“My name is,” Avrom repeats, eyes lighting up each time he translates a sentence correctly. The Skype audio is slightly shaky, Avrom grabs his tablet and tells Elizabeth that he looks forward to his Bridge to Lessons every weekend. It’s odd to hear an elementary school student to speak with such unbridled joy, not about Fortnite or Lego, but learning English literacy. Avrom, a 7-year old Ukrainian orphan, however, is one of 617 million students from under-resourced communities worldwide at risk for low literacy. With COVID-19 disproportionately affecting those who live in poverty, thousands more children are losing hours of literacy, comprehension skills, and, without the routine of school feel isolated and trapped in their current situation.
Enter Bridge to Literacy. Initially a school club with a few high school students teaching children from Ukraine, Bridge to Literacy is an international student-led nonprofit that fosters a love of language through literacy in children from underserved communities around the world in Kenya, Honduras, Ukraine, Gaza, and Mexico. Through one-on-one remote English lessons, we provide students access to greater opportunities while fostering meaningful relationships that transcend borders. With so many schools shuttered in this pandemic, we fill an education gap while offering a source of joy to our students at a time when human connection is hard to come by. Ultimately, our vision is to spread the gift of language to students without the resources to do so, while promoting camaraderie and a deep respect for other cultures!
Of course, Bridge to Literacy wasn’t built overnight (get it, like a bridge?). In fact, this initiative started with bees, of all things. Not the insect kind, but spelling bees; more specifically, Elizabeth’s experience as a competitor in the National Spelling Bee in 2018. As grateful as I was for this opportunity, I realized that there were millions of kids who don’t even have access to literacy-based competitions, let alone all the doors that mastering literacy opened. Additionally, as the child of Russian-Immigrants who were forced to learn English with almost no guidance, I knew that it was time to get to work, and partnered with Gary to make this vision a reality.
Likewise Gary, an avid reader, award-winning debater, and fellow first-generation American, also wanted to create an organization, to give every child the opportunity to build a brighter future through literacy no matter where they were from or what their financial situation was like.
As members of a generation who’d rather see TikTok video than your resume, Bridge to Literacy is about connection through versatile mediums. Whether we’re teaching a lesson to one student or giving a panel about our organization to 100 people (like now), our goal is to build relationships that transcend time, place, and Zoom screens. In terms of marketing, this method has proven especially successful, letting us grow our Instagram base from 90 to over 800 followers in a matter of three months simply by reaching out to like-minded organizations, posting authentic, informational content, and not being afraid to share why we started our organization and how people can join us. Ultimately, we go above and beyond by making our community just that of a family, not a mere high credential or resume booster, but really emphasizing that we welcome all, especially since we often mentor kids who are orphaned or come from a lower economic background.
Although we’ve come a long way from our humble roots as a school-based club to a nonprofit that serves students in 3 different continents, our path hasn’t been without bumps in the road. In fact, whether it was spending hours crafting personalized messages for different organizations we wanted to partner with to overhauling the type of content we posted, we’ve learned that persistence and patience is the key to success. Given the range of our operations, we know that not every child has access to stable wifi or a quiet room, so instead of simply repeating a pre-written lesson, we’re unique in the sense that unlike the current education model, each lesson is molded to the student so we use different tactics like acting out a lesson about verbs or showing different toys on screen to help our students master a language concept. In fact, Gary opts for reading English fairy tales and showing a Skype tour of his New York neighborhood with Masha, a Ukrainian student with cerebral palsy.
Of course, in our own lives, our experience with forming cultural connections and witnessing a child blossom into a more confident, knowledgeable individual after a few lessons of literacy, has shaped our personal lives, and even lead Elizabeth to advocate for education in underserved communities through the platform of public speaking; in February 2020, Elizabeth had the honor to speak on solutions to gender inequity through digital economy/education at the Girls in Science 4 SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals) Panel on at the UN’S International Women and Girls in Science Day.
However, while it might seem daunting at first to start teaching a student or reaching out to volunteers from halfway across the world, our incredible experience forming connections with these kids has taught us that empathy and courage are the most important qualities you can have as a leader of a nonprofit, or anything for that matter. It takes a lot of strength to be open to learning a language you’ve just met, and being honest about what you need help in, so we always remind our volunteers and ourselves that there’s bravery on both sides. Personally, we’ve learned that the best way to accomplish something is by diving head-first into it. From being nervous about our first English lessons with kids in Ukraine to training volunteers and delivering education panels in front of hundreds, we’ve gained a deep understanding of humanity and learned that there is so much love and light that awaits us if we just take the first leap.