Afterschool program helps students climb to new heights

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

An immense collection of books fills the shelves of Tree House Books. From Best American Essays by Annie Dillard to Sula by Toni Morrison to a shelf dedicated to children’s author Lemony Snicket.

Tree House Books, a nonprofit organization in North Philadelphia, works to “grow and sustain a community of readers, writers, and thinkers” through afterschool and enrichment programs. Neighborhood children participate in the literacy program called Life With Books.

"I like moving up a reading level," said 5th grader Dominique Cooper. "I like reading and being able to do my homework."

Dominique, along with fellow student and friend, Ajalee Green, attends Tanner G. Duckrey Elementary. Dominique originally learned about Tree House from a friend at Duckrey.

The friends participate in the literacy program, and when a student reads 10 books or five chapter books, their name is placed on the “Limo wall.” As a treat, Tree House rents a limo for the students whose names are on the wall, whisking them away to an unnamed destination, only revealed to them upon arrival.

Students work with tutors from nearby Temple University.

”My involvement with Tree House started when I was a graduate student at Temple University in their creative writing program studying poetry writing,” said Tree House Executive Director Darcy Luetzow.

In 2006, Luetzow heard that her peers in Temple’s program were doing some afterschool writing with kids in North Philadelphia. She jumped at the chance to join, not fully knowing what she was getting into.

“At that time Tree House was just piloting the first afterschool writing workshop,” Luetzow said. “This was because Temple professor Eli Goldblatt was able to get some of the graduate students in the creative writing program connected with teacher assitantships at Tree House. They were experimenting with what does it take to do a writing workshop after school with kids.”

Tree House was in fact a community bookstore at first, trying out different workshops with kids from the Philadelphia community. Some kids within the community would come, read a book, and then leave.

In September of 2006, Luetzow was brought in as executive director hired at only 20 hours a week. There was no staff beyond her, no financial record keeping, and no mission statement.

That set the point where she and retired community resident Sharon Turner began exploring what Tree House could do.

“So we talked,” Luetzow said. “We had no money, few volunteers, but kids get homework. So we thought why not have tutoring time? We have this room full of books and a table. I literally put a sign on the table that read ‘Tutoring Time: Do your homework in a room full of books from 3 until 5.’”

That idea was a success. The children from the neighborhood started to come and stay slightly longer than before. Luetzow reached out to Temple students involved with Hyphen Literary Magazine.

Some of the students from Temple who volunteered their time at Tree House decided to stay even after their time at the organization ended.

“That was what we needed at that time,” Luetzow continued. “Over time people just seemed like they talked to others about us; students would talk to their roommates and classmates. “

Luetzow and the rest of the Tree House staff and volunteers offer something more to the neighboring children of the community than just homework help and tutoring. It is clear that the students view them as mentors who are urging them to reach for their dreams and set goals.

“I think we get the privilege of working with the most remarkable people in the world, and a lot of people would not necessarily think that of the residents of this neighborhood,” said Luetzow.

Duckrey Elementary student Dominique has been able to participate in some of the other Tree House activities, such as helping to feed the homeless in conjunction with The Chosen 300 Ministries.

"I feel good about helping other people," Dominique said.

The feeling is mutual for her friend Ajalee, who stumbled upon Tree House one day when walking through the neighborhood with her grandmother and asked if she could start attending.

"My favorite thing is the limo trips," Ajalee said. "I like reading and doing my homework too."

“Tree House is a lot of things,” Volunteer Coordinator Lauren Macaluso said. “We help kids with their reading, writing, and thinking, and we’re empowering college students to think of the children in the neighborhood as readers, writers, and thinkers. [We are] creating a space where relationship between college students and kids can happen."