About a month ago, Rebeccah Raphael was lying in bed feeling helpless. She had just finished high school and the COVID-19 pandemic was growing in Canada. Seeking a way to be helpful, she started looking for volunteer opportunities. She stumbled upon an online book buddy program in Calgary. Then, it hit her: why not bring a similar program closer to home?

“On top of that, I kind of thought ‘I could make it bigger’,” says Raphael, who’s entering her first year at the University of Toronto. “Book buddies is super awesome, but I knew that along with book buddies there was school.”

After contacting some of her friends and a couple of weeks of planning, Raphael created Halifax Helpers. It’s a free, online tutoring service run completely by volunteers. It’s currently open to elementary and junior-high students. Tutors run Zoom sessions on subjects including English, math, science, French, social studies, and fine arts. 

When Raphael started Halifax Helpers, she had 10 volunteer tutors. Now, that number has grown to over 30. She says new tutors are joining every day. “All of the volunteers that are on the site are so amazing; they’re so passionate about the project,” she says. “Anything that I need or anything that we need as an organization, I have five people who are willing to help me at any time. I just need to ask.”

One tutor who joined when Halifax Helpers started is Blythe O’Connor. They’ve known each other since they were babies. O’Connor, who’s entering her second year at the University of Guelph, currently tutors English, science, and math every weekday.

“I’m mostly motivated by helping the kids,” she says. “They should be getting this support and the system is kind of failing them and not giving them what they need to thrive and find success and feel comfortable in these times. There’s a lot of anxiety that comes with all of the uncertainty, and to be able to provide some security and stability in their day is awesome.”

Primarily, O’Connor says students are looking for tutoring in English and math. In her English sessions, she does a lot of reading through screen-sharing, grammar work, and spelling practice. In math, many of her students are going back to the basics to refresh their math skills. Others are looking for additional support that teachers can’t provide during the pandemic.

Once the program begins running more smoothly, Raphael says Halifax Helpers will focus on growth. “We’ve decided that we’re going to be running workshops in order to replace or try to fill the void that’s been left by the lack of extracurriculars,” she said. The next goal is to expand the program beyond Nova Scotia. Since the volunteers are from all over the world, Raphael says it’s not fair to keep the program in one location.

Raphael hopes to continue the program post-quarantine: “Just the other day I thought to myself, ‘How are we going to use this platform after quarantine now that we have this audience, now that we have these people, and there is a market for a service like this?’ It’s something that we want to do, but it’s something that we have to figure out how to do.”

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