WASHINGTON (JTA) — Sarah Fellman was just a second-grader when she began helping classmates with their schoolwork.
“It was pretty cute; they asked if I could check their spelling,” recalls Fellman, 17, and a senior at Providence Senior High School in Charlotte, N.C.
As the years went by, she became the go-to person for help.
“I was helping more regularly and more extensively,” she said. “I always liked school and had been pretty good at it, so I wanted to do something about it.”
Older classmates encouraged her to tutor more formally, and today Fellman leads Providence Peer Mentors, a program at her school that provides free peer-to-peer, after-school tutoring Monday through Thursday on any subject offered at the high school.
“Many people are uncomfortable going to a teacher for help or they can’t afford private tutoring,” she said. “Peer Mentors is a great option. We know the teachers, and [the students] can relate to us.”
Every Sunday, Fellman and her team of six lead tutors call the nearly 200 students who have signed up for tutoring to see what subjects they will need help with and to work out a schedule of availability.
Fellman, who is also captain of her school’s swim team, said she typically tutors two or three days a week, most often in math, but has helped students in “any subject except languages I don’t take.”
This year, she even found time to teach her fellow students about Israel. As a StandWithUS-MZ teen intern, Fellman organized educational programs about Israeli morality in war and the environment. She also formed a mock Knesset with her BBYO group.
“It’s been really interesting, and I’ve learned a lot about Israel, especially more intricate details about the conflict,” she said. “It’s enlightened my advocacy for Israel and been extremely fun.”
In the fall, Fellman will head to Harvard, where no doubt her course load will be heavy. But the best lesson from her time leading Providence Peer Mentors, she said, “has been seeing my friends get better. I’m really proud of that.”
JTA spoke to Fellman about her two favorite Jewish holidays, what’s most important when tutoring and the book she’s reading now.
JTA: Who or what have been the biggest influences in your life?
Fellman: Definitely my parents. They have really encouraged me and let me do the things I am passionate about. They are really active in what they are doing and have always been there for me.
What do you think you want to be doing when you “grow up” or would like to be doing professionally in perhaps five or 10 years?
I’d like to work in government or a nonprofit and get involved in legislation. I’d like to help people in the different areas that I am passionate about.
Can you share with us a meaningful Jewish experience that you have had?
Spending Kabbalat Shabbat at the Kotel with other girls from BBYO Leadership Seminar. We were able to join one of the prayer circles [of women]. We danced with them even though we didn’t know them, and we were welcomed.
What’s your favorite Jewish holiday?
I have two. Yom Kippur because I like discussion: We go to temple and we discuss what it means to be a good person. My family hosts a break-fast, and it’s great to see everyone and hang out. And also Shabbat. We have some really cool traditions in BBYO, really good services and a lot of discussions. Since I’ve been involved with BBYO, I have really grown to like Shabbat.
Now that you are graduating, what advice would you give your successors at Providence Peer Mentors?
Make sure you’re always enjoying it and that it’s not becoming a chore. Don’t just focus on the subject [that you’re tutoring]; it’s also about friendship.
What are you reading for pleasure right now?
“My Promised Land” by Ari Shavit. It’s a topic that’s really interesting to me. It’s really nerdy, but oh well!
The Teen Heroes column is sponsored by the Helen Diller Family Foundation, which is dedicated to celebrating and supporting teens repairing the world. To learn more about the foundation’s $36,000 Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Awards, visit dillerteenawards.org. Please tell us about teens who deserve attention by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.