Recently, CSO’s own Mya Gary and Fhrynée Lambert sat down with the volunteer coordinator and executive director of Homework House – Jasmine Myers and Virginia Dillon – with the aim of giving the Smith community deeper insight into the mission, vision, and values of Homework House. Homework House is an organization that provides free tutoring and mentoring for children who are at-risk for academic failure and dropping out of school. The organization aims to give children a loving and caring environment in which to improve their skills in reading and math and help them improve their literacy skills. Here’s what we discussed:

  • What led you both to working at Homework House?

Fhrynée: So just to get us started, I really want to know what led you both to working at Homework House and how you got involved with this organization.

Virginia: I love Holyoke– I think Homework House is a fabulous community with values that align with my own values, not only in terms of the way it delivers program but also the underlying values of the organization which were very important to me. So I think that’s what motivated me to take this job and what’s also motivating me to stay. I think that we really really try to live up to what our mission, vision, and values are. 

Jasmine: For me, there’s everything out there from desk work to cutting down trees, but this was one of the jobs that was available that actually meant something. My husband is a teacher in the Springfield public school system, and some of the things he’s always thinking about are how can we make this system more fair, how can we make this system more equitable, and are the things that we’re putting in place helping or hurting. In the school he works at, there’s a strong culture against giving homework because there are students who have to work, and they’re just not able to do it. But what he’s finding is that it so decreases the amount of time that they have to actually practice what they’re learning that it’s really doing them a disservice. And yes, it’s keeping equality among the students in the school, but it’s creating an even bigger disparity between them and other schools in the country. So when so many of Holoyke’s schools have been in Receivership* for so long, Homework House is helping close that gap and helping to provide actual time learning for kids who are struggling in a school system that’s not serving them. And I thought that was really cool. 


*AReceivership School is a public school that is identified by the state as having a consistently low performance on a combination of measures, such as student academic achievement and growth, absenteeism, and English Language Learner (ELL) progress; a school gets Receivership status when its plan to improve low performance is not successful.

  • How has COVID affected your work/the academic success/retention of students?

Mya: In terms of your work, how do you think that pandemic has affected student retention and academic success? Has that been a challenge for you guys?

Jasmine: COVID was a dumpster fire in so many ways.

Virginia: Right, yeah. The Holyoke schools essentially didn’t get back to in-person schooling until April of 2021, so they were almost a full year remote. And then, they were still kind of limping along. I can tell you that, especially for the kids who were in kindergarten, first grade, and second grade when school shut down, the impact has been huge and negative…So those kids are now third and fourth graders, and they’re struggling academically with reading and math….The first year back, they were also a mess emotionally. The kids had to relearn how to– you know– be in school. Especially for the younger kids, schools are socializers; it’s about learning how you act in a group– learning how to be in the world… And they [the kids] were also just kind of traumatized, which comes with a whole host of behavioral issues like grief and acting out.

There’s also huge absenteeism at schools and that means of course, in after-school programs as well. Kids get sick, and we have to exclude them if they’re symptomatic. So there’s still these things that are happening that impact the kids, and honestly, much of it is negative unfortunately…But there are positives! For the first couple of years at Homework House, we had very few volunteers. For an organization that depends on volunteers, it’s like what do you do? How do you remake your program in order to adjust and adapt for not having volunteers? And now, this year is the first year since 2019 where I feel like we are kind of getting close to normal in terms of program delivery. We’re very psyched about all of our Smith tutors yay! So yeah, that’s a positive.

Fhyrnée: So is the goal for Homework House to try to return to normal, or are there different programs or different ways that you’re trying to account for the differences you’re seeing post COVID?

Virginia: I think, even prior to COVID, the Holyoke public schools had essentially eliminated all homework for good and bad. Now we are really working to build individualized tutoring plans for each child so that even if they do not have homework, there is work that is targeted to address the needs of each kid that the tutor and tutors can work with on a daily basis…We are also intentionally focusing on more intentional social and emotional learning activities. The secret sauce I think that makes us successful is the relationship that the tutors build with the kids. That is social-emotional learning. That relationship is all about social skill development, support, and identifying supportive adults. We are doing more beyond relationship-building with the kids and specific activities. We have a relationship with therapists with whom we have been working with for many years. They do stress reduction, and mindfulness work with the kids. We are really trying to address some of the mental health issues that the kids have.

  • What does a typical day look like at Homework House?

Mya: Thank you so much for answering! I know that that was a big problem. Shifting gears a bit, what would you say a typical day at HomeworkHouse looks like?

Virginia: Chaos… No, I’m joking. [chuckles] We talk about this with our tutors and volunteers a lot. There are typical days, but it’s an afterschool program so nothing is typical, right? There is a framework of what everyday looks like, but every day is different. A big piece of this is accepting the difference on a daily basis even if there is a structure in place.

Basically, the kids come in. They will have snacks. We are getting back now post-COVID to having group snacks– everybody has snacks together instead of having different cohorts. I think it’s great, and it’s a very big positive step. It’s a way for the tutors to come in and get relaxed a little bit. It’s an unstructured time where everybody can connect around food. Then after snack, the kids break up into different programs- usually their grades, and the tutors are assigned to different rooms. Usually, they’ll be working with the same 2-3 kids every single time they come. It’s a way for them to build a relationship with the same group of kids. Honestly, sometimes, we have tutors who will move on with their kid so if the kid is in the 3rd grade then the following year when they return to Homework House, they’ll want to work with the same child. We’ve had tutors who will work with the same kids for 2-3 years at a time which is great! Essentially, they work on homework, reading math, and extra work whenever there might be some small group activity built into that day it depends. After everything is finished, it’s time for the kids and the tutors to play some board games, do some work with the computer, play outside, and play in the gym. It’s kind of a more social time to work on building relationships, and that’s pretty much the day.

Jasmine: All the games support learning and development as a learner– as a person.

Virginia: Big ones? Guess Who, Connect 4 [laughs], you know.  They are fun games but, Guess Who is a perfect example of a game that teaches critical thinking skills and logic. What’s the one where you put the card up on your head and have to guess…?

Mya: Ooooh…Headbands?

Virginia: Headbands! Right!

Jasmine: I’m old, I’m from the era where you would write it on a sticky note and put it on your back.  [everyone laughs]

  • What would say is the biggest success(es) of Homework House? The biggest challenge(es)? 

Fhrynée: With all these things in mind, what would you say are the biggest successes of Homework House and the biggest challenges? We kind of touched on challenges a little bit but… what would you say is your biggest success?

Virginia: In my opinion, our biggest success is the relationships the kids build with the tutors. So many of the kids are struggling academically. We want to make an impact on their reading, their math skills but those are little successes. A kid who is in 4th grade and reading at a 1st grade level which many of them are, when you see success on the margins for them, they can now identify 50 words when they were only identifying 20, that’s a success. But I think really, the biggest successes come with the relationships the tutors build with the kids. What’s really great about Homework House is that the tutors come to recognize that the kids are impacting them as much as the tutors are impacting the kids. Even in the time I’ve been here, we see many tutors who decide to become teachers or they’ve changed their career trajectory to work with kids. It stems from the experience they have had at Homework House.

For example, we had a Mount Holyoke student, and for 4 years, she tutored at our site at Our Lady of Guadeloupe where most of the Smith students are, and she’s now a teacher in the Holyoke Public schools. Those kinds of things are big successes.  Another big success for us is having kids who were in the program when they were in grade school, come back when they’re in high school or after. They come back to work with the kids because of the impact Homework House has on them. We had a fair number of participants come back as volunteers.  

Jasmine: On my end, success looks like making sure that our volunteers know where they’re gonna be, what they are doing, and that they are confident in knowing that they know what they are doing. In general, my idea of what it means to be a volunteer here is yes we are helping them with their homework, but if you have communicated to that child that someone cares about them besides their family, you have done your job. Even if they are still not reading Little Red Riding Hood, if you have communicated that you care about them and you are interested in their life, you have done your job.

  • What would you like Smith students to know about Homework House?

Mya: What would you want Smith students to know about Homework House? 

Virginia: More so than my voice or Jasmine’s voice, it’s the voice of your fellow students, your tutors that will really sell it. One of the biggest things for us is Hannah. Hannah Gates, who is our contact point now to Jandon, is a former tutor. She can speak from her own experience about what it means to be a homework house tutor to other Smith students. Honestly, not everybody is going to have a great experience for whatever reason even though we want them to. But the overwhelming majority of Smith students who come to Homework House have an incredibly positive experience. You drive down on a van with 5-6 other Smith Students and you do that every Monday for the entire semester. There is relationship building and camaraderie building in that environment. Then you are working with the same children and building relationships there and building relationships with people from UMass and older people in the community who are your fellow tutors. Ultimately, it comes back to what makes it a positive experience for all of our volunteers— the kids. The sense of self-efficacy you get from helping someone else. I think that’s a really important thing, it helps college students step out of their cocoon on campus. 

Jasmine: First of all, there’s the knowledge that you are making a difference every time you go. Every single interaction where you provide a loving presence for a kid makes a difference. Also, one of the helpful things is that we try to continue education for the people who work with us. We try to make workshops available on things like ‘How do you tutor well?’ ‘How do you do behavior management?’ It’s not just coming in and being a warm body in this seat. It lets you develop as an educator as well. I think it is very helpful for people’s future careers. It’s also helpful training and a helpful experience. Lastly, Hannah Gates is probably the most organized person you will ever meet. If you will be doing something you should do it with her [everyone waves to Hannah who is sitting in her office, and a short exchange occurs].

Jasmine: The other thing we are all trying in our country right now– many of us anyway– is figuring out how we can be a part of creating a more socially just world. Smith is an amazing institution. You get an extremely high-quality education. Being able to be in an environment of pretty high educational privilege and being able to come into Holyoke to share some of that privilege is a really beautiful way to redistribute some of that privilege and multiply it rather than having this war about it that is always going on.

  • Describe Homework House in one or two words.

Fhrynée: I guess the last question I would have for you is: If you could describe Homework House and the work that you do in one word or two? Homework House is…What would you say?

Virginia: Transformative. 

Jasmine: For me, Homework Hose is very new [everyone laughs].

We’d like to extend a warm thank you to Jasmine and Virginia for this wonderful conversation, and we hope to see many of you become volunteers for this lovely organization. To learn more about Homework House volunteer placements, head to the Homework House page, and if you have any further questions, feel free to make an appointment with Homework House’s Jandon contact, Hannah Gates, here, or email Jasmine Myers at

“Homework House strengthens our community by promoting educational success and providing free tutoring and mentoring for children living in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods. Homework House provides a safe and nurturing place for children to grow and learn.”

-Homework House, 2023