Wednesday, September 13, 2006

if you can read this, you're better off than 40 million others

My sister Laura used to volunteer her time teaching adult literacy classes at the Central Library. She had to jump through a few hoops, starting with an interview and then a seven-hour tutor training course. After all that, a student match was made.

His name was Julio and he was in his mid-20's. Although he spoke English, Julio didn't know how to read. As per the requirements of the program, Laura committed to six months of two 90-minute sessions a week. Laura would come home from her tutoring session with stories of his progress, his frustration in never having enough time to do his homework, how he struggles to shelter, clothe and feed his family, of the things he read that resonated with him. This person, this Julio - he and his struggle - interested me greatly and we talked about him extensively. But seeing how it affected Laura, that was fascinating.

The work was gratifying, that much was obvious. One only had to listen to Laura speak of any of their tutoring sessions. But she took on his frustration as well as celebrating his accomplishments. It became very personal to her, very important that Julio succeed. Laura was glad to help this man who so desperately wanted to read a Dr. Seuss book to his young son.

After her six-month stint was up, I was surprised that Laura didn't immediately sign up for another student match. She needed a break, she was wrung out. "Why don't you volunteer?" she asked. She knew the answer before the words had even formed in my mouth, "I wish I could, but you know my crazy schedule. I can't make that time commitment." She nodded and let it go. She never asked me about it again, though adult illiteracy was a topic that often came up in our conversations. When Laura passed away last September, we asked that people make contributions to the Adult Literacy Services Program in lieu of flowers. She would've liked that.

I keep coming back to this program, especially since my fiance Jim volunteers his time as a docent at the Central Library. It makes perfect sense for me to volunteer. I'm a writer, why wouldn't I want more readers out there? Unfortunately, my excuses for not volunteering still hold. But I keep coming back to it. I want to do it, just like I want to organize my shoes, CDs, and files. But still I can't locate my green suede Bruno Magli pumps, signed Barry Manilow box set, or that short story I wrote about an immigrant in Disneyland six years ago - and I still haven't volunteered to teach adult literacy classes. I know, I suck.

Hopefully, you don't suck as much as I do and want to do something about the estimated 40 million Americans who are illiterate. Then you can click here to find a literacy center near you.


Nanette said...

That sounds like a great cause. I'm in the process of getting started as a volunteer with, tutoring homeless kids.

Hilary said...

What a wonderful program! I volunteer as a Big Sister to a super cool 12-year-old's such an awesome thing to see her grow. Anyway, if you're looking for a literacy organization to volunteer with that asks for only one hour a week, there is one called Koreh LA. It's run by Jewish Federation, but is a non-sectarian agency and they work with elementary school aged children. More info here.