Twenty-six years ago, following the fall of Saigon during the Vietnam War, Vienna’s Rena Baker helped found the Literary Council of Northern Virginia. The group was formed to assist South Asian refugees, helping them find their way in this foreign country. Now the group has expanded to provide English as a second language tutoring to immigrants throughout Northern Virginia.
Five years after Baker founded the Literary Council, Reston’s Robert Dim founded the Reston Youth Club. The club hosts a summer basketball league every year, meant primarily to serve the lower income youth surrounding the Southgate Recreation Center and basketball courts. The club has other after-school, character-building programs throughout the years, and Dim said the basketball league helps draw neighborhood youth into those programs.
And now, more than two decades after they began their volunteer careers, Hunter Mill District Supervisor Cathy Hudgins has chosen Dim and Baker as the recipients of the 2002 Lord and Lady Fairfax award. The volunteer awards will be presented at the June 3 meeting of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, at the Fairfax County Government Center, 12000 Government Center Parkway, Fairfax.
LAST SATURDAY Robert Dim, a teacher at the P.A.C.E. Alternative School, spent the day at the Southgate basketball courts in South Reston.
He was holding a tryout session for the Reston Youth Club (RYC) summer basketball league, which opens June 15. It was the last tryout for the league. Each coach was given a rating sheet, with a numerical skill ranking for each player, to help out on draft day. A few coaches discussed their top prospects, while Dim explained that each coach can sign two players outside the draft: a son or daughter and one friend.
But even with the detailed, organized selection process, some players won’t join the league until a few weeks into the season.
"We always have slots open for the neighborhood kids," Dim said. "The kids that register early, they’re the kids whose parents are on top of it. But some of the kids are out there on their own. So we will always have some slots open ... Our whole mission, from the very beginning, has been to target the kids who need it most."
The basketball league is RYC’s largest program — Dim expects around 650 children, from six to 18 years old, to participate this year. But Dim uses the league to bring new members into other year-round RYC programs.
"The whole idea of the league, it’s like bees to honey," Dim said. "We look to get the kids involved in other stuff, to get them in the clubs. There are just so many kids. It’s really about the personal relationships you make with these kids. You watch them become adults, and you try to steer them in the right direction. It’s not about the numbers at all."
"Bob Dim has made such a long-term committment to our youth," Hudgins said. "And he does it without ringing any bells, without any fanfare. There are a lot of people who volunteer in the community. It is always important to recognize the people who have been around so long that its almost routine — they're almost taken for granted."
RYC RUNS a Kid’s Car Wash on Saturday and Sunday mornings, during the summer, at the Reston YMCA. At the weekend car washes, groups of children wash cars and split the proceeds at the end of the day. Children can also get involved in the RYC Youth Employment Service, which connects them with local residents who need help with odd jobs. And the Southgate Recreation Center is often open after school for the RYC Teen Club. RYC also sponsors a summer camp program.
Dim would also like to organize a pilot program to mentor some of the older teens who have grown out of the other RYC programs. He said there is a group of teenagers who have been in RYC programs throughout their lives. They started out as young children, became part of the teen club from 12 years old to 15, but now, at 16 or 17, they’ve grown out of it.
"I’ve gotten very close to this group of young men," Dim said. "And one thing that has really bothered me over the years is that every so often you get a kid, a star athlete in high school, who for some reason doesn’t work out post high school. It’s a really bad cycle. What happens is that all these younger guys look up to [the older teenagers], but they’re still here, five years after high school, hanging out at the courts."
Dim would like to assign some of these older teenagers to local professionals, who would give career advice.
"We want these kids to have a chance at whatever they’re shooting for," Dim said. "Maybe it’s [Northern Virginia Community College], or just a decent job. It doesn’t have to be Duke."
But for the RYC programs to continue, Dim said the group needs to secure dedicated space at the Southgate Recreation Center. Right now the club has the center virtually to itself, but Fairfax County is planning on taking over the building from the Reston Association. After taking control, Fairfax County would rebuild the center, adding several multi-purpose meeting rooms and an indoor half-court basketball court to replace the pool, which is currently closed. But Fairfax County’s renovation plan does not have any space reserved for RYC programs.
"We want a room to ourselves so we don’t have to tear it down and then set it up every day," Dim said. "During the day, when we are not using it, the room could be used for other groups, like seniors. But they would have to keep it set up the same way."
Dim said the renovated center was always planned as a neighborhood facility. Center designers decided not to build a full-court indoor basketball court which, they figured, would attract users from outside the neighborhood.
"The original premise was as a neighborhood center," Dim said. "Now they are still talking like that, but they are also saying we need to open it to everyone, we need to include programs for people all around Reston. Nobody in this world can tell me you’ll have people from Northpoint dropping their kids off at Southgate at 3:30 to stay the afternoon."
For more information, or to get involved with the Reston Youth Club, call 703-689-4433 or visit www.restonyouthclub.org.
ONE OF THE BEST PARTS of volunteering, Rena Baker said, is when an English as a second language student turns a corner.
"It’s exciting when you see the accomplishments students make," Baker said. "When they learn to use the telephone for the first time, when they take a bus, when they become a citizen, or vote."
In 1976 Baker helped found the Literary Council of Northern Virginia, in response to an influx of South Asian refugees coming into the Washington, D.C. area after the fall of Saigon. The organization offered English as a Second Language tutoring and, over the years, their patronage has broadened to include people from around the world. Now the group sees many Afghan refugees, Kurdish refugees and South American immigrants, many from El Salvador.
"Without these programs people have to struggle through life," Hudgins said. "We often forget this segment of the population sometimes. We don't realize the struggle some people must go through to exist in a county where everyone seems to be getting what they need so easily."
Over the years Baker has been a tutor herself, but now she trains the tutors who volunteer for the literacy council. More than 9,000 adult English as a second language students have been through the program, and Baker has trained around 2,500 of the volunteer tutors. For $15, students get a year of weekly one-on-one sessions, of around an hour-and-a-half each. Tutors teach English language and culture, depending on student need.
"Tutors try to find out what the students’ needs are, what their goals are," Baker said. "Then the tutors work those things into their lessons. Its not just textbook learning. We provide life skills."
ALTHOUGH FAIRFAX COUNTY offers adult English as a second language classes, they are not always easy to get into. The tutoring courses fill in the gaps, Baker said, when county classes are full, or when a student can’t attend those classes due to personal conflict. Tutors and students meet in public places, such as libraries, for the weekly classes.
"Many times we give the beginners a start with the tutoring," Baker said. "Then we encourage them to go on to more classes."
A potential tutor, Baker said, must be patient. Tutors are not required to know their students native languages, and speak entirely in English during tutoring sessions. They also use pictures, and visual cues, to conduct lessons.
"[Tutors] do a lot of review," Baker said. "And they have to realize that they’re dealing with adults who bring a lot of life experience. The tutors get as much out of it as the students. Frequently friendships develop."
Baker, who is retired from a staff position with the literary council, currently serves on the organization’s board of directors. She is a member of St. Mark's Church and is involved in the ALS Association, which provides support for people with Lou Gehrig’s disease. Baker’s husband died of the disease.
To find out more about the Literacy Council of Northern Virginia, or to volunteer, call 703-237-0866. Baker said current tutors range in age from their 20s to their 70s.