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.
Shawn Moran: Delivering meals and smiles for nearly three decades
During his 29 years as a volunteer for Meals On Wheels Delaware, Shawn Moran has not only delivered nutritious lunch-time meals to homebound seniors, he’s also made life a bit more pleasant for them.
“My smile may be the only one they see all day or all week,” says the 63-year-old Wilmington resident.
The people who rely on volunteers like Moran are seniors who want to remain in their own homes but are alone or disabled without anyone to prepare food for them or are unable to prepare a meal for themselves.
He is one of 800 on a rotation schedule who cover 65 delivery routes each weekday for City Fare, one of five meal delivery programs run by Meals On Wheels Delaware (MOWD). Last year, City Fare, which is based at St. Anthony’s Center in Wilmington, delivered about 300,000 meals throughout Wilmington and New Castle County. Statewide, the five programs delivered a total of 727,418 meals to 4,093 seniors ages 60 and over in 2016.
Moran’s employer, Patterson Schwartz Real Estate in Claymont, is part of a group of businesses that assist MOWD by allowing employees extra time during lunch breaks to deliver meals. Fourteen employees at his office participate in the program, although Moran has delivered meals longer than any of them.
One week a month he and his coworkers take turns delivering the meals. Moran usually goes on Mondays and takes any other day available during that week. He normally delivers to 12-22 seniors. “I love doing it,” he says. “I have no intention of stopping. It makes me feel good to be able to help.”
Moran first stops at the Claymont Senior Center to pick up coolers containing hot meals of fish or beef, fruit, veggies, milk and dessert. Then he heads to the communities of Bellefonte and Claymont, where he’s delivered meals since 1988.
Sometimes a visit turns out to be more than dropping off a meal. Moran has called 911 on two occasions, once when he found a woman at the bottom of the stairs with a broken leg, and another time when he discovered a woman with a compound fracture of her foot. He also checks simple things such as the heat or air conditioning. On a cold winter day, he bought a bag of salt and sprinkled it on a walkway at the home of a senior he delivered to. She thanked him with cookies.
“Volunteers are the heart of each (meal delivery) program,” says Anne Love, executive director of MOWD. “The nutritious meal, friendly volunteer visit and safety checks help our seniors cope with three of the biggest threats of aging: hunger, isolation, and loss of independence.”
More volunteers are desperately needed to deliver meals, especially in the Claymont and New Castle area, says Erica Porter Brown, project director for City Fare. “We are short each day about 15 routes.”
For Moran, volunteering is part of his life and something he looks forward to. “It’s an immediate impact that I don’t want to miss.”
Its link to Billy Penn is just part of the appeal of this quaint city on the banks of the Delaware River
Before he ever got to Philadelphia, William Penn slept in New Castle.
According to local legend, he spent his first night in the Americas on Oct. 27, 1682 in front of the fireplace on the second floor of what is now the Penn’s Place artisans’ collaborative.
Living in New Castle “fills your soul,” says Esther Lovlie, who owns Penn’s Place and sometimes acts as a barista at the Traders’ Cove café in the back. “To know that you get to be part of this story which is 300-plus years old is just amazing.”
Yes, this 3.2-square-mile city with 5,300 residents is all about history, and that history predates William Penn, going back to 1654, when the first Dutch settlers built Fort Casimir on the west bank of the Delaware River.
Whether a resident or visitor, anyone who walks on New Castle’s cobblestoned streets or sits on a bench in the shade of The Green or Battery Park can easily imagine that he or she is about to strike up a conversation with William Penn, or John Dickinson, or Gunning Bedford, or George Read II.
Or they might wind up talking about their dogs.
“Almost everybody has a dog,” says Russ Smith, a New Castle native who returned to the city three years ago as the first superintendent of the new First State National Historical Park. “When I came back, I got to thinking that everybody was issued a dog when they moved into town.”
Those dogs contribute to a sense of neighborliness that pervades the community. “If you think you’re walking your dog for 10 minutes, forget about that notion,” Lovlie says. “You’ll run into three or four people on your way, and after you catch up with what’s going on, it turns into a 40-minute walk.”
That’s a far cry from what Lovlie grew accustomed to while living in the Bear area for 10 years. “I knew my neighbors on either side,” she says, “but I didn’t know the rest of the community.”
New Castle, says Lauren Spinelli, owner of Hedge Apple Antiques, “is like Cheers. Everybody knows your name.” And she doesn’t even live in town.
“I’ve lived in other places, where you feel like you’re a number,” says Spinelli, a resident of Kennett Square, Pa., who spent a lot of time in Battery Park when she visited her grandparents in New Castle as a child. “It’s very quaint here. You don’t get that close-knit community feel anywhere else.”
It’s no accident then that the developers of the Town of Whitehall, the new community being built just south of the C&D Canal, tout New Castle as an example of the atmosphere they’re trying to create.
If you’re in New Castle, you’ve already got that atmosphere. As Lovlie puts it, “New Castle harkens back to the communities of years ago. . . and I think it represents the future of self-contained communities.”
Ask 34-year resident Linda Ratchford why the community is so close-knit and she says, “It’s because we are run by volunteers.”
Ratchford, as president of city council for the past three years, may rank near the top of the volunteer pyramid, but she has plenty of company. Volunteers serve on the 11 boards and committees listed on the city’s website, and then there’s the Goodwill Fire Company and a multitude of service and social clubs that pull residents together.
In a city steeped in history, the New Castle Historical Society plays a significant role. It manages two homes that serve as museums, the Dutch House and the Amstel House, as well as the Old Library Museum (temporarily closed for repairs).
The society recently moved into the 207-year-old Arsenal, originally a weapons storehouse and later, among other things, a school and a restaurant. Executive Director Dan Citron is overseeing conversion of the building into a visitors center that would also serve the other tourism-related entities in the city – the national park, the state (which operates the Old Courthouse that is part of the national park), and the Delaware Historical Society (which operates the George Read II House and Gardens on The Strand).
“Right now we’re mostly a gift shop, but we’ll look much more like a visitor center by spring,” Citron says.
Two other organizations—one relatively new and the other having roots that extend to William Penn’s days—provide even more glue to unify the city; both are involved in significant initiatives aimed at securing the city’s future by strengthening the links to its past.
The New Castle Community Partnership, successor to the Historic New Castle Alliance as the city’s affiliate with the national Main Street small town economic development program, has assumed a more active role managing special events and promoting tourism.
It has taken over operating the Wednesday night summer concerts in Battery Park and A Day in Old New Castle, the popular festival held on the third Saturday in May. The organization also has developed a sponsorship package that enables businesses to write one check a year to support multiple special events.
The partnership also took the lead in planning the installation of informative interpretive signage at 10 historic sites in the city. Smith, who retired from the National Park Service in December 2014, volunteered to prepare the text and find appropriate illustrations for the signs. The first three were erected this summer —at the site of Fort Casimir, near the ticket office for the New Castle and Frenchtown Railroad in Battery Park, and outside the Sheriff’s House, adjacent to the old Courthouse.
Final cost for the 10 signs will be $15,000 to $20,000, according to Laura Fontana, the Partnership president. The city will pay for two signs, the Trustees of the New Castle Common will pay for three, and sponsors are being solicited for the others, she says.
The Trustees, a nonprofit organization, were incorporated in 1764 and given the responsibility of preserving and protecting more than 1,000 acres of common lands in the city designated by a survey ordered by William Penn in 1704. Over the years, the Trustees have built and operated libraries, supported the fire company, purchased the land that makes up Battery Park and donated it to the city, and even operated New Castle’s public schools from the late 18th century until 1875. The organization now owns about 80 commercial, residential, agricultural and industrial properties in or near the city, including the New Castle Farmers Market, the Airport and Penn Mart shopping centers, the Centerpoint Industrial Park, and Historic Penn Farm. It uses its rent revenues on projects that benefit the city.
Two current projects—costing about $500,000—are key to making New Castle more hospitable to residents and visitors alike.
Just completed was a major drainage upgrade in Battery Park, with new storm-water piping installed underground. According to Trustee Chris Castagno, who also serves on the city’s Battery Park Committee, for years the park has been buffeted on two sides —by storm water runoff from nearby neighborhoods and tidal flows from the river during storms, leaving the park soaked with standing water long after bad weather has passed.
With the drainage project completed, the Trustees are moving ahead with a paved parking lot, with spaces for about 50 cars, on the edge of Battery Park and south of Delaware Street, the main road in the historic district. That new lot, according to Castagno and Ratchford, will provide additional parking for park users, employees of downtown shops and visitors to the First State National Historical Park.
The lot should be ready by the end of the year, which is also the target for completion of the $1.2 million state-funded project to rebuild the 170-foot-long pier at the foot of Delaware Street that had been destroyed by Superstorm Sandy in October 2012.
The rebuilt pier will serve as a reminder of New Castle’s maritime history. The city was a bustling port from Colonial times until the 1840s, when the development of rail lines between Philadelphia and Baltimore minimized the importance of the New Castle and Frenchtown Railroad, which was used to haul goods from the north end of the Chesapeake Bay to New Castle, where they would be shipped north to Philadelphia or south to other coastal ports, or to Europe.
Contemporary uses of the pier will be more modest. Ratchford hopes, in a couple of years, that there would be interest in a ferry or water taxi service linking New Castle with Wilmington, Delaware City, Fort DuPont and perhaps Pennsville, N. J. But, she adds, the pier will not have docking space for dayboaters, a concession to residents concerned about the prospect of riverside revelry akin to Canal Days in Chesapeake City, Md.
Reconstruction of the pier also will mean the return of the Kalmar Nyckel, the replica of the tall ship that brought the first European settlers to Wilmington in 1638.
Homeported in Wilmington, the sailing ship will likely make several visits to New Castle each year, for festivals, public sails and education programs, says Cathy Parsells, executive director of the Kalmar Nyckel Foundation.
“It’s a real positive for them,” Fontana says. “They’re excited to dock here. They can’t put their full sails up when they’re coming out of Wilmington. They’re too tall to go under the Delaware Memorial Bridge.”
It’s also a positive for tourism and one-day visitors.
“The ship’s education programs will bring people down here, and we’ll have more people coming to town to see it,” Fontana says.
Those visitors will see what Ratchford calls “a solid, stable downtown,” one that blends historic sites with a mix of antique and craft shops, art galleries and dining options but is a bit short on traditional neighborhood retail fare. There’s no pharmacy or hardware store on Delaware Street (but there is a Walgreen’s within walking distance) and residents are awaiting the expected opening this month of Mrs. Snyder’s Market Café, which will sell daily essentials like milk, bread and eggs in a setting that promises to be half coffee shop, half country market.
“I remember we used to go to the doctor in New Castle, but you don’t see any doctor’s offices anymore,” says Smith, a 1967 graduate of William Penn High School. “There was a movie theater too, but we’re not going to get a multiplex on Delaware Street. That’s a part of the town that’s gone.”
Among downtown businesses, at least one retailer from the 19th century endures. Bridgewater Jewelers, founded by James Bridgewater in 1883, is now in its fifth generation of family ownership.
“My father [Clay Bridgewater] learned hand-engraving, watch, jewelry and clock repairs, and was a silversmith too,” says owner Mary Lenhoff, the first woman to head the business. “When my father ran the store, I was everywhere, fixing things. I don’t have the patience to repair a watch, but I can size rings and repair jewelry.”
Lenhoff, who has run the business for 12 years, provides concierge service for her loyal customers, bringing jewelry and gifts for them to select at their home or office “if they can’t come to me,” she says.
She has a few ideas for new retail in the area. “I wouldn’t mind seeing resale shops. Vintage clothing might draw,” she says. “And my mother, who lives over the store, would like to see a little bake shop.”
There’s plenty of vintage material at 2nd Act Antiques, a collaborative of nine vendors, seven of them New Castle residents, in what was originally an opera house and, much later, a Wassam’s 5&10. Michelle Quaranta, who owns and operates the business, is a New Castle native who lives next door in the 196-year-old Van Dyke House.
“I brought my husband here on our first date. We went to Battery Park and Jessop’s Tavern,” she says. “We like it. It’s walkable, bikeable, and the arts are coming back.” They were married in the old Courthouse, conveniently located across the street.
A couple of doors down from 2nd Act is Penn’s Place, a collaborative where artisans sell purses, trays, trunks, equine art, jewelry and candles. Appropriately enough, Jean Norvell’s Bit of History gift shop occupies the second-floor space where William Penn is said to have spent his first night in New Castle.
Behind the artisans’ shops is the Trader’s Cove Café, a popular meeting place for locals, and behind that is The Muse @ Penn’s Place, a 25-seat cabaret where Lovlie serves up an eclectic mix of entertainment from 6 to 8 most Saturday nights.
“People come for a light dinner, beer and wine,” Lovlie says. “It’s great for couples with young kids who want to get home and get the kids to bed, or for older folks who want some entertainment but don’t want to be out all ours of the night.”
On Fridays, Lovlie serves wine, beer and cheese at 5 p.m., an informal happy hour warmup for people headed for a meal at the colonial-themed Jessop’s or Nora Lee’s French Quarter Bistro.
When it opens in October, Mrs. Snyder’s Market Café will be a complement to Trader’s Cove, not a competitor, proprietor Cathy Snyder says. “I’ll be doing more hot cooking” than at Trader’s Cove, she says.
Snyder, a veteran caterer who has operated several bakery and cookie shops in New Castle County since the 1980s, said she began visiting New Castle “years ago,” when she moved to Delaware from California.
“I love the place, the feel, the ambiance,” she says. Residents and business owners alike have been quite encouraging as she gets the café in shape. “They’re so helpful, so friendly, it’s ridiculous.”
Like many residents, Smith admits that “New Castle really has a hold on me. It’s a place sort of caught in time.”
And people like Castagno, from the Trustees of the New Castle Common, want that hold to endure.
“We’re only here for so many years,” he says. “Our job is to preserve it for the next round.”