Before the advent of iPhones, Blackberries, and 6G mobile internet connections, I was one of a dozen assistants on a movie set. With no Facebook, email, or text messages, the long production hours rendered a lot of time for human interaction—actual face-to-face conversation. One day, the question, “What would your dream job be if money wasn’t a factor?” was posed. Without hesitation, I answered, “A teacher.”
Three years later, I found myself at Pepperdine University in a Masters of Education and Teaching Credential program. I maintained my entertainment industry friends, who eventually connected me with a job at a prestigious private school in West Los Angeles. I worked with first-graders and loved it. In particular, I loved the writing we did together. However, after two years I felt compelled to use my energy to help those less fortunate.
I took a job about a mile down the road at a public magnet school, where the majority of students were bussed in from their inner-city homes in hopes of a better education than afforded by their low-performing neighborhood schools.
By the end of the first week of school, I was shocked to discover that many of my fifth grade students were on the same writing level as my first graders from the private school just up the road.
That group of fifth graders changed my life. There was a handful of them—about ten out of the 33 in my classroom—who had such a strong motivation to do well in school, but simply didn’t have the resources. How could these kids possibly make it to college? And even if they somehow made it there, how would they have the tools to succeed at the college level? I decided that for those who were truly determined to succeed, I would find a way to give them the resources and tools they would need. I started working with these students during recess and lunch, and for the kids who could, we worked together after school. I saw their reading comprehension and writing skills improve, and equally as important, I saw their confidence levels skyrocket. These kids suddenly believed that with someone guiding them, with someone teaching them how to advocate for themselves, that they could accomplish any goal they set their mind to.
During the final months of this pivotal school year, I wondered how I could let them just go off to the next school, where no one knows their story; where it’s even harder to get individualized attention. I felt overwhelmed by the obstacles that stood ahead for these students who had become so close to my heart.
Enter Hank Azaria, my old boss from the entertainment industry days. I was driving when I asked him how much money he felt I could ask from all of my former employers to start a program that would follow these students, making sure that they had everything they needed to get to college. When he answered, I had to pull my car over. He offered to pay my salary the following year so I could start this program and have the time to properly raise money and help even more deserving students. Thus Determined to Succeed began.
Today I am living that job that was just a dream on that movie set that day. I work with deserving, bright, motivated students and give them year round support—after-school tutoring, summer enrichment programs, writing workshops, test prep classes, college counseling—everything they need to ensure that they reach their highest academic potential.
Thanks to the generosity of Hank and hundreds of other generous donors and volunteers, we are now serving 50 teacher-selected students. My former fifth graders, those little ten-year-olds, are now seniors in high school, and Determined to Succeed will continue to follow them through the college application process and throughout their years away at school, ensuring that they continue to succeed.
These students’ lives, as well as the lives of their families, have been changed forever because of this program. Some of these kids would not have even graduated from high school, let alone go to a university across the country. When I look at these 17-year-old faces now, my eyes fill with tears and my heart swells with pride as if they are my own children. I have seen them come so far. Now they are going to take their campus by storm and become tomorrow’s leaders.
Anyone who thinks that they alone cannot make a difference—think again. Discover what you’re passionate about. Find something you really believe in. My passion was education, but there’s so much out there that needs to be fixed. Maybe your passion is animal rights or healthcare of the elderly or the environment. Start small. Put your heart and soul into it. See what happens.
In this photo: Determined to Succeed (DTS) 7th graders Jackie, Adrianna, Krystal and Sara painting the DTS offices with BIG SUNDAY volunteers Courtney and Julia.
After teaching at a private school, Sara Hahn became a fifth grade teacher at Brentwood Science Magnet Elementary School. She saw firsthand the differences in the educational opportunities of students in the private and public school systems and the challenges faced by her fifth grade students. Sara realized that if a passionate and caring educator were to follow the same group of students through middle and high school, the positive impact on the children would be tremendous and life changing. With the generous support of actor Hank Azaria, Sara Hahn founded Determined to Succeed (DTS) in 2005. For more on Sara and DTS please visit their website.