"Wow, That's Amazing That You Do That!" Volunteering at the Center for Reading and Writing
The Centers for Reading and Writing are recruiting volunteer tutors for our fall class cycle beginning in September, so I've been thinking about what it means to volunteer here in the library's adult literacy program.
I decided to speak with Gale, who has been volunteering at the Center for Reading and Writing for over twenty years. When I asked her if she would mind speaking to me a bit about what the experience has meant for her she said, laughing, "Oh sure, the problem will be getting me to shut up!"
When she first began, she had been teaching high school English and was very discouraged. "There were students there who couldn't read at all, not the word 'cat,'" she said, "But the curriculum dictated we had to teach Hamlet. "
Seeking a different sort of teaching experience, she decided to attend a "Learning Celebration" at the Seward Park Center for Reading and Writing, a celebratory evening where students gather with family and friends to read and hear the stories they've been working on during the year. She knew right away that this was somewhere she wanted to get involved. "The students are so motivated," she said.
One moment during her years of tutoring stands out in particular. It was when she was invited by a student, Kwong, to attend his swearing-in ceremony to become a United States Citizen. Kwong was from Hong Kong, and when he joined the class, he told Gale his goal was to become a citizen. He had tried before, but because of his low reading skills was unable to pass the written test. The Center had copies of citizenship materials, and together they practiced reading and responding. "Of course, when you're from here," Gale said, "You don't have to know anything about this country, but [to become a citizen], from somewhere else, you have to know everything: branches of government, dates, history..."
After all the practice and support, Kwong passed the citizenship exam and invited Gale to accompany him to the swearing-in ceremony. She said, "I remember the judge saying that of all his judges duties, this was his favorite, to swear in new citizens, and I could see why."
It was a huge auditorium, and it was packed with people, standing along the back wall and leaning against all the side walls. They had given everyone little American flags, and when she looked over at Kwong, he was waving his so vigorously, like a kid at a parade, just beaming. Ultimately, everyone threw their flags in the air, like at a graduation.
Afterward Gale wanted to take Kwong's picture in front of the courthouse. She says, "He couldn't even touch ground he was so high. He had tears rolling down his face; and so did I. It was a defining moment of his life. And I had been at least some part of it."
Lois Shares Her Experience
I also spoke to Lois, who began volunteering as a literacy tutor at the Tompkins Square Library Center for Reading and Writing last year, after the great recession hit her workplace. Lois is reserved and thoughtful, with short gray hair and a tattoo peeking out from her short-sleeved shirt. After losing her job at an architecture firm, she sent her resume all over town to no avail. Finally, she gave up on the idea of working 9 to 5. "But I wanted to do something useful," she said. "I thought about being one of those little old ladies in the museum who tells you where the restroom is, but that just isn't me."
She was still in touch with a former teacher of hers who had volunteered with a different literacy program. She told Lois what a rewarding experience it was, and Lois began searching for something similar in New York.
"We have a good time," Lois said of her experience tutoring at the Center for Reading and Writing. "For me, coming here, it's such a learning experience it's almost like going back to school."
When she tells people about her volunteer work, she gets two reactions. One is, "Oh wow, that's amazing that you do that!" She likes this reaction, though she tells people, "It's not so 'amazing,' you just go online and fill out the form..." But the second reaction, she says, makes her angry. It's people who say of her students, "Weren't they born here?" meaning that there is no reason they shouldn't already know how to read and write. "That really ticks me off," she says, "and I usually look at them like they have two heads and walk away," instead of explaining the numerous reasons why someone may not have learned to read: poorer schools, learning disabilities, having to work, etc.
One of the most valuable parts of volunteering at the Center for Reading and Writing, she says, is the human connection. She says, "I was nervous when I first started. I still get nervous when I have a new student, because it's an unknown. But then you get to know each other and you realize there's nothing to worry about. It's a close interaction, so you care about how they're doing. If I'm volunteering in a museum, I don't care if someone finds the bathroom."
The Centers for Reading and Writing are recruiting new volunteer tutors for their 10 week Fall Cycle. If you have 4 hours a week available, enjoy reading and writing, and want to share your passion with adult learners, we would love to hear from you. We have eight locations throughout the Bronx, Manhattan, and Staten Island, and are seeking volunteers to join us for our Centralized Tutor Training beginning September 13. Please contact the site advisor at the most convenient location to learn how to get involved!