Houston student get national recognition for interest in education issues

jmink@macon.comDecember 21, 2013 

Willa Wang

WARNER ROBINS -- When Willa Wang visited her grandmother in China a couple years ago, she received a shock.

The Houston County High School senior came face-to-face with people who were never taught to read or write. Wang realized the situation was not limited to China. In fact, it was a problem plaguing people across the globe and even in her own community.

She decided to do something. Wang, 18, founded a club dubbed Helping Out the World, or HOW, that tutors students and aids education efforts in Darfur. Wang’s school club has received praise from former President Jimmy Carter, and it now has reached its peak with five officers and about 20 members.

In addition, Wang recently received Georgia’s 20 Under 20 Leadership Award, which honors young people who make a difference in their communities.

“There are still needs in tutoring, which get pricey,” she said. “I wanted to do something for the community and create a club that would be able to help. I’m glad we have such a supportive student body.”

The club, which Wang created her sophomore year, recently held a reading workshop at the Centerville Public Library, mainly targeting children around age 5. But the biggest effort has been at the high school, where the club runs a peer tutoring program. Students sign up to be tutors, and teachers recommend struggling students to the program.

Wang recently helped a fellow student who was having trouble organizing a research paper.

“Teachers are definitely the experts, but this is a more relaxed atmosphere,” she said. “You might be more comfortable saying certain things (to a peer), and it would be less intimidating.”

Jamey Richardson, the club sponsor and a teacher in the English department, agreed that peer tutoring works. He has recommended peer tutoring to a few of his students.

“I can get folks like Willa who have already had me instruct them in writing,” he said. “They know what the expectations are, and they can say, ‘Here is the way to approach it.’ ”

But the club also has a wider reach. HOW partners with the Darfur Dream Team, a national nonprofit organization that helps provide education to children in refugee camps. The club is working with Chick-fil-A, selling the restaurant’s 2014 calendars to raise funds for the Darfur project, Wang said.

“People think about genocide as something that happened and won’t happen again, but it’s still going on today,” she said, adding the youngest Darfur victims desperately need a strong education.

It’s a big feat for a high school student, but Wang is no stranger to community service. When she’s not working with HOW, she is volunteering with the Heart of Georgia Hospice and Camp Wings, a bereavement camp for children who have lost loved ones. She recently spent a week in Washington, D.C., as one of 50 young women chosen to be an ANNpower fellow, receiving leadership and mentor training from national leaders.

She does not yet know what college she will attend or what her major will be, but she is interested in education and environmental studies, she said. As for the future of her club, Wang wants it to expand from the walls of Houston County High and become a communitywide effort.

When she is not volunteering or studying, Wang enjoys playing the piano and singing in choir. She’s also a member of her school’s robotics team, and she enjoys spending time with her family. After all, it was a family trip overseas that inspired Wang to make a difference.

“You think that kind of reality is something in the past,” she said about illiteracy and the lack of education. “But in the world today, a lot of these things are very real.”

To contact writer Jenna Mink, call 256-9751.

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