SAVANNAH, Ga. (AP) — When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, Savannah Arts Academy student Ava Dorminey decided she wanted to help students who might be struggling from the pandemic. She thought about a school supply drive or a mentorship program.
“I wanted to create an organization that targeted the academic side of it, but also a mentorship program that would instill qualities of like leadership, confidence and teamwork,” she said.
Creating the organization Students Helping Students Succeed or SHSS during her junior year, Dorminey has hopes it will meet the needs of Savannah and Chatham County children. She said it was created to assist elementary students academically and socially in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Thirty-two students from nine different high schools in the area are part of SHSS. The students are from Savannah Arts Academy, Groves High School, Windsor Forest High School, Savannah Christian Preparatory School, Calvary Day School, Savannah-Chatham E-Learning Academy, New Hampstead High School, Woodville Tompkins High School and Savannah Country Day School.
She said interested students will have to complete an application, and some qualities of an applicant would include leadership.
“So it is really like all the students in the Savannah area helping other students,” she said.
The goal is to help teachers close the learning gaps that COVID-19 has caused for SCCPSS students, she said. She explained that high school students would help younger students by tutoring them, helping them complete assignments and serving as a role model and mentor.
She said her organization will also partner with teachers and provide extra help at tutorials or an afterschool program.
“I thought COVID is only going to accelerate the problem…it seems like there needs to be something else,” she said. “From there, I had the idea in like how I can help students in a way that not only is just educational, but build their character.”
Dorminey said the idea to start SHSS because of her volunteer experience at the Isle of Hope Methodist Church E-Learning Academy. She spent five months at the church working with kindergarten and first-grade students.
During her time there she helped students with tutoring, course work and media-related problems. She found out that some students weren’t getting the same quality of education.
“It really helped me because these were students from all different schools and kind of noticed the difference in the quality of education,” she said. “You had students from schools where teachers were spread a little thin, you know, and I thought, you know, well, COVID is only going to accelerate this problem, so it seems like there needs to be something else that’s done.”
Dorminey said in order to start her organization, she had help from her counselor and Stacy Jennings, communications director for the Savannah-Chatham County Public School System. She also called counselors at each high school as a way to get the word out.
She also wanted to have a mentorship piece to her organization, to target middle school students. The plan was to start the mentorship program last fall, but she wasn’t able to because of the pandemic restrictions. Dorminey said the plan is to start the program this month.
The mentorship program will mainly take place on Zoom.
HSS will also have group meetings and breakout sessions with middle school students that would help them to develop different traits such as leadership, self-esteem and work ethic.
She said middle schoolers will be matched up with a SHSS student after completing a form asking them about their interests and personality.
Dorminey chose to focus on middle school because she remembers being that age and how that was a hard time for her.
“Middle school was a hard time for me, and I kind of wish that I had someone to talk to,” she said.
The organization has held a clean-up day at a local elementary school, which included SHSS students raking, trimming bushes, painting and power washing the outside of a school. The organization has held a Christmas gift supply replenishment drive in which students will hand out Christmas gifts, consisting of school supplies, art supplies and educational games, she said.
Future events include:
— Sports Equipment Drive in January: focus on students from low-income homes.
— Children’s Book Drive in April: SHSS students will collect books for students and if possible, will help elementary school students in picking out a book.
— Field Day in May: SHSS students will help elementary school teachers and schools with organizing/carrying the field day, provide assistance to teachers and assist with games outside.
Dorminey understands that academics are important, but wanted to serve her community, as well.
“I want to leave a legacy here and I feel like sometimes that you do that is not by necessarily having straight A’s, it is also about creating a good school culture and helping other people,” she said. “Sometimes, I have to take a step back and say what do I really want to do with my time here.”
PASSING THE TORCH
Dorminey said she didn’t want her organization to die once she graduated, so she created a leadership team to continue the work that she started. The team includes a president and a co-president roles.
“I created the co-president role because I want this organization to continue even after I graduate,” she said. “I feel like that is what a lot of people miss when they start organizations at high school. You have to make sure the torch stays lit, even after you are gone.”
She said most student organizations at schools require a teacher or school staff member to serve as an advisor, but since SHSS doesn’t actually have meetings one is not required. SHSS does service-based projects.
SHSS meets via zoom because students in the program attend different schools.
Savannah Arts Academy senior Hannah Demmler said she became involved after seeing younger kids face so many challenges during the pandemic. She currently serves as president of the organization.
“I have a 7-year-old brother and I just saw so many issues kids around his age face because a lot of people weren’t accustomed to staring at a screen for eight hours,” she said.
Demmler said she likes how SHSS is helping her build connections with other students and also seeing the needs of the community.
“My eyes where kind of open because I didn’t realize that so many groups that were at a disadvantage in the county,” she said. “I was kind of like a student in my own bubble at Savannah Arts, so I really wasn’t accustomed to anyone else’s problems.”
Dorminey said SHSS relates to her goal of having a hotel that is 100% sustainable. Another reason was because she wanted to be an inspiration to other kids.
“I want to help other kids become comfortable in themselves, sort of find what they enjoy and be able to pursue like clubs and after school activities,” she said. “Even make their own club based around their interest and what they enjoy doing.”
Dorminey said she had to rely on faith to push on, and she thanks the people who have helped her. Seeing all her hard work come together is what Dorminey gets out of helping her community.
“I think it is really fulfilling to see that, like wow, we are really doing something here, we are actually helping other people,” she said.