In a community room at the Fitchburg Fire House, a dozen kids talk excitedly, work on writing compositions, draw colorful posters, and eat fruit snacks and animal crackers. In the midst of the excitement, helping multiple students at once, is China Miller, “Miss China,” the beloved operator of the Level Up Homework Club.
As one of the participants, Maurizio, says, “She’s an angel because she tries to get us what we want and need.”
On this particular day, the students are finishing up and practicing their Black History Month compositions. The stories are written in the first person to share facts about famous figures of Black History. The students then ask their peers, “Who am I?” Some struggle with the concept, but Miller patiently and kindly guides the students to understanding. As they finish writing, they are excited to share their work, and conversation centers around Harriet Tubman, Ida B. Wells, Maya Angelou, and Frederick Douglass.
Miller was inspired to share her love of learning after earning her High School Equivalency Diploma (HSED) at Madison College. After seven years of operating her own daycare, Miller had felt depressed and needed a change. She decided to complete her HSED and did it in just three months. Miller notes that it can be embarrassing to go back to school as an adult, but she encourages everyone to do it.
“It is so essential to your health and to your life. Me getting my HSED made me feel like I was whole, like I was somebody. It put me back in the place I should have been before my life got off track,” says Miller.
After completing her HSED, Miller noticed that the youth in her community needed help. She began looking for space for a neighborhood-based homework club in Fitchburg. She opened Level Up in November 2016.
“I’ve done something for myself, now I’m paying it forward to the youth in the community,” she says.
Miller did not expect the program to go so well so soon, but around fifteen students now attend the homework club, which operates Monday-Wednesday after school. Thursday is Creative Writing day and Friday is “Fun Day,” where the students play board games, create games, take field trips, and unleash their creativity.
“Homework club is a good place to get the kids engaged and get their homework complete,” says Miller. “We gave it such a powerful name to encourage the kids. It is Level Up, because whatever level you are, we want you to level up. If you have a C average, we want you to have a B average.”
The program is operated by eight volunteers and is currently funded mostly out of Miller’s pocket, though it is beginning to garner some monetary support from community members and friends. Miller and donors fund basic school supplies such as composition books, paper, pens and pencils, and markers, but also provide snacks and meals. Lacking a kitchen facility at the fire house, Miller prepares food in a crock pot and brings it in for the kids to eat. She also provides transportation for many of the students so that they can get to the program.
Miller currently attends Madison College, working towards her Associate’s Degree in teaching. “I’m going to school for teaching, but I didn’t know if I actually wanted to go into it. After working with the homework club, the kids are inspiring me to continue in this line,” says Miller.
Madison College continues to support Miller’s efforts by assisting her with curriculum development for the program. She hopes to start a formal internship program to provide consistent volunteers at Level Up. Miller says Madison College has been a “family” for her, a community that has pushed her to succeed and supported her along the way.
Participants in the program recognize the importance of Miller’s work, calling her “kind,” and “beautiful,” and acknowledging the sacrifices she makes to help the kids in school and in life. As Level Up participant Nevaeh says, “She celebrates us.”