‘It's a Feeling You Can't Describe’ - The Missourian: Features People

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‘It's a Feeling You Can't Describe’

Y Literacy Council Builds Strong Tutor Program

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Posted: Wednesday, January 16, 2013 8:33 am

The joy that comes from helping an adult learn to read is indescribable, said Agnes Lackman, Hermann, one of the 17 tutors volunteering with the Y Community Literacy Council through Four Rivers Area Family YMCA in Washington.

Formed in June 2011, the Y Community Literacy Council is a new name for an organization many people, including Lackman, previously knew as the East Central Literacy Council.

Lackman had been a volunteer tutor for that group five years ago and worked with a man in his 50s who could not read at all.

“I taught him the alphabet and then to read,” Lackman told The Missourian.

“It was really . . . well, when you do something like that, it’s a feeling you can’t describe.”

Lackman said she had always wanted to be a schoolteacher, but her life ended up taking a different course. Today she works at the Ameren plant in Labadie as a unit operator engineer, running one of four units that produce electricity for Ameren customers.

Her schedule is hectic, working 12-hour shifts and helping care for her mother,  but when Lackman saw an opportunity to be a literacy tutor, she was drawn to get involved.

“Back when I went to school, we didn’t have special teachers who helped those kids who learned a little slower . . . there was no help for them,” said Lackman.   

Just thinking about people in her community who couldn’t read “broke my heart,” she said.

That’s what led her five years ago to volunteer as a literacy tutor with the East Central Literacy Council and what brought her back to volunteering, now with the Y program.

“If I would need help, I would want somebody to help me,” said Lackman, who will be meeting her new literacy student for the first time later this week.

Diane Schwab, coordinator of the Y Community Literacy Council, said Lackman is exactly the kind of volunteer she looks for — enthusiastic and willing.

It doesn’t matter that she doesn’t have a teaching degree, said Schwab, noting the Y provides all tutors that training and resources they need to work with their adult students.

Anyone who thinks they may be interested in becoming a volunteer tutor can attend a free training session Friday, Jan. 25, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the East Central College facility in Washington (Four Rivers Career Center). 

Schwab is quick to note that attending a tutor training session in no way commits a person to becoming a volunteer. It’s the first step for people who have an interest to see if they think the work will be a good fit for them.

“Some have decided, ‘It’s not for me,’ ” she admits.

The training session runs about six hours and there is some additional training done online.

All potential tutors also must submit to a background check.

Tutors are needed from all over the Y’s service area, which includes both Franklin and Gasconade counties, as well as the Washington School District boundaries.

Tutors and reading students are matched based on preferences of location, time and day availability, said Schwab. They meet to work one-on-one in a public facility, such as the Y or their local library.

‘It’s Been More Exciting!’

“It hasn’t gone the way we planned. It’s been more exciting!” said Schwab, looking back on her first year as the Y community literacy coordinator.

Schwab was hired as coordinator last March and immediately set to work training tutors and getting the word out to potential students.

Less than one year later, things are going far better than she could have imagined, but also a little differently.

Some of the surprises, Schwab noted, have been:

• The age range of students — from 22 to 70. 

“I didn’t expect to have any older students like that, but it’s wonderful!,” said Schwab. 

• That the students include 12 women and five men. 

Schwab said she didn’t expect so many men to come forward seeking help, “but I have been so thrilled that they have!” she remarked with a broad smile.

• Finally, the enthusiasm the tutors have for their work and the strong bonds they have developed with their students.

Schwab admits that in the beginning, she fully expected to have to “twist some arms,” but she has never been so happy to have been so wrong.

“They get so excited. They are really connecting with their students,” she said. “It’s like they’re their children or their sister or their father . . . they develop real relationships with each other.”

There have been a few match-ups of tutor to student that didn’t work out, said Schwab, but they were rematched with other tutors and students, and everything worked out well.

The program really hasn’t struggled to find tutors or students, Schwab noted. The numbers have steadily gone up:

One tutor teaching one student last March; four tutors teaching four students by April; 10 tutors teaching 10 students in June; and currently the program is serving 17 students.

“We still have three tutors and two students who are not active because of schedules,” said Schwab. “I hope to solve this problem in January.”

Three Types of Students, All Eager to Learn

The students enrolled in the Y’s literacy program fall into three categories — those working to improve their reading to help them complete their GED, those learning to speak English as a second language (for themselves, but also to better help their children with their schoolwork) and those who may be able to read and write English, but still struggle with it and want to improve.

“Our students live in three communities and our ESL students were born in five countries,” Schwab noted, pointing out that some were very highly educated in their native country but want help improving their English.

“In addition to individual tutoring, we also have a Conversational English group of six students and two teachers that meets every Thursday morning.”

She shared some of their personal goals:

“I finish university in Mexico, but I no speak good English”;

“I used to read with a tutor, but then they quit. I want to continue reading with a tutor so I get better”;

“I’ve never been good with books”;

“I want to get my GED so I can get a better job;”

“I was always in special class when I went to school. School was not easy for me. I want to learn now.”

That last sentence is part of what makes volunteering to help these adults so gratifying, Schwab said and many of the tutors reiterated.

“My student always showed up and wanted to learn,” said Janet Trent, a volunteer tutor from Union who is waiting to see how her student did on her GED test over the weekend.

“It wasn’t easy,” Trent admits. “We all learn differently. But she tried! And as long as they’re willing to try, that’s what makes you want to help even more.”

Like Lackman, Trent didn’t have any teaching experience before becoming a literacy tutor. She worked for the government for 19 years.

“But now I’m retired and felt I ought to  pay back, that I’d like to volunteer.”

The Y prepared her well for the work, which included one-hour meetings with her student once a week with some additional time spent preparing for those weekly sessions.

“The first time, I was nervous,” Trent admits.

But Schwab makes a point of attending that first visit between tutor and student to help get things started off right.

Diane Werges, Washington, is one of several literacy tutors who do have a teaching background. Retired after 36 years in elementary education, she is continuing to use her classroom experience, now to help adults learn.

Her first student was a gentleman from Mexico who initially wanted help improving his English enough that he could pass the driving test and earn his Missouri license.

“He speaks English well enough,” said Werges, “and he knows how to drive, but he just needed help understanding the questions on the test.”

They met for one hour a week at the library and when he passed his driving test with a 95 percent, Werges said, “I was so proud!”

Now she’s working with him on improving his grammar and other skills, like understanding and using idioms.

“It’s kind of like life lessons, cultural lessons,” said Werges, who has found the work “very, very exciting.”

“The best part is he’s so motivated. He never misses a meeting. And he’s so appreciative of the help . . . he’s so eager to learn . . . he takes notes and always wants to know more.”

Variety of Volunteers, Still More Welcome

Schwab credits the 17 volunteer tutors as the backbone of the literacy program’s success.

“Nothing would happen without you!” she wrote to them in an end-of-the-year summary letter. 

“By the end of November, you had donated 306 volunteer hours.”

Some of the volunteers are retired, but others work, both part time and full time, “but all of you find time to spend at least an hour a week with a student,” said Schwab.

The volunteers come from seven communities in the area and have a variety of backgrounds — from education to business.

That has proven to be a benefit, said Schwab, noting she paired one tutor who works in a factory, Kim Murphy, Holstein, with two students learning English as a second language who also work in a factory.

Murphy said it has been a good match.

“They read and write English well,” she said, “but sometimes they have trouble understanding what people are saying.”

One example was when a co-worker would walk by and ask, “How’s it going?” said Murphy. To her students, it sounded like, “How easy gone?”

They were confused by the question and didn’t know how to respond. Murphy was too until she had them write down what they were hearing and was able to decipher the real question.

Murphy admits she was  nervous at first signing up as a literacy tutor since she doesn’t have a teaching background, but Schwab paired her with students who needed just what she could offer.

“It’s more like mentoring really,” said Murphy, noting she also works with her students on understanding American idioms, like what it means to have “egg on your face.”

Still, it’s challenging at times and Murphy said there are some weeks when she expects to find that she’s helped her students as much as she can.

“I think, ‘This is going to be it,’ but every week I leave feeling that I’ve helped them, so I come back,” said Murphy.

Even with 17 volunteers and as many students, Schwab is eager to sign up more, especially tutors in areas that she doesn’t currently have tutors, like Pacific and St. Clair, so she can match students and teachers who live closer to each other.

For more information on attending the next Y Literacy New Tutor Training Jan. 25 or to register, people can call the ECC office in Washington, 636-239-0598; or call Four Rivers Area YMCA, 636-239-5704, and ask to be put on the New Tutor Training list or ask for Schwab’s voice mail.

Emails also can be sent to Schwab at read4rivers@ymcastlouis.org.

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