When Tulsa Fellow Zach Giano was trying to think of ideas for his Fellowship project, he batted around some novel and potentially complex projects, like ping pong camp and a gymnastics program for kids with disabilities. As the deadline for his project proposal approached, Giano realized that unique programming wasn’t always practical. He decided to go back to basics, and asked himself two questions: What is one of the most marginalized groups in Tulsa? What do they need?
With some research, Giano, a doctoral student in human development and family science at Oklahoma State University (OSU), answered his first question: kids in at-risk situations were a marginalized and underserved group in the city, and he found many in need at Pearl’s Hope, a transitional housing program for single women with children.
Giano’s academic mentor, Dr. Michael Merten, helped him answer the second question. “He asked me to think about what I had when I was growing up that these kids don’t have. Then he asked me how I could bring it to them,” Giano recalls.
“It was a thought provoking question,” says Giano, who realized that individualized attention early in his education played a key role in helping him excel academically.
Wanting to give the kids at Pearl’s Hope that same advantage, Giano developed the Support, Tutoring and Enrichment Program, or S.T.E.P. Through the program, he provides weekly one-on-one tutoring to each child residing at Pearl’s Hope. He also teaches a monthly seminar for mothers, covering a variety of topics like nutrition, mindfulness, and infant mental health.
Giano was very focused on building good relationships with S.T.E.P participants to ensure they would buy into his educational work. He made time for informal conversation with the women at Pearl’s Hope, learning more about their lives and about their kids. Tutoring sessions sometimes gave way to playing a game or just listening to a student discuss their week at school. “These activities didn’t fulfill any specific learning objectives of S.T.E.P.,” Giano says. “But rapport and trust are key elements to making an impact.”
His perseverance paid off with a 9-year-old student who struggled in school and with her social relationships. Her lack of focus coupled with her attention-seeking behavior pushed the boundaries of Giano’s patience every week. His sessions with the girl were so taxing that he wasn’t sure they’d make much progress together.
“I didn’t expect to see an outcome,” says Giano. “My goal was to provide her with a stable relationship, which is what she lacked a lot of in her life. Anything else would be extra.”
Suffice to say, the student proved Giano wrong. In March, the girl’s mother sent Giano a picture and a note of gratitude—her daughter had been awarded a certificate for making the honor roll at her school—her first time ever. Giano was thrilled.