If you fall behind in reading at school in the first grade, it can set you back for the rest of your life.

The same thing with math, if you’re falling behind by Grade 5 or so, you may never catch up without a little help.

The problem is, for many children their parents can’t afford the $80 an hour or so that a private tutor commands.

Enter Learning Buddies Network, a tutoring association of volunteer high school seniors and university students, the brainchild of children’s doctor Alisa Lipson.

“As a pediatrician you see a lot of kids with developmental learning problems,” Lipson said. “One frustration is that a lot of kids come to see me, they have no problem getting in to see me, and I do my assessment.

“But I feel many of them are doing OK. They don’t have a disorder or a learning disability, they just maybe need a little boost.

“You put them in a classroom and they’re just lost. What could I do to help them?”

With counsel from her two daughters, the idea of a one-on-one tutoring program was born eight years ago.

The program has grown from one program to, come September, encompass 20 schools and 350 students.

The challenge, other than fund raising, is finding 250 to 300 high school and university student volunteers each year.

“When I was younger, I had a tutor and I realized not everyone had that opportunity,” said Andy Jiang, in his fourth year with Learning Buddies and a 21-year-old pharmacy student at UBC.

“First of all, it’s very rewarding,” he said. “The children are so energetic, they have such different perspectives.

“And, at first, many of them don’t want to be in the program, they don’t like math and they’re not confident or have low self-esteem.

“So you make math fun through a one-on-one connection, you make it a game and they come to enjoy it.”

Volunteer tutors get a training session. Most of the elementary schools in the program are inner city schools in Vancouver, Burnaby, Richmond and Surrey where the kids might come from single-parent homes or homes where English is not spoken.

Feedback from teachers and parents has been positive.

“Have we been able to help kids? Yes we have,” Lipson said. “Have we had an impact? We know we’ve had an impact.

“The bottom line is self-esteem. We want the kids to feel ‘I can learn, I want to feel normal’ and not just sit at the back of the classroom with their heads hung down.”

Learning Buddies also holds three summer sessions and the next school year is right around the corner, meaning it’s pretty much always volunteer-recruitment season.

As well, there are applications available for parents interested in signing up their children for Learning Buddies programs.

This story appeared in the Vancouver Sun on June 20, 2016.  You can find the original article by clicking here.