Oliver Otto learned firsthand the power that a mentor can have while tutoring a disadvantaged fourth grader from a nearby charter school in math.
“I was able to turn this kid from not wanting to go to school … to him becoming on one of the better math students in his grade,” Otto said.
A senior at Germantown Friends School, Otto recently received a Congressional Award Gold Medal for performing more than 800 hours of voluntary public service — many hours of tutoring — personal development and physical fitness, as well as planning and going on an in-depth “exploration/expedition.”
Germantown Friends math teacher David Mraz said the honor was well-deserved.
“The personal connection is at the heart of what he does,” Mraz said. “I’m not surprised he would win an award.”
Otto, 17, of Abington was one of 478 youths nationwide honored on Sept. 26 by Congress in a virtual ceremony that included video messages from Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, as well as interviews with former Exponent journalist Wolf Blitzer, U.S. Sen. Mike Enzi (R-WY) and former football star Emmitt Smith.
Otto said the couple hours of tutoring each week at Mastery Charter School has helped him understand how he can be a positive catalyst in someone’s life.
“It wasn’t so much about developing myself as it was about making a change in the community,” he said.
Mraz said Otto is effective because he’s easygoing, sees what his pupils need, develops a plan he can implement and then explains math concepts at a level they’ll understand.
“He has such a way with the kids there,” he said. “He’s kind of a mentor as well as a tutor.”
Aside from the tutoring, Otto’s a member of the school’s basketball team, does graphics art design and layout for the school newspaper and yearbook and works with his younger sister Amelia on a club called Big Sibs that tutors within Germantown Friends.
Outside of school, he works with the Pennsylvania Shade Tree Commission planting trees in parks around Abington. He estimated that he’s planted 30 trees on his own and more than 200 in the last four years as part of a group.
Through his family, Otto, who is a member of Beth Sholom Congregation, has learned art appreciation and is a fan of Dutch abstract artist Piet Mondrian. That was nurtured by a trip a couple years back to London and Paris to visit the multiple famed museums there.
Although Otto’s generally quiet, he shows his intensity on the basketball court, Mraz said. Even when a broken wrist kept him from playing last year, Otto stayed connected to the team by keeping statistics during practice, helping the coach to build game plans.
While Mraz said Otto could be a gifted teacher, Otto, who hopes to attend the University of Pennsylvania next fall, said he plans to major in American history and eventually pursue a career in some sort of contractual law.
“He is thoughtful, polite, considerate — everything you’d want your child to be,” Mraz said.