Older adults, young students find ‘oasis’ in tutoring program
Literacy PittsburghOASIS program offers 'a little extra help' to students

Older adults, young students find ‘oasis’ in tutoring program

The OASIS program matches an older adult with a young student to work on reading, writing and communication — and offer another mentor to the child.

A group of tutors in the Pittsburgh OASIS Intergenerational Tutor Program join in a game of Simon Says as part of their training. (Photo by Toby Tabachnick)
A group of tutors in the Pittsburgh OASIS Intergenerational Tutor Program join in a game of Simon Says as part of their training. (Photo by Toby Tabachnick)

The older adult volunteers from the Pittsburgh OASIS Intergenerational Tutor Program become much more than tutors to the young students with whom they meet weekly; they also become mentors and friends.

That was one of the core messages conveyed by John Spehar, the program’s director, at a two-day training session held downtown last month, which attracted 25 would-be tutors hoping to make a difference in the life of a child.

“This program is for kids that need a little extra help, and that’s you,” Spehar told the group. “As a teacher, it is so important to me that we are making a difference in the lives of these kids.”

OASIS training is offered about four times a year to volunteers, who then visit one of many local schools to meet regularly with a child to talk together, write together and read together.

Last year, OASIS, a project of Literacy Pittsburgh, placed 148 tutors in 31 schools, improving the educational experiences of 230 students. The sites included 28 Pittsburgh Public Schools and three schools in Woodland Hills.

“The tutors help with reading, writing and oral communication, but they also give the student someone to talk to they might not otherwise have,” Spehar said. OASIS has seen data showing that such one-on-one visits improve test scores and grades, as well as increase attendance and improve attitude.

“You can reach students with low self-esteem better with one-on-one tutoring,” Spehar said.

John Spehar, the program’s director, trains a new class of volunteer tutors. (Photo by Toby Tabachnick)
OASIS is a national non-profit initiative that extends beyond tutoring in other cities, providing meaningful activities for older adults, including trips, book clubs and quilting, according to Spehar.

Founded in 1982, OASIS reaches more than 50,000 individuals in 40 cities each year. It was introduced to Pittsburgh in 1999 by Jewish community member Gail Weisberg, who served as its director. Around 2007, the tutoring program came to the Steel City, with Marlene Rebb at its helm.

While Pittsburgh OASIS lost funding for most of its senior activities several years ago, the tutoring program was preserved.

The tutors come to their assigned schools with prepared lesson plans and are trained to use a curriculum specially designed by reading professionals for K-4 students. The tutor works with the same child each week.

OASIS volunteers get back as much as they give, said Nickie Rodgers, who has been volunteering for two years at Colfax Elementary School, tutoring students in kindergarten and third grade.

“The best thing for me is seeing the student really grow and develop,” Rodgers said. “And I have a chance to be helpful with their self-esteem.

“I would absolutely recommend OASIS to other volunteers,” she continued. “The individual attention the students receive makes them feel special. It’s a fun activity, and with no pressure as far as testing. We read to the student, so the student can just relax and have fun and enjoy.” PJC

Toby Tabachnick can be reached at
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