These collaborations empower students and teachers who volunteer with the programs to enact meaningful change, while imbibing lessons in empathy, equity, and transformative education. This reciprocal impact strengthens the connection between the programs and the school's mission-driven approach, fostering a synergistic relationship that amplifies the school's dedication to service. Simultaneously, these partnerships enrich the programs, integrating the fundamental ethos and values integral to Marist School's mission of forming the whole person in the image of Christ.
“Recognizing the impact of family, mentors, and community support on student success has deepened my understanding of the interconnected factors that contribute to a student's journey,” commented Marist School and Reach for Excellence mathematics teacher Dr. Isaac Gitonga as he reflected on the symbiotic relationship between both programs. “Reach's commitment to continuous, mutual learning echoes Marist's mission. Education at Reach is perceived as a dynamic journey where both teachers and students, including Reach alumni, evolve together. This approach fosters an environment of intellectual and spiritual growth, underscoring the enduring dedication of Marist School to the holistic development of its educational community. Drawing from my experiences at the Reach program has significantly influenced my teaching approach, enriched my methods, and fostered a more inclusive and impactful learning environment.”
With a history spanning over two decades, Reach for Excellence empowers disadvantaged middle school students toward academic success with support from Marist student volunteers and teachers who mentor, model perseverance, and provide academic and extracurricular instruction. Centro Hispano Marista focuses on assisting Hispanic adults in obtaining their GED diplomas, creating pathways to improved career and educational prospects. Reach and Centro embody crucial Marist values—embracing inclusion, diversity, community, and the pursuit of educational equity—while engaging students and teachers in lessons, graduations, and cross-cultural connections.
Several Marist School teachers also work for Reach. “Marist teachers have made a huge impact on the program,” says Reach for Excellence Executive Director Dr. Linda Lehmil, who is a former Marist School modern and classical languages teacher. “They make time in their busy teaching schedule to come and teach on Saturdays and during the summertime. To me, there is no clearer indicator of dedication.”
Dr. Gitonga, a cornerstone teacher of Reach for Excellence, has been part of the program since its founding by the Marist Fathers 22 years ago. He currently designs and implements the mathematics curriculum, guides rising 9th graders through the subject, and prepares them for the SSAT standardized assessment, pivotal in the admission criteria for independent schools.
“I joined the Reach program because I value education, and I know that good, quality education is one tool that can make a difference in our youth and in generations to come,” Dr. Gitonga expresses. His engagement has deepened his understanding of the unique challenges faced by Reach students, illuminating the diverse needs influencing each student's learning journey. This awareness has propelled the development of innovative instructional strategies tailored to individual strengths, benefiting not just Reach for Excellence but also enhancing Marist School's approach. Dr. Gitonga sees the continuous, mutual learning within Reach as a reflection of Marist’s mission to foster an environment of intellectual and spiritual growth.
Similarly, as the chair of the business, computer science, and engineering department at Marist School, Mr. Christopher Michaud became a Reach teacher in 2018, finding a seamless connection between his roles at Reach and Marist. “Reach embodies Marist’s mission and values. Teaching for Reach is the purest way to live out the calling to be Marist, and, in many ways, is my main mission as a member of the Marist School community.” Drawing parallels between Marist's core values service to others as modeled by Mary, Mr. Michaud emphasizes Reach's endeavor to partner with Atlanta-area families, empowering their children through education.
Dr. Gitonga and Mr. Michaud have encouraged students in their Marist classes to volunteer at Reach for Excellence, hoping for a similar impactful experience that resonates with making a difference in their peers’ lives.
For some students, their journey with Reach starts as participants, and these alumni often emerge as passionate advocates for the program. Reflecting on her experience, Faiza Khalid ’25 shares, “Both attending and volunteering at Reach sparked a love of learning in me and taught me to value education for the privilege that it is rather than viewing it as a burden.”
As a teaching assistant (TA) for Mr. Michaud's computer science classes and recreation robotics sessions at Reach, Liya Zenebe ’24 provides one-on-one assistance to Reach students, preparing them for the highly anticipated Reach robotics tournament at summer's end. “The most rewarding part of my volunteering is the friendships I develop with these children,” Zenebe says. “I think as a mentor, it's easy to forget that the students are still close to you in age and—in some ways—mindset. The kids really start to open up the more you break down that ‘bossy’ barrier. I am still very close and keep in touch with many of the kids I helped in my classes.”
The bond that is forged between volunteers and students is a testament to the power of community. Volunteer Musse Woldu ’24 expresses this sentiment, stating, “The most rewarding part of volunteering with Reach is that I can see myself in the kids I’m helping.” Reflecting on his own experience attending Reach for Excellence during middle school, Musse credits Mr. Michaud's coding and robotics classes for igniting his passion for engineering and STEM subjects. As he applies to college, Musse acknowledges the significant influence of his Reach and Marist course load and experiences, saying, “Being able to help Reach students investigate what they’re passionate about and seeing the enthusiasm to learn in their eyes is one of the most fulfilling, full-circle experiences I’ve ever had, and it’s helped me understand the importance and power of serving our community.”
Woldu highlights that volunteering at Reach aligns with Marist's diversity statement
, nurturing an inclusive community reflective of the school's mission and philosophy. Students like himself become part of a caring community that aids and supports others. Woldu's commitment to volunteer work is evident through his recognition with the 2023 Princeton Club of Georgia Community Service Award for outstanding service and leadership. This acknowledgment underscores how his dedication to giving back has not only flourished but also continues to evolve.
“Volunteers are key to our program,” Dr. Lehmil says. “We believe that giving back to the program and to the community is part of this virtuous cycle of learning, teaching, mentoring, and growing.”
Marist School students and teachers also volunteer at Centro Hispano Marista, a Society of Mary ministry established in 2012 to support Hispanic adults in obtaining their GED® certification. This initiative aims to enable individuals to pursue higher education and obtain improved career prospects. Integral to Centro's mission is reaching out to marginalized individuals, embodying the spirit of Jesus and Mary by serving those often forgotten or neglected by society.
“At Centro, we encourage anyone in the Marist School community to join our mission,” invites Program Director Dr. Leticia Valencia. “One of my favorite interactions to witness is when we invite the Marist School National Honor Society students, typically seniors, to assist in preparing Centro’s graduation each December. While there are numerous documented benefits that arise from volunteering, such as community building, personal development, empathy, and social impact, the heartfelt celebration of a common achievement by these two very different populations is particularly heartwarming for everyone involved.”
Since the 2014-2015 academic year, Marist School social studies teacher Mr. José Gregory has dedicated his time as a volunteer social studies instructor at Centro Hispano Marista. “The main lesson I have learned from my students at Centro is how many individuals, and for many different reasons, did not have the same opportunity to finish their education but still have a desire to learn,” Mr. Gregory says. “To me, Centro is truly doing the work of Mary here on Marist School’s campus.”
Gabby Ovadje ’24 initially joined Mr. Gregory's Centro classes to improve her understanding of Spanish for her Latin American Studies class. “At first, I came to the online meetings mainly to try and absorb and understand more Spanish,” Ovadje explains. Her involvement grew as she helped with the Centro graduation in 2023 by setting up, cleaning up, and graciously welcoming the graduates’ families to Marist’s campus. Continuing her commitment, Ovadje extended her assistance to Centro's student orientation, guiding tours around Marist's campus, organizing textbooks for classes, and warmly greeting new students for the academic year.
“The most rewarding part of volunteering with Centro has definitely been seeing how happy and proud all of their families are at the end of their school year,” Ovadje says. “Many of the students are parents, and seeing their children so excited for their parents’ graduation is heartwarming.”
The cultivation of compassion through these experiences enriches the educational journey for both volunteers and participants, fostering a more inclusive and empathetic community. The values instilled through these initiatives—understanding, leadership, and equity—extend beyond graduation, both by informing the way educators impact students and by shaping young people into responsible, engaged citizens committed to service and community betterment.
“There is something profound happening here that promotes a sense of gratitude, compassion, and joy,” Dr. Valencia says. “I will continue savoring every moment of it.”