Tracey and Bert “Hap” Ely had built their dream house when they realized their dream had changed.
Their life’s mission was to make a difference among the children of North Columbia.
So, 10 years ago, they pulled up stakes in the Reflections community off Leesburg Road and moved to Eau Claire, where they have been tutoring children ever since.
“My first experience was in Hyatt Park (Elementary School),” Tracey Ely said. “I did everything I could do to help, but it was not enough.”
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Ely found that the standard roadblocks to reading — failure to comprehend vowels or articulate correct sounds — were compounded by lack of reading materials and little understanding of standard English.
“Even if I had been prepared as a reading specialist, I wouldn’t have been prepared for what seemed to me a tremendous language deficient,” she said.
For many African-American children, language spoken at home was different from the one they were taught at school.
The Elys founded Tutor Eau Claire and began working with a small group of children who arrived at their home after school. She tutored in reading while her husband, a USC biology professor, aided in math and science.
“Mr. Hap,” as he became known to the children, also established a science club at Eau Claire High School that meets two Saturdays a month.
“We felt that God’s hand was helping us make decisions the whole way,” Tracey Ely said.
Their move was prompted in part by the death of their oldest son, Marc, who died at age 25 from complications from epileptic seizures.
After his death, they became involved in an inner-city mission church, working with children after school.
“The children’s grades started to improve,” she said. “We thought, my goodness, if mentoring makes that much difference, what are we doing in our comfy lakeside house?”
The first wave of children who made the Ely house their afternoon stop is now exiting high school. One young man, who suffered from dyslexia, has just completed his freshman year at Winthrop University, she said.
The couple are buoyed by the success stories of the children who have made their way to their home.
She recalls a petite third-grader who was making failing grades. “We said, ‘What is this? You’re better than this.’”
Slowly, she progressed and brought home a report filled with A’s.
Now, that student is going into her junior year of high school still earning high marks, Tracey Ely said.
Contrast that with reading failure, “which leads to depression or regression, which leads to dropping out and delinquency,” she said. “For the life of me, I don’t know why we don’t spend every cent in this state on reading literacy.”
In the coming months, Tracey Ely expects to spend at least four afternoons at the Clubhouse, Columbia College’s after-school tutoring program. And, of course, her door is always open for youngsters who want a snack and some homework help after school.
“We encourage them to find a way to make their dreams come true,” she said.