Left or right? Green or pink? Green: a suffocating hue that obscures the world’s clarity. Pink: unfamiliar territory with the promise of possibility. It’s a decision between nurturing an idea or letting it go. As the unknowns compounded, so did our frustration.

Sitting in study hall, we debated whether to take the next step with KFIVE tutoring, looking to colored pencils for guidance. Ultimately, the hope of helping the next generation unlock their full educational potential was enough to commit us to the responsibility. 

A KFIVE tutoring session (Photo courtesy Anita Zhu)

And while the pencils made the final decision, each of us had already experienced personal hardships that prepared us for this moment.

Anita’s story: learning to swim

New country, new language and new people. At the age of six, I moved to the United States to begin kindergarten. My name is Anita Zhu, and I’m currently a senior at Deer Lakes High School. 

I was tossed in the midst of a tempestuous sea with no life jacket. In this vast and unpredictable ocean, waves of culture shock and homesickness crashed over me relentlessly, pulling me under and making each day a struggle to keep my head above water. Navigating the foreign customs, languages and the overwhelming sense of being an outsider was not how I anticipated my life in America. Overcome with the unbearable thought of starting school, I was unable to reassure myself. 

As immigrants, my parents’ broken English created adversity. They struggled with basic communication running our family restaurant, and often faced misunderstandings in serving our customers. Riding the bus to the restaurant every day after school, I saw just how physically demanding their work was, and how the additional challenges stemming from living in a foreign country weighed heavily on them. So in that moment, I knew their sacrifices had to serve a purpose. I would become the purpose. 

Brook Emery, left, and Anita Zhu, stand outside of Deer Lakes High School where they are both seniors on Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2023, in Cheswick. The two started KFIVE tutoring as a way to pass on the lessons they have learned from adversity. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

Faced with difficulties learning English myself, I felt helpless; a helpless sense of being lost at sea, perhaps. But despite these challenges, I refused to let helplessness define my journey. By persevering, not only could I build a better future for myself, I could also be a support for others navigating their own uncharted waters. So I found the strength to swim, to adapt and embrace the unknown. 

Brook’s story: finding my potential 

The notion of having an easy life abandoned me somewhere between my household’s experience with homelessness and our qualification for free and reduced lunches. I’ve lived in the United States my entire life. But it’s not been very … glamorous. My name is Brook Emery, and I’m also a senior at Deer Lakes High School.

As my father toiled for meager wages as a landscaper, enduring the relentless rain and scorching sun, then attending night courses at what is now PennWest Clarion – Venango, he would return home utterly drained. After dinner each night, I would anxiously hope that he wasn’t too fatigued to assist with my homework. All too often, I would fall asleep before getting the help I needed to complete it.

Despite this, I remained hungry for more. Consequently, I invested myself in academics. However, each school I attended lacked a niche I needed. When I excelled, I was not permitted to challenge myself. When I struggled, I was tossed among the wolves and told to survive.

 She has potential, they’d say behind ever-judging eyes. Rather than offering help in my formative years, teachers and administrators remained content to pass judgment upon my situation. Nevertheless, their words were a secret I nurtured within myself. Beneath their judgments, they saw something in me. I have the potential to succeed. For me, that pretty little ‘p’ word changed everything.

As a child “full of promise” in a land full of opportunity, I hadn’t yet comprehended that despite the idea of opportunity for all, in reality not all have opportunities. Legally, ideally, all people have an equal chance to maximize their potential. Realistically, it’s not so simple. Growing up without access to basic resources painfully increases one’s awareness of the disparities in society. For how can you type an essay without a computer? Or navigate the possibilities of social media marketing without a phone? 

These thoughts ignited a desire within me to be the change in my community, to help level the playing field for those who — like my family once did — face significant obstacles to realizing their potential. 

Elise Schaeffer (left) and Lia Deforce-Peterson participate in a KFIVE tutoring session led by Zhu and Emery. (Photo courtesy Anita Zhu)

KFIVE is born

The cycle of poverty dies with education. Education is the cornerstone for the acquisition of knowledge that can reimagine the world we inhabit and build the foundation for a society valuing honor and integrity. 

On June 2, 2022, we made contact with our school to discuss the establishment of a local tutoring organization. We aimed to prioritize in-person and small group learning, hoping to rekindle the joy of classroom learning after COVID interruptions. In order to foster connections between students and tutors, our individualized approach conveys our mission to provide families with easily accessible tutoring services taught in a traditional way. As we sat in adjacent chairs, we came to the realization that we needed to be the driving force behind it. Taking the initiative became imperative, as we were the ones who fully understood our mission and goals in starting it. 

The logistics of launching a nonprofit challenged us from all angles. Should tutoring take place immediately after school or in the evening? If it were after school, what would be the students’ modes of transportation? Where should this be located? What time slot would accommodate most parents? What educational materials should we offer? The unknowns were infinite.

Our first priority was procuring a suitable location. We asked our local church about using their facilities for our weekly tutoring sessions. They asked us to draft a proposal for the church’s board answering a variety of questions we had no answers to – a daunting task. After multiple emails and a share of awkward phone calls during study hall, our proposal was passed. Through the grace and generosity of the church, we had a space for learning, a space for growth.

With a location determined, the pressing question became how to approach the recruitment process: Where should we start? We couldn’t help many students without tutors, but how would we gather a substantial number of tutors without students? Ultimately, we contacted the intermediate elementary school advisors and got permission to send out an inquiry email districtwide to parents of students in grades K-5.

Anita Zhu, left, and Brook Emery stand in the front doors of Deer Lakes High School where they are both seniors on Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2023, in Cheswick. The two started KFIVE tutoring as a way to pass on the lessons they have learned from adversity. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

However, our emails across the board remained unanswered. Our hope was beginning to dwindle, the project we poured our time and aspirations into was on the brink. We began to realize the enormity of what we’d gotten ourselves into. And that’s how we found ourselves at a crossroads:

Left or right? Green or pink? Tightly fisted in each hand was a mechanical pencil: one green, one pink. A 50-50 gamble. Green: abandon the project entirely — wipe it from existence. The effortless escape. Pink: persist — acknowledge that embarking on any endeavor involves its share of highs and lows. 

Nothing worth pursuing is ever easy. 

A pink pencil shows the way 

Fate has a way of aligning our decisions with our purpose.

As one of us chose right instead of left, and the other unclenched a concealed fist, the pink pencil revealed itself, and with it came shining clarity. It was as if we had chosen the right pencil to sketch our path, confirming that this project was meant to be. The uncertainty that had clouded our vision began to dissipate, and the enthusiasm and determination that had initially sparked this endeavor were reignited. 

Knowing that we were on the path to making a connection with each student and assisting them in their own time of need — no matter their socioeconomic or ethnic background — assures us of our decision, the right decision. On February 2, 2023, the very first KFIVE tutoring session was held. 

Anita Zhu, left, and Brook Emery laugh outside of Deer Lakes High School where they are both seniors on Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2023, in Cheswick. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

In our continuous pursuits of enhancing educational opportunities, we are expanding our tutor and student network, reaching a larger age bracket compared to the previous year. With our new volunteer branch, KFIVE KOLLECTIVE, we work to foster well-rounded tutors who engage in community initiatives contributing to the growth within our community. Learning is a two-way street, and by encouraging our tutors to be multifaceted, we can create an environment where everyone, tutors and students alike, can continually learn something new. 

At the heart of our mission is providing support and guidance to students in grades K-5, primarily in English and mathematics. This comprehensive one-on-one approach ensures that we address both fundamental skills and holistic development, setting the stage for young minds to flourish academically and personally. 

And so the journey continues, armed with potential, possibilities, and pink pencils.

Anita Zhu, a senior at Deer Lakes High School, is a cofounder of KFIVE and can be reached at kfivepgh@gmail.com.

Brook Emery a senior at Deer Lakes High School, is a cofounder of KFIVE and can be reached at kfivepgh@gmail.com.

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