Cathy Gomez, a parishioner at St. Patrick Parish in Scottsdale, coordinates a group of tutors who work weekly with St. Matthew students in Phoenix. (Ambria Hammel/CATHOLIC SUN)
Cathy Gomez, a parishioner at St. Patrick Parish in Scottsdale, coordinates a group of tutors who work weekly with St. Matthew students in Phoenix. (Ambria Hammel/CATHOLIC SUN)

Students at St. Matthew Catholic School are receiving help from well beyond the parish boundaries. Parishioners at St. Patrick in Scottsdale and Ascension in Fountain Hills make the weekly 20-25-mile trek to serve as tutors.

“We wanted to help someplace where there was a big need,” said Cathy Gomez, who started tutoring at the school seven years ago. She learned of the need from the school’s principal, whom she knows through a prayer group.

“Where we live, parents sign up [to help] because there are so many who can volunteer. Here, the parents are working,” Gomez said during one of her weekly visits to the school near the state Capitol.

Her focus is on the 48 students who walk through the cafeteria doors to meet privately or in a small group for help in math or reading. They come in waves for their 40-minute tutoring sessions.

“The purpose is more than academics. It’s first and foremost showing up for them and letting them know that they’re beautiful children of God,” Gomez said.

Many of them come in smiling and enjoy educational games and small group interaction. Their academic progress, or simply the proverbial light bulb over a student’s head, is the only payment the tutors seek, although sometimes there are bonuses.

“Hi. How are you doing? Long time, no see,” one of Gomez’s former students said on his way in to meet with his new tutor. The interaction was far more genuine than a habitual greeting.

The tutors don’t always rotate. Some say the consistency from year to year helps. Deb Findlow, a parishioner at St. Patrick, is serving her second year as a tutor and said since the students already know her, it’s easier to get down to business.

It’s serious work, but serious fun for the nine first-graders she sees in shifts. She uses the school’s resources to reinforce math concepts. She also brings in her own such as the owl clock her children used when they were younger or the paper plate “clock.”

Both helped St. Matthew students better learn to tell time. Taydhe Hernandez said fellow third-graders now call him fast.

“They’re so fun to work with. They’re willing learners. You can see the improvement,” Findlow said.

Michael Bradley, who teaches fifth grade at St. Matthew, finds the tutors to be a great asset to the school. He said the more intimate interaction allows for immediate feedback.

“We know it makes a big difference,” said Bradley, who has six students in the tutor program. “The students realize they’re getting the help they need. They tend to be more successful with the extra help.”

The base of tutors has grown so much that the tutors expanded past first- and second-graders to address needs of older students. Gomez hopes to offer tutoring sessions on Tuesdays as well next year.

“I always leave here joy-filled. It’s everything you read about in the paper, but don’t see. It’s the true human experience of this whole city,” Gomez said. The heartache of a student dealing with parents who were deported last year still haunts her.

Stephen Quinlan, also at St. Patrick, called the handful of sixth- and seventh-graders he tutors in math “absolutely wonderful.” He said the key to success is simply providing a little bit of extra attention.

“Affirm what they’re doing right and their confidence seems to grow,” Quinlan said.

At some point, student curiosity grows too. Then the students quiz their tutors with questions like: why do you come?

The answer: “to model for them in whatever way you can to give back.”

Women from the Christ Child Society visit the fourth- and fifth-grade classrooms six times a year as part of their “Book Buddies” program. They bring 50 grade-level books each visit for the students to keep and discuss during their next visit. They often coordinate a related craft and snack for the dialogue.