Get Involved! Volunteering With the Library Literacy Program

Last fall, Osmosis Online interviewed the authors of ‘Generation Change: 150 Ways We Can Change Ourselves, Our Country, and Our World.’ The book talks about ways ordinary people can affect change. Sometimes it can be difficult to find the cause that really interests you enough to give your valuable time. I hope my first-hand account of one volunteer opportunity in particular may inspire some people to look into it, or even just to look around one more time and see if they can find the opportunity that’s right for them.

It had been a while since I’d given my time as a volunteer. Coming off a full-time, work-intensive job had gotten me out of the habit, but my lifestyle has changed a lot and I suddenly realized that I had not just the time, but the energy to try to get involved again. Luckily, the Internet has made it easier than ever for lazy people like myself to find tailor-made volunteer opportunities. I went to VolunteerMatch (http://www.volunteermatch.org/) and entered in my zip code, and like magic, I received a list of volunteer opportunities close to me. I clicked on the absolute closest one. Yes, that’s really how lazy I am. My primary criterion was, “Is it close enough for me to walk to it?” What I clicked on turned out to be the library. “Adult Literacy Tutor,” it said. “Do you love to read?” it asked. Why, yes I do! But being a tutor sounded kind of difficult. I’m not a teacher or anything, let’s see … skills needed: “The only special skill required is a willingness to help others.” Hey, I have that skill!

So I signed up for that opportunity and soon had a meeting set up with a really nice lady who would be my literacy coordinator. I signed up for and attended my one-day training session. The training session was bursting with volunteers. The entire room was full of people, and they ranged from students to retirees, from teachers to computer programmers to stand-up comedians. When the training ended and I received by student assignment, I suddenly began to get super nervous. I realized that I had to now meet up with a complete stranger, and I would be responsible for teaching them. What if we had nothing to say to each other? What if it was really awkward? What if I was terrible at this and the person didn’t learn anything?

I powered through my crippling fear, however, and set up my first meeting with my student. The first meeting allayed my fears somewhat, but it wasn’t enough. For one thing, the first meeting was short, just to say hello and set up a schedule and hand out materials. My student seemed nice enough, a bit shy, but friendly. Still, as the first real lesson approached I still had lots of worries. Planning the first lesson was completely unpredictable. It was supposed to be for an hour and a half. What if I went through the lesson in 30 minutes? Then what would we do? What if trying to talk to my student was like pulling teeth? It would seem like an eternity. Being a Type-A personality, I spent probably several hours putting together a detailed lesson plan, including scripting a bunch of speeches about pronunciation and grammar rules verbatim because I was so nervous I would forget what I would say. I am aware that I am a nerd, don’t be ashamed to think it.

When the first lesson came, I found out that I did not need to worry at all. In fact, it was far better than I had hoped. We went through the lesson according to plan, and something happened that I hadn’t anticipated. My student is from Korea, and he already knows, basically, how to read and write in English, but until now he has lived in a bubble where he has not had to use English on a daily basis very much. Now, he has been here for six years and the Korean company for which he worked had to close, leaving him to look for a job where he will most likely have to use English. In addition, his children are now fully assimilated and will no longer speak to him in Korean, so he must improve his English for better interaction with his children. So our lessons focus less on the mechanics, and more on reading comprehension, conversation, and writing.

What began to happen was that, as we discussed the words and the reading assignments, he began to teach me too. We talked about certain words and concepts such as “friend” and how their meanings differed in America and in Korea. The story we read was about work, and we had a tangential discussion about the work culture in Korea and how it differs from the culture here. I found, when given the opportunity to talk about his home country, my student suddenly opened up and his hesitancy about speaking English took second place to his eagerness to speak about where he was from, what is was like there, and how it is different here. And during these conversations I found that my own fear and shyness melted away, because I was actually fascinated by the conversation. When I came home from my first session, I was actually excited and my poor husband had to listen to me relate all of the interesting facts I had learned back to him.

The first lesson wasn’t a fluke, either. Our lessons have continued in this vein and now I don’t just look forward to what I will teach, but also what I will learn.

Many public library systems have literacy programs, not just mine. A look on your local branch’s website or a search for your library and “adult literacy program” should allow you to find it. You can also try plugging your location into America’s Literacy Directory for volunteers (http://www.literacydirectory.org/?op=setup&mode=volunteers).

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