Alexandra Trejo Ramos, 5, meets with Tracey at her home for tutoring on Tuesday and Thursdays. Ramos is the daughter of, Karla, one of Tracey's former students.
Dr. Bert Ely, a biology professor, spends most of his day doing research at USC, but still finds time to help children in the Eau Claire community.
Third-grader Nicklas Entzminger receives help from Yvonee Jones, another tutor the Elys have recruited to help children after school at Hyatt Elementary School.
Volunteers Wardah Ameen and Rose Wirth spend a Saturday learning to tutor. Ameen (above) was so inspired by the success her son had with Ely that she has spent the last six years helping other children.
Bert Ely remembers stepping onto his front porch, hearing the sound of children laughing in the distance and knowing he and his wife had made the right decision.
It was 12 years ago, and Ely and his wife, Tracey, members of the Assemblies of God denomination, had just answered a "call from God" by moving from their 3,400-square-foot dream home in a southeast Columbia suburb to an 1,100-square-foot cottage in Eau Claire, one of Columbia's poorest neighborhoods.
"At the time, we didn't know exactly what we were going to do," Bert Ely said. "We weren't sure if we were making the right decision at first. But we both heard clear messages from God to go and help and knew we could put our trust in him."
Today, the Elys have helped numerous Eau Claire children succeed in school and fight reading disorders and have lately begun extending their reach out of the neighborhood by training volunteers to tutor children.
In the beginning, there were eight
Bert Ely, a USC biology professor, says that when they moved to the neighborhood he and his wife noticed many children were unsupervised and "running wild" after school.
So the Elys taught gardening and kickball to earn the community's trust and eventually opened their home to the children, offering them afterschool snacks and homework help.
"We offered structure and guidance and someone who cares about them," Ely said. "In many cases, that went a long way."
"Tommy" was the first child to walk through their door seeking help. Now, even in his early 20s, he's still uncomfortable opening up about his past, and at his request the Carolina Reporter agreed to use only a changed first name.
Tommy says his mother raised him alone and worked most of the time.
Single-parent households make up about 19 percent of those in Eau Claire, an 11-square-mile area with about 23,000 people in northern Columbia. The average across Columbia is 12 percent.
"I didn't really have the support when it came to homework or school projects," Tommy said. "The Elys helped me focus, realize my strengths and weaknesses and showed me the importance of academics. I realized if I worked at it, I could achieve what I wanted to."
He remembers sitting at the kitchen table doing homework while other children peered through the window. Eventually, they joined him, and the Elys had eight everyday regulars for afterschool homework help.
They now have a dedicated room for tutoring with tables to work on, a computer, and dry-erase boards and alphabet charts lining the walls.
By last summer, all eight had graduated from Eau Claire High School, which had a 66 percent five-year graduation rate in 2011, according to the S.C. Education Department.
Tommy, now in college, credits "Mrs. Tracey" and "Mr. "Hap" with helping him succeed.
The Rev. Ned Crosby of Capital City Church said the Elys have built a good rapport with children and families because their motives for helping people are clear.
"They've been a good fit in the community," Crosby said. "They've really done a wonderful job benefiting a lot of people and providing education and volunteers."
A bigger problem
As the children entered middle school, Tracey Ely had more time to tutor students privately at Eau Claire Presbyterian Church and to help at local elementary schools.
She said she noticed many of the children had trouble reading at grade level. She learned multiple tutoring systems to focus on treating dyslexia and then realized many students might never be properly diagnosed.
"I shifted my focus to addressing the issue head on," she said
She said she began using her knowledge of dyslexia in elementary schools and her tutoring sessions and that she takes pride in helping students like Tommy realize dyslexia and work to overcome it.
"God had been preparing me for this since I was a child," she said, noting that her mother had lobbied for schools to incorporate phonics into their teaching.
As word spread about the Elys' success, adults from around the Midlands began seeking help for their children and themselves.
Mary Ann Savage has a 21-year-old daughter, Britney, and a nephew and niece, all of whom were helped by the Elys. After seeing the children succeed, Savage, 56, says she sought help for her own speech and reading problems.
"My daughter has a better chance of getting into college, and Mrs. Tracey has helped me with my own troubles," Savage said. "They're just a great help to everyone, and they're willing to help any way they can."
The Elys said they have used about $160,000 in grants and donations over the past 12 years to fund training sessions and offer free tutoring. Tracey Ely spends Saturdays in the dimly lit Capitol City teaching volunteers how to help dyslexic students. Now, she can evaluate students and refer them to the proper tutor.
"So many people needed help, and we realized we couldn't do it alone," she said.
Volunteer Wardah Ameen said her son's success inspired her to help.
"It's just such an incredible thing, the effect that we can have on somebody," Ameen said. "I know that the system works because it helped us."
When the couple isn't helping to teach, Bert Ely says they're doing things like organizing food drives or helping people file their taxes.
"We had no idea years ago when we moved here what all we were getting involved in," he said. "God has taken us on an amazing journey, and I know it's still far from over."