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Volunteer Literacy Program

Volunteer Stories

Changing a Life by Curt (GED volunteer)

I’ve been a literacy tutor for a number of years, and I’ve always enjoyed my assignments, but none quite as much as Dennis. Our first meeting was at a public library because he wasn’t sure what to expect. At age 76, Dennis faced a personal dilemma. Recently widowed and unable to read or write, he was lost without his wife’s gift of literacy.

Dennis and I had immediate rapport. More importantly, he felt he could trust me, so we agreed to meet weekly in his home. We started with the basics, and two years later he was reading at a third-grade level and successfully managing his bills and correspondence. Needless to say, literacy changed his life.

Those who capably read and write sometimes take these skills for granted, but those who cannot are reminded daily of how difficult it is to be non-literate. The only thing they can take for granted is fear and embarrassment.

During my meetings with Dennis, I watched him deal with his fear and embarrassment when trying to sound out a word or remember the basic rules. Over time, however, he gained confidence and found his way. Most memorable was our “field trip” to a Fred Meyer store. He’d been there many times, but as he read the signs and labels he was like a kid in a candy store, delighted with each new discovery.

Now that I’m working with students (and potential students) at Edmonds Community College, it’s a similar challenge. Unlike Dennis, these students are more literate, but they are still in the process of changing their lives. As tutors, we are an essential part of that process.

Eleni’s Story, a GED Student

Eleni is from Fiji and came to Washington State 19 years ago, when she was 18. She first worked as a babysitter before getting married, having her own children (now 15 and 16 years old), and being a full-time mom. She began in ESL classes three years ago and then had a high enough reading level to begin GED classes two years ago. She began in the Fast Track GED classes, but quickly felt overwhelmed and switched to the more traditional GED class model. Still, she felt like it was very challenging. Luckily, when she started in Jean’s regular GED class, she learned about the possibility of getting extra help from tutors and was so grateful!  She said, “Oh, my God, we actually have tutors to help us!” 

Eleni was so appreciative of having the chance to have tutor support and she took full advantage of it whenever she could. She said, “When Jean told me there’d be tutors after class, I was the first one to put my hand up!”  She got help from Carolyn for grammar and science. In conjunction with Jean’s classroom work on essay-writing, Eleni got extra help from Curt for more intensive work on organization of her writing. Curt also helped her with Social Studies and Eleni said that once Jean started the Social Studies unit in class, she felt totally confident and she was able to understand the material easily. In fact, she quickly took and passed the predictor test and then passed the GED Social Studies test, her second GED test (the first GED test she took was Reading). 

Eleni feels she would not have had the confidence to even take tests without the support of tutors. “It boosted my confidence,” she affirms. If I won a million dollars, I’d put money aside for them first!  I’m more confident in math, too, and I always come in after class for extra help. I am very appreciative of all the tutors and I couldn’t have passed without them. My two sons are proud of me. I do my homework before and after dinner and have my papers all over the table. They do their homework then, too. And we can help each other—I showed them another way to do an Algebra problem and they were glad I could help them!”

Haidee's Story (ESL volunteer and high school student)

In the beginning of senior year, I was very indecisive on what I wanted to do for my project. I felt that nothing intrigued me enough to satisfy my interests on the topics I wanted to pursue. Finally I found a project that not only keened my interest but also rewarded me with experience I will be able to use for my future. Therefore, My Senior Project included The Literacy Tutor Program held at Edmonds Community College. During my time there, I assisted in classroom settings in which I worked with individual students to ensure they understood the material that was being taught in ESL classrooms.   I attended meetings that were held for all the volunteers that worked with both ESL programs and GED programs. I had two classrooms where I assisted; one was a level four class and the second was a level three class. My Mentor for this Project was Nancy Strom; Mrs. Strom is the Volunteer Literacy Program Coordinator. Mrs. Strom manages tutoring ESL students and also picks volunteers to aid in tutoring as well.  She has aided me in following certain guidelines to be a qualified tutor and has given me much support. This particular Project has rewarded me with an endless amount of perspective and experience.

My greatest success that I felt I accomplished was being able to get through to these students and receiving so much perspective in return. I never knew how difficult it was to explain simple things that we as Americans take as common knowledge and basics of society. The struggle that these students go through to fit into American Culture has given me a broader understanding in how to assist them more efficiently. One of the hardest things to do for a person is to immerse yourself into a new culture and try adjusting to that environment alone. I felt that I made a difference in helping these students feel a little more comfortable and paid extra attention to those who felt uncomfortable. One of the students that I particularly worked with was a Korean lady who moved to the United States 6 months ago. Although my Korean wasn’t perfect, I was able to help her feel a bit more at ease and stayed after school to help her with any questions she didn’t fully understand.  One of the many challenges I had to face through this Program was thinking of creative ways to explain specific things. Now, I have so much more respect for teachers and what they do. I have experienced how challenging it is to think of examples on the spot and to help give students a better understanding of what comes naturally to us. For instance, one of the teachers who I help out in the classroom has a specific way of teaching the students. He frequently told me, "Teaching in an ESL classroom isn’t as easy as teaching other subjects. You have to find a way to talk 'in their way' of English so they understand."

Through this experience I have come to learn how to find common interests and relationships with these students, and was able to review things I forgot from my younger years. Things that came naturally to me were harder to explain and teach since it was something so common to me. I forgot a lot of English terms that we normally don’t learn or use every day since they are typically more formal for people who never experienced the English language. In return, I have gained so much more than I gave. This experience has aided me in my decision for what I want to be in the future-an ESL teacher.

Merhunisa (ESL volunteer and high school student)

I wanted to volunteer for the ESL program because I myself was an ESL student. I know the teachers who taught me English worked very hard, and I thought this was good way for me to help people that were in the same situation as me.  I first volunteered in Julie's level 2 class. I loved helping her, she made the class so much fun and I saw that the students were learning a lot from her. Now I am volunteering for level 2 again for Angus.  He is also a great teacher, the students ask questions when they don't understand something and he explains it very well. I am going to continue volunteering for this program for a long time because I feel like I'm helping out a lot of people. I would definitely recommended volunteering for this program, even if it's for an hour, because you are helping another person out with difficulties of learning English.  You will feel proud that you are helping someone learn English because the students that learn English here are trying to get a better life, a better job, and the ability to teach their children at home. I hope you decided to volunteer, it's a great opportunity.

Meet our literacy volunteer: Dr. Rob Scarr (GED volunteer)

(from The Beacon newspaper)

Rob Scarr, an Edmonds resident and physician at The Everett Clinic, has been a volunteer tutor in our Volunteer Literacy Program for two years, teaching math and social studies. EdmondsSphere recently talked with him about what it's like to be volunteer tutor working with students in ESL, GED, and basic education classes at Edmonds Community College.“I enjoy making a difference in people’s lives and I’ve always enjoyed teaching and mentoring.” — volunteer tutor, Rob Scarr

Why volunteer? My family has a long tradition of volunteering. It’s expected within our family.

Why literacy? Most of the students really want to learn, or at least pass the test, and they do appreciate the help. It’s fun when their eyes light up when they understand something. These students have combined challenges — a very basic understanding of some of the subjects and for many English isn’t their first language. They need the one-on-one interaction so they can get their questions answered and understand the process.

Best volunteer experience: When a student I’d been working with told me her friends had tried to get her to skip class because it was such a beautiful day, but she said she had to come to class because she knew I was going to be there — that’s how I can tell I’m making a difference.

Advice for people thinking about becoming volunteer tutors: Do it. It’s an interesting challenge to learn how to do it well and it makes a big difference in people’s lives. These students won’t get it from lecture alone. They need more personal contact. You don’t have to be great in math to help — and you can also teach reading and social studies. There are lots of ways to help.

Gwynne  (GED volunteer)

My story is very simple. I started volunteering during unemployment to remind myself of the many blessings that I have in life. I had had an excellent education through Master's degree and four different Certificates in different programs, and so many people are not as fortunate. I really also desired to give back and help other people.

Literacy is something that we all take for granted and we should not. It is a subject that I have regarded as important for many years and wanted to save until my "retirement."  Well, that has come sooner than I wanted to through our bad economy. One day two years ago I saw a short article in the newspaper --either Seattle Times or the Edmonds Beacon -- I signed on, and I am still helping out.

I love helping the students, and in fact, they have me helping tutor students in math skills, since there are fewer of us, I guess. I recall one of the first students that I helped, a Native American young man. He was quite bright, and I showed him an alternate way of doing some straightforward math problems (my way); he got it quite quickly and went on to pass the math GED shortly thereafter!  I felt so rewarded by the little bit of help that I rendered.

Avery (GED volunteer), Boeing Engineer, March 2012

Reflecting  back on why I volunteer is believing in the saying "Pay It Forward." I was privileged enough to have great tutors/mentors growing up. I know without their help and words of wisdom I would have not achieved so much and had the work ethic instilled in me today.

Relating this to my tutor experience at Edmonds Community College is with the young adult students. While helping them with math and reading sessions I was able to help the students relate their homework to real life situations. In doing so, this helped them understand the material easier and prompted other questions about life and career choices. I was able to answer their questions in the same manner as my tutors/mentors did. This resulted in them being more energized about their learning and  their future, which is similar to what happened with me and my tutors/mentors.

In closing, this is why I became a tutor to practice what I believe: "Paying It Forward."

Thank you!

Bella (International student at EdCC and ESL volunteer)

Volunteering in the literacy really was really a memorable experience for me. I was able to help many students from different countries and learn more about their language. There was a time when one of them taught me how to speak her language. It's amazing that i was able to make friends with them and even joke with them. Moreover, i was able to revise simple tenses and grammar problems. I'm really happy that i was able to both help people and also learn a lot of things from them. What an enjoyable experience ! :)

Corey, March 2012 (ESL volunteer)

Now that I am starting my third year as an ESL volunteer as I look back and it brings a smile to my face. When I started I wasn't really sure what to expect and where this may be heading. Being an educator at heart and having taught many things over the years including horse riding, horsemanship, and horse production all at Washington State University, also snow skiing 12 years, veterinary science 3 years, and dog obedience 35 years I find teaching ESL my most rewarding teaching experience. I have had the opportunity over the years to travel to about 20 different counties. I love to meet people and experience their cultures. Working with the ESL students has allowed me to feel like every week is an adventure to many foreign countries. Yes my hopes and primary goal is that the students are improving their English skills through my assistance while also making the experience fun. However in reality I feel I am the learning much more than my students. It allows me to learn about a variety of countries, people and cultures from all over the world and not even leave my home town of Edmonds. What impresses me the most is the students dedication and hard work to to learn a second language. This is not an easy task and very difficult to do. They are doing something that I myself could not accomplish. Sometimes after class I just say to myself "Wow... how they do it". We as Americans seem to think the rest of the world should speak English. Yet very few Americans speak a second language. I envy my students. I wish I could learn a second language. Being an ESL Volunteer is a very humbling experience.

Alison (ESL volunteer)

I love helping people one-on-one and it’s been such as great experience for me. Thank you so much for thinking of me for the writing lab as I think this is truly my favorite volunteer experience so far!  I love teaching groups, but one-on-one really enables me to connect to the student I’m helping in a very productive, rewarding manner. The students I help are so nice and I truly enjoy the relationships I form with them. It’s also a perfect environment for me to build upon my own knowledge by observing Geoff and Simone teach students. Last night, for example, I learned from Geoff how to explain the difference between a noun clause and a noun phrase. It only took a minute or two for him so describe the grammatical difference, illustrate how each is used conversationally and practice variations of the same structure to reinforce the lesson. From there, I was able to work with my student on identifying relative noun clauses, and understanding the difference between a pronoun versus a preposition. Just thought you might be interested in knowing how we work together in that class and why I love it! 

Parker (ESL volunteer)

I just want to say that the observation was really fantastic. Geoff is obviously a very skilled teacher with a terrific rapport with the students and it is a reminder of how much I have to learn. The students also seemed to be in a very good vibe despite the fact that I'm sure many of them are working adults here at night on their free time. Really inspiring. I would like to attend this class every Monday hereafter if possible along with the language lab.

Paula (GED volunteer)

I've really enjoyed my experience tutoring. It's been very rewarding to me and I believe very beneficial to the student who I've been tutoring for two terms. She recently passed the writing portion of her GED on her first try!!!  She has only her reading portion left, which she intends to complete this week. We've recently been working on her reading skills and I'm certain she will do well. It is great fun to encourage her achievements and celebrate her successes. I've especially enjoyed working with the teacher under whom I've tutored. She has given me great guidance. I look forward to another term. I truly appreciate this opportunity to make some small contribution on my part, knowing it makes a big difference in another's life goals.

Katrina, ESL Skills Lab volunteer

I have been volunteering in the ESL program for several years and have enjoyed meeting people from various countries. I have learned their cultures and a few words or so of their languages. What I enjoy most is seeing the students’ willingness and eagerness to learn the English language in order to be a part of this country. They come from all different background and are willing to work hard to accomplish their dreams that brought them to America. Most of all, they are very appreciative of any help you give them.