Opinion

Whatcom View: Life lessons for literacy volunteers as they teach

The Whatcom Literacy Council relies on its volunteers. With a paid staff of five, we could not provide one-on-one tutoring, small-group classes, business and school partnerships and community education for more than 500 adults without the help of the 100-plus volunteers who support our programs. Thanks to our volunteers, hundreds of families get the chance to get more education, earn more money and participate more fully in community life at an average cost of less than $350 per learner per year.

While giving, volunteers also get. Most people know that volunteering is good for us. People who volunteer on a regular bases report being happier, healthier and more connected to the community than those who do not. Those adjectives are important, but they are abstract. To learn the benefits of being a Whatcom Literacy Council volunteer, we asked some volunteers about their experience.

SHARPEN SKILLS

Whatcom Literacy Council volunteers learn concrete skills. Tutors get training and support with techniques that fit the needs of the learner they are working with. Some tutors work with “preliterate” clients, adults who have never had the chance to attend school and must start with the idea of alphabets and letter sounds. Others may use tools that have been proven effective with a specific type of learning disability. For some this is their introduction to a career in education. There are also opportunities for volunteers who want to help but do not feel that tutoring is a good fit for them: Those in administrative support build experience in marketing, event organizing, and nonprofit management that they can use in their own careers.

JoAnne Tripp has worked with a learner from Russia for more than two years. Besides the friendship they have developed and the pride she feels in her learner’s progress, Tripp values “brushing up my skills regarding English grammar. I hadn’t thought about an idiom or a participle since college days in the ’50s!”

STAY INVOLVED

Whatcom Literacy Council volunteers stay involved in their professions. A number of volunteers are retired teachers who love their field and want to continue to work with students.

John Whitmore is a retired WWU chemisty professor. He wrote that his learner “was excellent to work with in spite of all his pressures — always on time, always prepared to make an effort, and often would take the initiative to bringing materials to our sessions. And I learned a lot about India, the Punjabi culture and the Sikh religion. I think the Whatcom Literacy Council does an outstanding job, valuable in so many ways to both people involved in the one-on-one sessions. The benefits extend well beyond just one person improving their English a bit.”

PAY IT FORWARD

Whatcom Literacy Council volunteers pay it forward. Some of our volunteers appreciate the power of literacy and English language fluency because they or their families struggled to achieve it. Their passion and their insights inspire their students they work with.

“My grandparents were Russian/Jewish immigrants,” writes Marty Mitchell. “America took them in and gave them a safe haven from anti-Semitism. They loved America. Even though their adjustment wasn’t easy, their children took full advantage of the opportunities here and became productive citizens. They became engineers, a superior court judge, and businessmen. By working with the Whatcom Literacy Council it allows me to help new immigrants adjust to their new country. I want to help them reach their full potential. It is my small way of paying back those that helped us.”

WIDEN HORIZONS

Whatcom Literacy Council volunteers widen their own worlds. Whatcom County is becoming ever more diverse, but a lot of us wouldn’t know that judging by our personal neighborhoods and associations. Tutoring provides a way to build real friendships that cross ethnic and socio-economic barriers.

Tallie Jones works with a learner from Iran. “I consider friendship one of the great beauties of life, and one that is a particular gift when it starts out, as ours did, with two people acknowledging that their respective countries have been at war for the vast majority of their lives, trying to make sense of that, and then moving on to the tasks at hand. How will Marwan improve his English and make a new life for himself here? How can I understand and help? What can we laugh about along the way?”

Whatcom Literacy Council volunteers strengthen the social networks that protect us all. Isolation and inequality erode the bonds that hold a strong community together. Volunteers forge friendship across socio-economic lines. They meet neighbors whose lives otherwise would have been hidden from them. As they help provide learners with a path out of poverty, volunteers are making a concrete contribution to a stronger, safer community.

COMING UP

Sept. 8: International Literacy Day

Sept. 9: Whatcom Literacy Council volunteer recruitment session and recognition party 5-6 p.m. at the Bellingham Public Library. Cake and punch for volunteers. Information for those interested in becoming a volunteer tutor.

Sept. 11: Whatcom Literacy Council board alumni party 4-6 p.m. at Mt. Baker Theater’s Encore Room.

Nov. 12: Annual Literacy Breakfast with Nancy Pearl, 7-9 a.m. at Bellingham Technical College’s Settlemyer Hall. Contact events@whatcomliteracy.org or call 360-752-8678 for tickets.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Katherine Freimund is executive director and Lane Morgan is a volunteer with the Whatcom Literacy Council.

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