Community Members Who Go Above & Beyond: Literacy Delaware volunteer improves lives of language-challenged adults
For the past nine years, Janet Saunders has taught adults who do not know how to speak, read, and write English how to communicate. “I come from England,” says Saunders. “I know how difficult it is to move and live in another country, but it’s difficult enough not knowing the language.”
As a volunteer for Literacy Delaware, Saunders, who lives in Wilmington, meets one-on-one with English language learners from Korea, China, the Caribbean or Latin America at local libraries throughout the week. And for two hours on Monday and Wednesday mornings, she leads a class at West End Head Start on Wilmington’s West Side.
Besides English learners, and as part of LD’s mission, Saunders has also tutored adults who read at or below fifth grade level. Low communication and reading skills limit a person’s economic, health, and social benefits, says Saunders. “The intent is to give the learners enough basic skills to handle their most essential needs. It helps the community as a whole to have competent people who can hold jobs and thus improve the lives of their children. It’s a benefit for everyone.”
According to the international non-profit ProLiteracy, one in six U.S. adults lacks basic literacy skills. Cindy Shermeyer, LD executive director, says it’s about the same in Delaware.
Studies also show that children of parents with low literacy skills have a 72 percent chance of being at the lowest reading levels themselves.
Currently LD has 80 volunteer tutors and 150 students. Thirty percent are basic learners while 70 percent are English language learners. Over 2,900 students have received free assistance since the non-profit’s inception in 1983. The statewide organization trains volunteers who are mostly retirees from careers such as marketing, banking, information technology, law and nursing. They teach basic English skills and/or basic reading, writing and math skills. The organization relies on fundraisers, grants and private donations.
Saunders, a former chemist, moved to the United States in 1959. She retired as a computer programmer in 1999 while living in Plymouth Meeting, Pa., and became a U.S. citizen in 2002. When she moved to the First State in 2009, a friend told her about Literacy Delaware, and she has been a volunteer ever since.
“I get a great deal of satisfaction from feeling that I have helped people improve their lives,” Saunders says. When she’s not busy tutoring, she is registering learners, helping with tutor orientation, or with social and fundraising events.
“She (Saunders) is amazing in her compassion, commitment, and dedication to this entire adult literacy endeavor,” says Shermeyer. “Her learners love her.”
An English learner, Esneyder Lopez, 52, says he’s taking full advantage of the free program and its volunteers. The Wilmington resident started taking classes five months ago to improve his job prospects. A successful business owner in Colombia, Lopez left everything behind eight years ago because of unsafe conditions in the South American country.
He says the classes have helped him increase his confidence and he’s no longer afraid to leave his home. “I can communicate. I no longer fear making mistakes, life is a lot simpler.”
He’s also a diabetic, and he says he can now understand his doctor’s diet recommendations. “If not for the program, my life would be very difficult,” Lopez says.
Research—and anecdotal evidence—demonstrate that volunteering helps the volunteer too
People who volunteer their time say they get as much out of their work as the people, or in some cases, the animals, they serve.
Take Jim McVoy, for instance. McVoy, 71, of Coatesville, Pa., has volunteered with Tri-State Bird Rescue & Research, Inc. in Newark, for 12 years. Last April, he had an experience that is not untypical of his service there. He received a call about an injured duck hiding under a bush in front of a house. When McVoy went to the house, he was surprised to find that the people who called were former students of his from West Chester University, where he had been a music professor. After a joyous greeting, he examined the bird.
“The injury looked so bad I didn’t think there was any way the bird could be saved,” he says. “It had a major wound on its side that was consistent with an animal bite.”
McVoy, who performs basic medical procedures on injured birds, took the Gadwall, a type of duck, to the clinic, which last year treated more than 3,000 ill, injured and orphaned birds. There, the wound was surgically closed and sutured and the duck was given antibiotics and pain medication. The only thing left for the staff to do was hope for the best.
Much to their surprise, the duck began to recover and thrive. Tri-State fed it and made sure it got some exercise (swimming) until it was deemed ready for release. Six weeks later, the Gadwall flew across a lake in the Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area in Pennsylvania.
The experience was just one of many that confirmed to McVoy that he made the right move when he retired from West Chester in 2006.
“I sometimes wonder what my retirement might be like if I weren’t doing this,” he says. “I would say that volunteering has definitely made me healthier and happier.”
Studies support that thought. Volunteering is not only linked with better mental and physical health, but volunteers are happier than non-volunteers. And the more you volunteer, apparently, the happier you are. Compared with people who never volunteer, the odds of being “very happy” rose 7 percent among those who volunteer monthly and 12 percent for people who volunteer every two to four weeks, researchers say.
Delawareans are no slouches when it comes to giving their time to worthy causes. Based on 2015 data from the Corporation for National and Community Services, 25.9 percent of Delaware residents volunteer, ranking the state 28th among the 50 states and Washington, DC.
Sometimes, both animals and people are involved in the volunteer effort. PAWS for People, for
instance, is a pet therapy non-profit in Newark. Denise Lopes, of Wilmington, has been volunteering there for four years, partnering with Roger, a 12-year-old golden retriever, to visit local extended care facilities and other sites to offer companionship and comfort.
On one of their outings, Lopes, 59, was struck by how simple it was to bring joy to people who were suffering. She and Roger were visiting residents at a “memory care” section of an area assisted-living facility, where they were directed to a large room with a TV. About 15 residents, some in wheelchairs, sat around the perimeter of the room.
Roger went to a senior, who greeted him with hugs. Then, his tail wagging, the dog walked from person to person, greeting everyone in the room. The residents petted and hugged him, and some recalled pets from long ago.
“I could see the joy in their eyes and in their smiles,” says Lopes, an associate teacher at Wilmington Friends School.
By the time Roger had completed the circuit, he had to walk back to the first resident and do another round of greetings because they forgot that he had already acknowledged them.
“It was humbling because for us it (visiting) was such an easy thing to do, yet it was something important because it brought them joy,” says Lopes. “In that moment they were smiling, in that moment they were comforted, in that moment they forgot where they were, in that moment they had peace. I can’t imagine not doing this.”
Good for the Soul
Matthew Bowe, 28, feels the same way. “It (volunteering) feeds one’s soul in a way material things never could,” says the Newark resident.
A financial advisor at Alvini & Associates, P.A., in Wilmington, Bowe is one of 12 volunteers on the Ministry of Caring Millennial Committee. The committee raises funds to benefit childcare programs run by the Ministry, which provides services for those living in poverty in Wilmington.
As a fundraiser, Bowe has learned that, regardless of how long and hard you organize and prepare for an event, problems are bound to occur, and it’s up to volunteers to overcome them and accomplish the goal.
The Ministry’s all-you-can-eat crab fest, for instance, has run into challenges the last two years. In 2016, after almost a year of coordinating, organizing, and lots of pizza at monthly meetings, Bowe and the committee were confident they were ready for their first fundraiser. Everything was in place for the four-hour event at the Cavaliers Country Club in Newark. Twenty bushels of crabs, beer, liquor, wine, and two bands were ready. The games—Russian horseshoes, cornhole, Kan Jam and beer pong—were set up, as was the photo booth.
Then someone noticed that something was missing: paper towels—a small but necessary item at an all-you-can-eat crab fest where 200 people were expected. Luckily, a caterer had enough napkins for the folks who showed up.
Last year, the committee experienced another mishap: a water valve, needed to steam crabs, broke two hours before the doors were to open. A quick run to a local store and an installation took care of the problem.
Both events were successful. In 2016 the crab fest raised more than $7,000, and last year the total was more than $10,000.
“What we learned from the experience was that things happen, and it’s how you react that sets you apart,” says Bowe.
The volunteer experience has enriched his life and that of others. “We feel a deeper connection with each other, those we help and our surroundings knowing we are putting forward our time and effort to help others and to make our community a better place without asking anything in return,” he says.
Up and Moving
Judy David, 50, of Newark, has also discovered what social science researchers have long known.
“Volunteering does make me happier,” she says, “especially tangible acts where you can see the benefits of your actions.”
For David, volunteering has another benefit. “I’m inclined to be too sedentary for my own good,” she says. “Volunteering gets me up and about and moving, instead of sitting on the couch and watching TV and snacking.”
David’s motivation comes from the impact she’s making. An assistant custodian at the University of Delaware, she is one of several volunteers at Network Delaware, an advocacy group that helped push a resolution last December making the city of Newark a safe community for immigrants. The resolution declared Newark a “welcoming city” to everyone, regardless of immigration status.
For Jerika Diaz, 29, volunteering brings a healthy balance to her life. An assistant manager at DT Bank in Wilmington, Diaz, for the past seven years, has volunteered for the bank’s financial literacy program, teaching students in grades K-12. She also volunteers for ASPIRA, a non-profit organization that helps Latino students move beyond a high school education to college.
“Volunteering gives me a sense of satisfaction,” says Diaz. “It truly makes me happy to know that I’m giving back. Every time I volunteer I am reminded as to why I do what I do and that is to change, transform, and ignite life into those who will allow me to.”
Hamid Hazartouz, 56, spends much of his spare time cleaning up the Washington Heights neighborhood of Wilmington. “It helps me to surround myself with beauty,” says Hazartouz. “Cleaning a neighborhood maximizes that beauty and feeling for me. I feel I’m an artist creating something that’s beautiful.”
For the past seven years, on Tuesday afternoons, the avid gardener and his friend, Stanley Sharp, arm themselves with grocery plastic bags and trash pickers to tackle soda cans, cigarette packs and other
debris from the streets. The two volunteer in the neighborhood association’s clean- up and beautification committee. Hazartouz, an Iranian native and credit analyst at JPMorgan Chase in Wilmington, bought his first home in the neighborhood. He says volunteering gives him renewed motivation and creativity, making him—you guessed it—happier.
WAYS TO VOLUNTEER
In Delaware there are numerous volunteer opportunities.