When Terry Dougherty's son, Tom, began fourth grade in a new school district 15 years ago, he struggled with multiplication and division because his previous school hadn't covered those subjects. Similarly, her daughter, Laura, grappled with vocabulary. "I hated feeling that I had sent my children to school unprepared," says Terry. "I could have worked with them ahead of time had I known."
A military wife for 30 years, Terry, who is now 53, witnessed firsthand how frequent transfers can play havoc with a child's education. Terry's husband, Tom, 53, served in the Coast Guard, resulting in nine transfers. They moved about every three years. Laura attended seven schools, and Tom five. "Academically, it was a challenge," says Terry. "Places have different curriculums—children can easily lag behind if they haven't learned a subject in their old school."
To smooth the transitions, Terry began preparing her kids for each transfer by filling in the gaps. Prior to each move, she logged on to the new district's website to learn its curriculum requirements. (Before information was available online, she'd ask the school's guidance counselor to send the details.) She then met with the current teachers to decide what areas required remedial work. Over the summer she helped her kids with reading comprehension, math and anything else they needed.
When Terry began teaching third grade in Galloway Township, New Jersey, she noticed students from military families were grappling with the same issues as her own kids. The success she had with her children, along with her interest in education, inspired Terry to reach out to other military kids. In 2007 she began volunteering to tutor neighborhood children in her home.
The following year brought more free time—Tom had retired and their kids were in college—and Terry realized she wanted to make a bigger impact. So she founded They Are Heroes Too! (TAHT), a one-on-one all-volunteer tutoring program free to children with parents in any branch of the armed forces, National Guard and Reserve.
The program focuses on identifying each child's educational problems and helping newcomers get up to speed, as well as assisting students moving out of the area by obtaining their new school's curriculum. "The children transfer for the sake of our country," Terry says. "The least we can do is make sure they have the same opportunities as everyone else."
To get started, Terry contacted her coworkers and a local Coast Guard base to offer academic assistance to any military children who needed it. Initially, she worked with three students in the public library. Within the next two years there was an influx of military families who found out about TAHT from newsletters sent by local bases. She also started receiving requests from other districts.
By 2011 Terry knew she couldn't do it alone, so she appealed to her alma mater, Richard Stockton College of New Jersey in Galloway, which donated a classroom and asked for student volunteers. Her own kids pitch in as well. Laura, now 27, helps set up the classroom, and Tom, 25, maintains the technology equipment. They're glad that others may avoid some of the difficulties that they encountered.
Students at area colleges and local teachers—currently 25 volunteers— mentor 37 children from kindergarten through eighth grade from four districts, with some of the kids traveling an hour or more to attend the weekly hour-long sessions. Now families hear about the program through e-newsletters and housing officers at the bases, publicity in local papers and word of mouth. Most of the sessions take place during the summer, when military transfers usually occur, although some children also receive tutoring during the school year.
Terry envisions TAHT expanding further into New Jersey and to other states, and broadening the curriculum to eventually include free SAT prep. In the meantime, the best way to grow, she says, is to have others model TAHT. "Military kids are extremely resilient," says Terry. "My goal is to help as many children as possible, and it's thrilling that it's actually happening."
In 2011 Terry won The Great American Teach-Off, a nationwide competition to identify America's best teachers. She put the $10,000 award grant toward the construction of a mobile technology lab. An additional prize was a special tour of the White House for Terry and her family. At her school, Terry met with military kids and told them that people now understand the sacrifices they are making. "They all cried because they're no longer invisible," she recalls. "It was an incredible moment."
Originally published in the November 2013 issue of Family Circle magazine.