Coffs Harbour Neighbourhood Centre’s Big Sparks learning group and volunteer tutors celebrate a successful year

Marie Lo Casio, Coffs Harbour Neighbourhood Centre Coordinator (front right) with Big Sparks students and volunteer tutors at Sawtell.


IT’S been a year many would like to forget, though others will remember it more kindly.

Marie Lo Casio, Coffs Harbour Neighbourhood Centre (CHNC) Coordinator, said the Bright Sparks learning club, run in partnership with The Smith Family, was unable to meet as usual this year because of COVID restrictions.

The learning group normally offers a supported learning and homework space for primary and high school students, with volunteer tutors from many backgrounds.

“Due to the restrictions we weren’t able to have the primary school children this year so decided to pilot a program focusing on high school students, the Big Sparks learning group,” Marie told News Of The Area.

“Numbers were limited because of spacing requirements so the group only had seven students, ranging from Years 7 to 12.

“High school students have been disadvantaged more this year because of COVID and so some brand-new volunteer tutors came on board.

“We received a grant to purchase laptops, which meant the students had a better learning environment because some of them might only have one laptop per family at home.

“It was a learning curve for some of the tutors with PowerPoint presentations and high level assignments, but they hung in there and the Big Sparks program was so successful we’re going to run it again next year,” Marie said.

Darrin Allen, one of the volunteer tutors and also Programs Coordinator for The Smith Family said, “The Smith Family and CHNC have been in partnership with this for twelve years.

“Being able to offer students one-on-one support means a lot when English is their second language, and building rapport means they feel more comfortable about asking for help.”

The rapport and camaraderie were on display at the Big Sparks and tutors’ end of year outing at Sawtell.

To celebrate, the students chose to go to Majestic Cinemas Sawtell to see ‘Misbehaviour’.

Waiting for them in the foyer were backpacks donated by Share The Dignity and gift bags from The Smith Family and the Neighbourhood Centre.

Volunteer Gerry DeGabriele, retired medical practitioner, said he enjoys giving back to the community.

“A bit of effort now makes all the difference to these kids later,” he said.

“It’s more than tutoring,” said another volunteer, Tamara Haldon, “It’s about life skills as well and being a bit of a sounding board if needed.”

Marie advised that with restrictions easing the program is looking to recruit more tutors for next year, both Primary and Secondary levels.

If you’re interested in volunteering, contact Coffs Harbour Neighbourhood Centre on 6648 3694 or go to



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