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ESL Community Impact Partner: Celebration of Life Community, Help Me Read Program

Q&A with Celebration of Life Community CEO/Executive Director David J. Singleton

May 2023

(Disclosure: ESL is a funder of Celebration of Life Community and Help Me Read)

Tell us about your organization?

Celebration of Life Community (COLC) is a grassroots program that was incorporated in 2008 by Bishop David J. Singleton to help facilitate positive changes within the Rochester inner city communities where poverty, violence, unemployment, and academic illiteracy was rising. To start the dialogue, he began the Networking Breakfast Meetings which consisted of guest presenters from the business/government community who were invited to a full-course free breakfast. The meetings served as a platform to share information for the community and became a win-win for presenters and the attendees. These meetings lasted until the COVID pandemic.

Bishop Singleton (with COLC Board approval) decided to tackle education by starting a program known as the Help Me Read (HMR) one on-one tutoring program with a mission to help curb the “school to prison” pipeline brought on by poverty and failing academics. Students within the Rochester City School District rank in the bottom 5% of literacy (ELA) in comparison to cities of comparable size.

Help Me Read Program

The HMR program is a one-on-one tutoring program held during the school day in the school library. Tutors work with their assigned student/s weekly for the whole school year and into multiple years when possible. The HMR program has English and bilingual tutors who are corporate professionals, retired teachers/professors, firemen, police officers, county personnel, sheriff, churches, business owners, and community residents.

The desire of the HMR program is to help close the academic gaps within the inner-city schools. COLC quickly became a committed community partner and has been a positive stake holder within the JOSANA Neighborhood and Enrico Fermi School #17 more than 14 years. COLC operates three programs for students.

School #17 is the anchor school for the HMR program tutoring 250 students with 75-84 adult volunteer tutors at its peak when the pandemic hit in March 2020. THE HMR program was also duplicated at Mary McCleod Bethune School #45 (running for three years until the pandemic) and completed a Summer HMR Tutoring program in 2022.

The HMR program was able to transition to virtual tutoring during the COVID pandemic. Currently the HMR program is back in person at School #17 working with more than 145 students and 32 adult volunteer tutors with many students on the wait list.

What is the impact you see among participants?

Student academic and attendance is up. Student morale and motivation about coming to school is up. Negative behaviors are down. Parents continue to ask for the HMR tutors. Students are motivated to read more because of their tutor. The tutoring/mentoring relationship works because student have the same tutor for a whole year and into multiple years when possible. Tutoring is a win-win for the students and the tutors. Prior to the pandemic HMR had a 72% return rate for tutors...because they cared, because they saw the progress in the students, because it made them feel good about helping, because of the little wins they saw every day in their students. Some tutors have been tutoring for more than six years. Some tutors are currently tutoring students they had prior to the pandemic!

Personal Stories of Students and Tutors Impacted by the Help Me Read Program

From a veteran tutor: “When I moved to Rochester a few years ago, it was a city in distress; many people had lost their good jobs; there were troubles in the public schools and many children lived in poverty. I had been thinking of how I could help when the call to action came from Dr. Singleton: He was looking for volunteers to help children learn to read. I have since participated in the program over four years. It has been very satisfying to see the progress these children made from week to week. I feel a real sense of accomplishment. The children look forward to these sessions each week. I look forward to coming back next year.

A tutor/student story: A 2nd grade student was signed up for HMR program by his parents, but he refused to talk or read in his classroom and refused to talk or read with his tutor. His tutor came in every week for the entire school year and explain what he read, but the only thing the student did was write and draw pictures about what he heard from the stories the tutor was reading. This lasted the whole year. The tutor came back the next year and was offered a different student, but he asked for his same two students back for a second year. Three months into the school year and the now 3rd grader still was not talking but the tutor kept reading and teaching, then in December on the last day before the school’s Holiday break, the tutor faithfully shows up gets the student and they go to the library to read…this time the student gets the book and read the entire book missing only one word! The tutor said it brought a tear to their eye to know that maybe, just maybe because he/we didn’t give up on the student…it made a difference! Three years later this same student was one of four 6th graders winning a $500 scholarship that was put into a trust that could be added to, until graduation. The Help Me Read Program is a WIN- WIN!

What has it been like working with ESL?

Having ESL as a supportive partner has been great. The COLC organization has been able to recruit and train more volunteers and maintain a committed staff to keep the program running well.

What else do you think is important for people to know about your program?

All tutoring is done during the regular school day. All volunteer tutors must go through a 90-minute new tutor orientation and training. Volunteers are asked to tutor one to two hours (or more) weekly for the whole school year. Tutoring days and times are flexible to fit volunteer schedules, which can be tweaked as needed. The HMR program is equipped to follow all New York State health & safety guidelines and can provide PPE as needed when necessary.

How can people get involved in supporting your mission?

Contact us at to connect about volunteer opportunities in tutoring, fundraising, board membership, and recruitment. We are always looking to expand the Help Me Read program and that requires more program staff and program logistics.