Tar Heel: Homework help is just the beginning of Debbie Derbyshire’s mission

Debbie Derbyshire, a retired teacher’s assistant, now volunteers as a tutor for children and families in her apartment complex.
Debbie Derbyshire, a retired teacher’s assistant, now volunteers as a tutor for children and families in her apartment complex.

Debbie Derbyshire first came to the Grand Arbor Reserve apartment complex to tutor students she met as a teacher’s assistant at Lacy Elementary.

She found great satisfaction helping the children of immigrants and refugees who occupy the vast majority of the modest apartments off Lake Boone Trail. So as she and her husband considered moving to a small home, the thought popped into her head – if she lived there, she could help even more.

“A light bulb came on,” says Derbyshire, who retired last year. “It was a no-brainer.”

They moved into the complex two years ago, and since then she has invited neighborhood children to weekly “homework nights” in her apartment, where she and volunteers from her church help children keep up with their schoolwork.

The dozen or so children who come every week come from all over the world; Mexico, of course, but also Burma, Thailand, Morocco. Most know far more English then their parents, who can’t offer much help on school assignments.

Derbyshire has also taken on what she calls her “Erin Brokovich” role, helping to advocate for her neighbors whose language and cultural barriers sometimes prevent them from getting help with anything from leaky faucets to medical issues.

Isabel Mendez says her daughter’s first homework assignment created panic. A native of Mexico who speaks limited English, Mendez couldn’t help. A neighbor told her about Derbyshire, and her two daughters now attend the sessions most Tuesdays.

Derbyshire also helped Mendez persuade the complex to put new carpet in her apartment to help with her daughter’s asthma.

“Not just any person would do what she is doing here,” says Mendez, speaking in Spanish. “She is a special person who has a very compassionate heart for the children here, but also the parents. She has been so kind to us.”

Lasting impressions

Derbyshire grew up in Asheville, where her father was a policeman in a small mountain town that she hardly recognizes now when she returns to visit family.

She came to Raleigh to attend N.C. State University, and met her husband there. She worked for years as a medical technician, processing blood tests among other tasks. She quit working to raise her children, and held a few temporary jobs over the years, such as overseeing neighborhood pools.

Not long after her teenage son died in a car accident, Derbyshire took a job at Lacy Elementary, in part as a way to keep from dwelling on his loss. She started out doing clerical work in the main office, and ended up working as a teacher assistant for 12 years, mostly in first grade. During that time, she worked closely with a number of children who spoke little to no English when they first came to school.

“You could see how hard it was for them,” says Derbyshire.

She first came to Grand Arbor to help two students, one from Burma and another from Thailand, with whom she had forged a close relationship at the school.

Spending time there, she realized how many families were in a similar predicament. Their parents valued their children’s education, but weren’t able to help them keep up with assignments, much less help them learn to read or write in English.

Derbyshire has always been an active volunteer, and has traveled on several mission trips to help people in other countries. But it occurred to her she could be of great help right there at Grand Arbor, where she already knew some of the children and was familiar with the curriculum and staff at Lacy, where the children go to school.

“We just felt like God was calling us to give some of our time to help people,” she says.

The apartment she shares with her husband, George, is more than 1,000 square feet and pleasantly decorated with Christmas decorations, sturdy furniture and family pictures.

It’s comfortable for them, she says, but many of her neighbors have full families with several children – or even more than one family – living in the same space.

Her church, The Summit, has since started a program that encourages its members to move into areas where they can offer help to their neighbors in a way that is both more natural and more lasting than typical volunteer work.

Church involved

She started out by inviting a few children to come to her apartment for help with their homework, but word soon spread throughout the community.

On a recent Tuesday, about 17 children were there, eager to do a number of craft projects for their first grade class.

Some made ornaments by looping yarn around crossed Popsicle sticks. Others made bird houses, while still others worked on writing or math.

The students sprawled out across two tables in the living and dining rooms; overflow students worked on clipboards on the couch.

“It can be a little chaotic,” she says, “but it works.”

They also read books from two bins of leveled readers Derbyshire keeps in her apartment. Each child reads during every homework club, with help from a volunteer where needed.

“They are supposed to read every night, and they at least do that when they’re here,” says Derbyshire. “A lot of them don’t have many books at home.”

As they work, a group of parents meets in another apartment to practice English with another volunteer – one of two weekly English classes Derbyshire helped arrange.

She’s hoping to convert the complex’s fitness center, which is currently closed and lacks functioning equipment, into a community center where they could do more activities.

Earlier this year when apartment staff wouldn’t allow a bookmobile to enter the complex to distribute books to children, Derbyshire led the charge to make sure the policy was reversed – and it was.

Derbyshire notes that while she often assists others, her neighbors are not just recipients of charity. She recalls one night when a group of moms invited all of the homework night volunteers over for tacos, and Derbyshire is treated to all kinds of exotic cuisine.

“It’s been a learning experience for all of us,” she says.

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Debbie Derbyshire

Born: July 1955, Asheville

Residence: Raleigh

Career: Retired teacher assistant

Education: B.S. Zoology and Medical Technology, N.C. State University

Family: Husband George, daughter Jaime

Notable: Derbyshire’s family has covered its educational tracks in the Triangle. She and her husband, George, both attended N.C. State, and he earned his MBA at Duke University. Their daughter graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill.