Monday, June 23, 2008

The Literacy Council and I

I googled “Literacy Council” and counted more than 100 listings before I had to stop and begin writing this post. There are more; I just don’t know how many. It gives me goose bumps to see all those organizations of people dedicated to one thing: teaching people to read. Many councils have added the task of teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) to the services they offer, and that was what I did when I was a volunteer with the Whatcom Literacy Council in Northwest Washington.

Just as one of my children was hitting some rough waters navigating the shoals of middle school, I read in the paper that they were looking for people to help out. I felt that if that child focused on serving, it would make this stage of growing up a little easier, so I called the Literacy Council. I told them that I’d like to volunteer, that I had worked as a reading specialist in the public schools for several years, but that it was a package deal: my two children would work with me.

I was surprised when the director agreed. It turned out there was a family that wanted ESL training, but they couldn’t come to the place where classes were held. If I would go to their house, the council would stretch the rules and allow my family to teach this Mexican family. I would work with the parents, and my children would play in English with the children. BUT, there was one stipulation. I had to take twelve hours of training before they would turn me loose.

I bridled. I? Take classes? Didn’t they hear that I had been a reading specialist in the barrio in the Los Angeles area? Didn’t my students come to me directly out of ESL classes? What was the council going to teach me? However, the director wouldn’t give on this point, so, thinking of my children, I agreed.

I groused all the way to the first class and frowned as I took my seat in the crowded room, but that was my last negative thought of the whole twelve hours. What a great class that was! They began by teaching me Arabic. In Arabic. They wanted me to have the experience of trying to learn from someone I couldn’t understand, to know the possibilities as well as the frustration. It was a really effective technique.

During breaks, I’d talk to the people taking the class with me. I’d ask: Why are you doing this? Every time I got the same answer: I’ve been so blessed, I want to reach out and help someone. I was blown away and energized by all the goodness in that room, and I was wistful that I was the only Latter-day Saint there. I was a little sad, too, that my motive wasn’t just to be of service.

Whatever my motives, the process was pure joy, and we gained much more than we gave. During the year we spent visiting this family twice a week, they became our good friends. My children were able to serve, and I think it helped get over the rough patch. My once-fluent-but-almost-forgotten Spanish came back. And I gained a sincere appreciation of what Literacy Councils are all about.

Do you have a few extra hours a week? Would you like a shot of joy? Check your yellow pages or use a search engine to see if you’ve got a literacy council in your area. They need good people, and I guarantee you’ll be glad you got involved.

Return to the Neighborhood

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