by Donna Childs
Imagine being an adult and unable to read—how frustrated, embarrassed, even fearful you might feel. While it could seem overwhelming to enroll in school, a drop-in session with a non-judgmental adult, one-on-one, at whatever level you need might be the perfect solution. At five Multnomah County neighborhood libraries, about eighty dedicated, intelligent, good-humored, and joyful volunteer tutors help with reading, English language learning, GED preparation, and other skills. The Adult Literacy Program, begun ten years ago through Library Outreach Services, provides walk-in tutoring two hours a week at Gresham, St. Johns, North Portland, Central and Midland.
I met with four of the twenty Midland volunteer tutors: Lynn Alderman, Katie Booker, Melissa Madenski, and Zarina Jackson. While tutors come with different backgrounds and skills, they are flexible, and their approach is completely learner-centered. As Melissa said, it isn’t teaching first grade; it is finding out what each person knows and building on that. Katie agreed, pointing out that the learners often know more than they think they do. After all, they may have navigated a lifetime without reading. The key is to discover their interests and what they are good at, to make them comfortable, and to increase their confidence.
Coordinator Lisa Regimbal, the only paid staff member, runs the program, and matches available tutors and learners at each session. The tutors like the variety, and not knowing what to expect each week. According to Lynn, that variety keeps her on her toes and allows her to learn too. A former accountant, who has “wanted to do this all my life,” Lynn found this program online. Katie, too, long wanted to do this; she had considered special education before studying art history and working in insurance. She loves seeing the excitement at the moment someone starts to understand. For example, a sixty-five-year-old man came in wanting to write a letter. After being shown the format, writing the words, folding the paper, addressing and stamping the envelope, he “was so happy” with his new knowledge.
A former adult literacy coordinator, Melissa ran the program for its first five years. The library got a grant, surveyed the needs in the community, reached out to non-profits, and recruited forty volunteers. When she retired, Melissa continued as a volunteer tutor. “I love volunteering; I love this work and the excitement of being ready for anything.” Although she can do any kind of tutoring, she, like Katie, most enjoys helping beginning readers.
Zarina, on the other hand, loves English language tutoring. She can take on speakers of any language. Having approached a vocational counselor to find a volunteer career, and exploring several possibilities, the counselor asked what Zarina wanted to be when she grew up. Her instant reply: “an English teacher!” She now happily helps non-English speaking patrons, finding it “an honor to be able to help people.”
The tutors not only form relationships with patrons, with whom they work closely, but they also have a warm camaraderie among themselves. They keep folders on their work so any tutor can help if one of them is absent. They laugh a lot and all agree that although they are there to help others, “we are the ones who benefit most.”
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