On the first night of tutoring for this school year at Pine Avenue United Church (left to right) Bria Dyer, Nyla Dyer, Joni Strand and Marge Lyon pose for a picture. STACEY RUPOLO/Contributor

She was just seven. That was when Bria Dyer, now a senior at Chicago Bulls College Prep, met Joni Strand, her Cluster Tutoring mentor.

It was 18 years ago when Strand, now 60, first stepped up as a volunteer to tutor the seven-year-old from the West Side of Chicago at Pine Avenue United Church, 1015 N. Pine Ave.

Now, with Dyer launched, Strand says she started over again, and with this  second student from  the Austin community, after spending a decade in her life,  Strand expects to tear up as the young woman graduates from high school and moves on to study engineering in college.

“Whenever we did my spelling homework, Joni would make me write the word, read it, and repeat the definition, to make sure I understood words I didn’t know,” said Dyer, whose single working mom, Tamika Rankins, 38, signed her oldest daughter up when she hit a few bumps in first grade.  “Back then Joni really helped me develop a more accurate way of reading, and understanding what words mean.”  

Several years ago is when her younger sister Nyla,  now an 11 year old with a big smile and quick wit, was paired with Oak Park senior Marge Lyon.  She is a veteran tutor who has an easy laugh and lots of interesting stories to tell related to her worldwide travels.

“Well, my hand writing, when I came in to Cluster Tutoring, it was not the prettiest,” says Nyla Dyer and a student at St. Paul’s Lutheran School in Chicago.  “But, by working with Marge, I got a lot better at that, and I could still get better with my handwriting,” she smiled, saying how she loves math, but the subject doesn’t usually love her back.

“People I know that volunteer here, want to work with children, understand the need, and know the necessity of having tutors to help kids learn how to read,” said Lyon, adding that they are working diligently on Dyer’s math aptitude, and seeing improvements. 

 “I want to do better, and get ahead of what we are doing in class because I want to be ready for the next grade, and I want to be the one who raises their hand when nobody else knows the answer,” Nyla said.

The Dyer sisters’ mom, Tamika Rankins, says that 25 years ago is when her younger sister became one of the first children to receive free tutoring in the program.

“My mom really liked the program, and I always remembered that in my mind,” Rankins said. Lyon reported that the second tutoring hub at First United Church of Oak Park, 848 Lake St., was added early on.

 “Bria is very articulate, and when we are in public together, she can hold her own, and I am very proud of that.  Nyla is growing up, and does have a lot of energy,” Rankins said.  “She and Marge are like two old gals having a good time, but they do hunker down and get to work.  I want my children to continue on in being successful, and I think their future is very bright, especially with the resources we have accessed through the Cluster Tutoring program.  Cluster Tutoring has broadened my girls’ worlds.” 

Cluster Tutoring

Complete address: 5460 W. Augusta Blvd., Chicago 60651 

Phone: 773-378-5530

Email: clustertutoring@clustertutoring.org

Website: www.clustertutoring.org

Leadership contact name: Kara Kalnitz, program manager

Statement of purpose: To help students realize their potential through the power of learning in an environment that strengthens the student, the tutor and the community.  

How long have you been in existence? 25 years

Ways volunteers can help: Volunteer tutors needed on Tuesday or Thursday evening. 

Volunteers with strong math skills on Tuesday or Thursday evenings, flexible schedule. 

Useful donations other than money: Nature Valley granola bars

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Deb Quantock McCarey

Deb Quantock McCarey is an Illinois Press Association (IPA) award-winning freelance writer who has worked with Wednesday Journal Inc. since 1995, writing features and special sections for all its publications....