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Taking Time To Help Out

One-on-one tutoring and mentoring helps students.

In its fourth session, Next Level tutoring program is already at capacity with 20 students receiving one-on-one attention — a jump from the first sessions, when five teenagers might show up on a Saturday morning.

Founder Fred Mitchell, however, has bigger plans.

"I wouldn't mind having 10,000 kids," he said. "When you grow, you start having a bigger impact."

The tutoring program currently runs out of the basement at Capital Community Church in Ashburn, where Mitchell is the youth pastor. For $99, $25 if a school lets Next Level advertise, middle- and high-school students participate in a five-week, two-hour-each-Saturday tutoring program that's meant to be more: the volunteers who tutor also act as mentors for students.

Elita Palos was told that her daughter needed year-round tutoring at a cost of $15,000 in order to succeed by a private tutoring firm.

"I said, 'Forget that,'" she said.

Now, her daughter is succeeding at Stone Bridge with Next Level's help. She's also a student leader at Next Level's after-school program, where students teach each other about the issues they face.

"It's made a huge difference," Palos said.

NEXT LEVEL'S volunteer tutors come from a variety of backgrounds — one's an engineer, another is a manager, yet another is a doctor — so students can find the right fit.

It's about helping teenagers who might not succeed in the competitive world of high school, giving them an adult figure outside their parents and teachers and building a support system so teens don't make dangerous choices.

Mitchell was moved to found Next Level in the wake of Broad Run freshman Nick Shomaker's death by shooting last March.

Now, his goal is to expand Next Level so that teenagers have someplace to turn in the face of tragedy.

"We've got to get things going. We've got to get Next Level into every school," Mitchell said. "When something happens in the community, I want to be able to mobilize a thousand kids. You say, 'Fred, what are you going to do with a thousand kids?' We're going to bring awareness. When something happens in Ashburn, we want to be on the ground."

Mitchell has found an ally who understands the crises teenagers can face: Lori Shomaker, Nick's mother. The two first met when Mitchell organized a march after Nick's death.

"If there was ever a time the community needed to take notice, it's probably better late than never — but I don't think it came soon enough," said Shomaker. She attended the opening meeting of the current five-week session last Saturday to voice her support.

After Nick's death, she said, she was deeply moved by the number of teenagers who attended the wake and the funeral.

"They were just affected by the circumstances," Shomaker said. "It was a scary eye-opener for a lot of them."

Not just teenagers needed a wake-up call. A friend of Shomaker's called from Washington after the South Riding teens' deaths on Jan. 3 and asked her what was going on out there in the suburbs — the place no one expects to harbor such tragedy.

"We have a community of parents who think it's not going to happen out here," she said. "Parents need to recognize that it is."

"That's why we've got to grow," Mitchell said.

TONYA SMITH, a math teacher at Eagle Ridge Middle School and director of the Next Level tutoring program, remembers the challenges of being young and uncertain about the future.

"I'm living my dream," she said. "I could have flushed it down the toilet with bad choices."

Next Level has a holistic approach that Smith reflects: it's not just about academic success, it's about striving for a positive future.

"We're trying to build vision into these teenagers' lives," she said. "They get so wrapped up in today ... they forget about the big picture of life."

Sponsor and mentor Dr. Mahsin Habib runs Next Health of Ashburn, a wellness clinic that promotes both physical and psychological well-being.

"You help the community by getting them healthy," he said. "We want to be a good role model, practice what we preach."

For Mary Ali, a Loudoun County High School junior, however, sometimes it's just about the math.

Ali is on her second session with Next Level to work on her algebra.

"The main thing that I really liked was the fact of just coming in and sitting with one person," Ali said. "I look forward to coming in and doing my work."

THE PLANS for Next Level's future are big. Mitchell hopes to expand the tutoring to other locations, as well as Next Level's after-school students-mentoring-students program currently at Stone Bridge.

"This is just the beginning," he said. "This thing is going to explode."