Ride Along with TEAM SDRT

Ride along with TEAM SDRT as we venture into the neighborhood to meet needs and get kids online and LEARNING.

As we roll down the alley littered with scraps of plastic, discarded take-out and recent graffiti, we note the encampment one man experiencing homelessness has created just steps from their door. Which is also next to the one car garage covered with a tarp, that inhabits two more gentlemen. We wade through the swarms of flies and wonder how we could get this courtyard sanitized enough for at least a couple of kids to learn out here. Our sandals stick to the concrete, left over sugary spills that are now months old. We are here to help the newest five-year-old students, two of the nine children that make up the two refugee families that share this apartment. These new kindergarteners cannot yet decipher the difference between lower and uppercase letters, but their login passwords demand this. In addition to the alphabet, they need to be able to read to get to all the many websites they are expected to tackle each day on their own.

Covered in PPE (and distributing it to our students), we begin. Wiping the jelly smeared screens once again, we remind them that hands must be washed before touching this expensive electronic device. Once we show them again how to log in, we locate headphones. Again. And, the supply boxes. Again. And then, like magic, their teacher appears and welcomes them to their kindergarten class. We help the others there with their login issues. Uncharged hotspots, missing cords and Zoom IDs that are not working. And, what was the password again for my math class? Is there a space between those words? All six appear to be learning and it is only 9:15am so we consider it a victory and head down the alley, eager to move our cars out of the illegal spaces we parked them in.

We hear just an hour later that three of the kids logged off shortly after we left. We must go back yet again tomorrow to explain that they must stay the entire time and can only leave when class is over. We are perplexed by how we’ll convince them to ‘do independent work’ each afternoon. Without an adult sitting next to them, we are doubtful that this is even possible.

Driving just one block from that alley, we pull up to the next student’s downstairs apartment, a reluctant fifth grader who has only attended one of his four classes daily and hasn’t even opened his independent assignments. We immediately notice that huge gaping hole in the ceiling from the upstairs’ apartment’s leak from several months ago and make a mental note to follow up on that. This fragile student was just beginning to bloom last year, right before the pandemic hit. He was sitting up taller, participating freely, and finally able to read fluently, a huge testament to all the many supports rallied for him, one of them a bookkeeper from Oceanside. This woman has shown up for him every week for several years as his tutor, believing in him and his abilities when no one else did. And, it was paying off. Until now. 

His computer is malfunctioning. Or maybe it’s the Internet. Or maybe it is actually a user error and it’s his motivation that’s lacking. We don’t know. But we know it’s painful to watch. With some encouragement to use the alarm clock we delivered in June, a promise of a paper schedule to post on the wall and a once-over on the tech equipment (we got that audio working!), we are crossing our fingers for a more successful report next week.

Finally, to the last house for the morning. The student’s principal contacted the translator. He hasn’t been showing up for class for over two weeks. His church is involved and has already helped exchange the broken laptop, again. The Internet allegedly isn’t working now. TEAM SDRT has been notified and we are troubleshooting. The place is spotless. It is a warm, quiet, welcoming home to three, with pictures on the wall, two oak hutches displaying delicate ceramic plates and bowls, large vases with colorful, vibrant flowers from ground to ceiling and a lovely dining room table, complete with an ornate cloth and even a protective plastic cover.

We try different combinations of cords and modems and hotspots. We call their Internet carrier and test their speeds. It appears these two students should not have any issues related to Internet (after carefully coordinating cords and devices). Why are they struggling so much to get to their classes? How much of it is the complexities around the Internet and hotspot? How much of it is the expectation that they do this thing called school fully independently? Their hardworking mom wakes up before dawn and is off to work before these two are anywhere near rolling out of bed.

I have to wonder if my own kids, the same ages of these children, one 5th and one 8th grade student, would be on time to class daily, if it wasn’t for me and my husband. Reminding them to get up, providing a healthy breakfast, their schedules neatly typed and printed in their binders, their quiet workspace set up in advance and the nagging. The constant nagging. “Five minutes until your Zoom. Did you turn that in? Let me see that. What are you doing? Get ready for math class- lunch is almost over. You have to do that assignment by today. Let’s look at your grades.“

With parents navigating living in a new country, working long hours, and battling haunting memories of their home countries, how much can we expect from these kids to manage their own academics? Maybe we get them a home phone so they can at least call one of us if they have an issue and need help without a parent at home. Perhaps they will have an easy fix we can address from afar. Maybe we can make sure they are awake if we have a way to communicate with them…

While this is just one day in the life of TEAM SDRT, we have at least twenty more stories that are similar. The gaps are widening by the day. Our kids are struggling and many of the struggles are out of their control. It is keeping us up at night. These are trying times. We have grave concerns about the learning loss our students are facing.

With parents navigating living in a new country, working long hours, and battling haunting memories of their home countries, how much can we expect from these kids to manage their own academics?

Let’s take action. Let’s see if we can get these kids to tutoring so we can all help fill in some of the gaps. The dates are up- it is time to RSVP for the start of virtual tutoring. We start on Sept. 29th.


About Melissa Phillips

Melissa Phillips is one of the founders of San Diego Refugee Tutoring and currently serves as its Program Director. She has four incredible children, many years of teaching experience, and a supportive husband who also works in education.


  1. Brian Gibbs on September 21, 2020 at 11:03 am

    What a great & true article. Like you said, this is just one day. Multiply that by a bunch & it gets overwhelming. SDRT provides a great service and goes above & beyond what is expected. Distance learning is so difficult; especially for the refugees. The struggle IS real. Keep calm & tutor on‼️✊🏽

  2. Michael R. on September 21, 2020 at 5:38 pm

    Team Phillips! This work is so important and also unseen by most people, even those who work in education. Thank you for your dedication and love. 💙

  3. Kerry Shea on September 21, 2020 at 5:50 pm

    Such a heartbreaking reality. Thank you for impacting these precious lives.

  4. Julie Olson on September 21, 2020 at 9:30 pm

    Wow! What an incredible article, Melissa! You and your team are doing wonderful, incredible work for all of these kids! It has got to be so very difficult during this time. Thank you to you and your team for all of your love and dedication! ❤️👏🏻

  5. Ashley Hurd on September 30, 2020 at 8:49 am

    You are all doing amazing work. Keep it up despite all the hurdles. Those kids need you all. Much love.

  6. Steve Gilbert on December 22, 2020 at 8:07 pm

    May God continue to bless SDRT and all the leaders and volunteers and these special children.Keep up the great work!!

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