Helping Kids in Need: The Saturday Program

"I don't understand what the teacher was talking about in class. What does she mean, 'write an essay'? How can I do that when I don't even understand the subject? I can't ask her for help. She doesn't have time for me anyway. I guess I'll just get another low grade; at least I'll pass. They can't fail me ... can they?"

There are so many students out there who need help in school and too few programs around to assist them. In1996, medical students at the University of Toronto began one such program, known as the Saturday Program. The Saturday Program's goal is to provide tutoring, mentorship, and enrichment to inner-city high school students (grades 9 and 10) experiencing difficulty in math, science, or English. It was made possible by the University of Toronto's Office of Student Affairs and Faculty of Medicine, in partnership with the Toronto District School Board. The program is funded by the 4th-year medical class, from profits generated from sales of the textbook for the Medical Council of Canada Qualifying Examination, and by the Medical Society of the University of Toronto.

The pilot program was designed to promote education in indigenous and ethnic groups that were underrepresented in the university system. Aboriginals, African Canadians, and Portuguese high school students from specific inner-city schools were among the first participants. The pilot program was so successful that it became a permanent program, and it was adapted to include students of all cultural backgrounds who have the potential to succeed but who require some help realizing their academic goals, as judged by the teachers, guidance counselors, and principals at each school. The Saturday Program now accepts about 80 to 90 students from 25 Toronto schools. Among students who meet the academic selection criteria, priority is given to those who do not have access to extracurricular enrichment opportunities because of personal, cultural, or financial reasons.

The Saturday Program runs at the University of Toronto for 12 weeks each year, beginning in February. Each Saturday there are instructive 2-hour private tutorials followed by 1 hour of enrichment activities. The program has an air of discipline, and students who maintain perfect attendance records are rewarded for their effort at graduation. The enrichment activities may take place at the university or other locations. They range from sports to activities that involve creativity and teamwork, such as a bridge-building contest, a catapult-building contest, scavenger hunts, and mini-Olympics. Each Saturday ends with lunch and the distribution of transit tickets. And on graduation day, a keynote speaker is invited to speak to the students about his or her own life and obstacles in it. The speaker's goal is to make the students realize that there are other people with the same problems and that these people have overcome their difficulties and achieved their dreams by working hard. The task of finding a speaker is rather challenging, because that speech is always a pivotal moment of graduation day.

As coordinators of the Saturday Program for 2001-02, we are in charge of organizing the program, recruiting the core volunteers and tutors, and making sure the program runs smoothly. Diana Alli, coordinator and business officer for the Office of Student Affairs, is also one of the key players. In addition, Peggy Aitchison, Patsy Agard, Elaine Slavens, Adrian Harewood, and Marta Brum--members of the Toronto District School Board--are in charge of recruiting students, running the selection process, and making sure that all the chosen students attend the program. They also conducted a survey at the end of the tutoring sessions to collect information about what the tutors gained from this program. Some of the tutors responded that "the experience of dealing with young students was very valuable," "it was satisfying to see improvement in my student," and the program offered "a chance to help students and improve my teaching skills and communication skills." Others commented that they "gained an appreciation of how difficult secondary school can be" and "got a chance to motivate others and hopefully be a role model."

Tutors play a fundamental role in how much students derive from the program. From September to December, tutors are recruited from the faculties of medicine, dentistry, pharmacy, occupational therapy, engineering, law, business, physical therapy, and radiation medicine, as well as from affiliated teaching hospitals. Each year, the program requires 180 volunteer tutors--two tutors for each of the 90 students. This arrangement allows tutors to volunteer on alternate Saturdays, which provides schedule flexibility. Recruits may sign up to be a tutor, a core volunteer, or both. Core volunteers perform essential duties such as fundraising, serving as interfaculty liaison, and organizing enrichment activities. For example, core volunteers involved in fundraising contact various companies, ranging from the entertainment field to the food industry, for donations or sponsorship. (Last year, for example, Kellogg's provided all the morning snacks.) The interfaculty liaisons are ambassadors of the program, distributing information and recruiting tutors from other faculties. The last role of core volunteers is organizing the enrichment activities. Core volunteers plan, organize, and run events that allow the students to work together as a team and apply their knowledge, skills, and creativity.

We always hope that we will have enough tutors to accomplish our goal. If you are at the University of Toronto and are interested in becoming a volunteer, simply send your name, faculty, and phone number to the Saturday Program ( The last day to sign up as a tutor for the 2002 program was 24 December 2001, but contact the program coordinators if you'd like more details about the 2003 program.

Tutors receive training 1 week before the program. An orientation meeting allows the tutors to learn more about the program, hear how it's run, and to given some tips from the Toronto District School Board on teaching and on problems that they may face with these students. The tutors are also taught how to deal with important issues they might face during the program, such as legal, personal, and ethical issues.

The Saturday Program is an important program for many of Toronto's high school students and is also a great lesson in mentoring for students at the University of Toronto. The tutors act as positive role models, providing students with guidance in their school habits, future education, and career opportunities. For many students, these tutors are the only people they can talk to about certain problems they are facing, and the tutoring process is one of the greatest contributions that many volunteers feel they made during their year. To teach someone how to master a question or to learn how to write an essay is extremely gratifying. To see a smile on a student's face when he or she finally "understands" is an extremely powerful moment. The Saturday Program is full of achievements that may mean the world to the students and to the volunteers as well.

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