena Park community center where members sell used textbooks and educational supplies.

Stella Hong and Laura Park are co-presidents of the Buena Park chapter of the Young Leaders of Orange County.
Stella Hong, left, and Laura Park are co-presidents of the Buena Park chapter of the Young Leaders of Orange County.
(Courtesy of Stella Hong and Laura Park)

While Youn said she’s always around to give advice, she encourages the high school students to come up with their own ideas — and lead.

This year, Hong and Park created a weekly toy raffle and gave out raffle tickets as an extra incentive for their students to finish their homework.

Previous volunteers started a math competition event in La Palma, which started with 12 participants and now attracts over 100.

Park thinks that as high school students, they are able to develop deeper relationships with the elementary school students, who understand that they aren’t being paid to be there — that YLOC volunteers are there because they want to be.

Hong wants to be a journalist in the future, but her greater goal is to one day found a nonprofit that teaches journalism to kids.

While Hong and Park will soon pass the torch to next year’s co-presidents, they both plan to continue tutoring with the organization next year.

“I love that YLOC allows for passionate high schoolers to interact and lead future generations toward a path where education is well respected and cherished,” said Park. “I’ve been blessed to see the progression of students’ mindsets … and younger students growing a passion for learning that many of us have.”

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