Adriana is a freelance journalist who has written for newspapers and magazines in California and Delaware. When not organizing programs for the Hispanic community for New Castle County Libraries she dances in the kitchen while cooking her favorite Latino dishes.
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.”
Isabel Hendrixson: A Caring Presence in the Final Moments
Seven years ago, Isabel Hendrixson was asked to volunteer for a job she thought she couldn’t possibly do.
For almost two decades, the 74-year-old has volunteered at local hospitals, greeting and directing patients, families, and visitors at the information desk, working at the gift shop, and helping coordinate hospital events. Yet when she was recruited for the No One Dies Alone program, the Wilmington resident felt unqualified.
An international program initiated by a nurse in Eugene, Ore., in 2001, and introduced at Christiana Care in 2010, NODA ensures that dying patients without loved ones close by do not die alone. These are patients who have out-lived loved ones or whose families and friends are geographically or emotionally distant and are unable or unwilling to be present. Most have 24-48 hours to live.
Hendrixson says that, at first, she wondered if her words and her touch would truly bring peace to the person. But time and again, when she entered the hospital room, something in her lit up and the doubts vanished.
“When you walk into that room, you’re a different person,” she says. “It’s no longer about you, but about the patient. You become very strong and you devote yourself to helping that person move on and be at peace.”
Although the patients are sedated, she learned during her three hours of training that hearing and touch are the last senses to go. From a bag provided by the hospital, she pulls out soothing CDs, and poetry and spiritual books to read, and she holds the patient’s hand.
In a journal that is available to family and friends, Hendrixson makes a record of her two-hour vigil, including any details about how the patient died, if that should happen during her shift.
Since joining the program, she has assisted more than 15 NODA patients. The youngest was in her teens, the oldest in his 90s.
Between one and three NODA patients die per month at Christiana Care, where there are 15 vigil volunteers, according to Margarita Rodriguez-Duffy, director of Visitor and Volunteer Services. “These extraordinary volunteers consider it a privilege to provide death with dignity to our patients,” says Rodriguez-Duffy.
Last October, Hendrixson, who retired from DuPont in 2002, received the Wilmington Award for her volunteer services at the former Riverside Hospital on Lea Boulevard, Wilmington Hospital and Christiana Care.
She says that although being part of NODA can be heart-wrenching, it’s also soul-filling. Every time you do something you think you can’t do, it builds your courage and confidence, making it easier to face life’s challenges, she says.
What’s more, she has learned through the program not to be afraid of death. “Death is part of life,” she says. “I’m glad I can help in some way.”
Gertrude and Tommy Abel: Every Christmas is a shopping spree—for others
Since 1992, Christmas for the Abel family of Greenville has not been the same. That year they refused to get consumed by the commercialism, the buying and taking, the accumulation of things.
Instead, on Christmas morning they delivered furniture, linens, toiletries, pots and pans, clothes, food and toys to a mother and her child who had moved into an apartment from a homeless shelter in Wilmington. The Ministry of Caring, which provides support services for those living in poverty, brought the two families together.
“It became a Christmas tradition,” says Gertrude Abel. “We wanted to give moms committed to getting out of poverty a boost, a little bit of help by saving them the expense of purchasing these items themselves. It made us happy to make someone else happy.”
Friends and family wanted to help too, so in 1994 they also began to donate.
Twenty-five years later, more than 250 mothers have received help through some 250 volunteers who take them on shopping sprees for the best deals at Kohl’s, Walmart or Target. About $700 is spent on each mother.
“Gert” Abel and her son, Tommy, made the Christmas tradition official in 2006 by creating the Clif Abel Children’s Fund in honor of their late husband and father, who died that year. Its purpose is to buy household items for mothers, under the guidance of the Ministry of Caring, who move out of shelters into rented apartments, and who typically hold jobs or are in job training programs.
The Abel family became acquainted with the Ministry of Caring because Clif Abel oversaw the building of the ministry’s first homeless shelter for women with children. The shelter opened in 1983 on North Jackson Street in Wilmington. Clif ran the construction department at MBNA, the bank formerly headquartered in Delaware.
Last year, the Abels changed the focus of the fund from a holiday shopping program to an all-year support effort. Says Tommy Abel, an entrepreneur and business owner: “Christmas tends to highlight an awareness of those who are less fortunate, but poverty is not a seasonal problem, it’s a year-round problem.”
In Delaware, 35,000 children live in poverty, according to data from the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Kids Count project. And a single mother heads about one in three families with young children.
Jennifer Treen, a 41-year-old with an 18-month-old son, says shopping with Gert Abel five months ago turned out to be more than a buying experience. “She’s the kind of person who will give you the shirt off her back,” says the Wilmington resident. “My mom passed away 17 years ago. It felt good to be with Gert; she reminded me how it is to be with family. I’m so grateful for what she did for me.”
Year round, the Abels buy sheets and towels for the Ministry of Caring women’s shelters, toys for the birthdays of children in the Ministry’s daycare centers, and bus passes to help the mothers get to job training programs. They also sponsor two scholarships a year to elementary students, one for St. Peter Cathedral School in Wilmington and another for Serviam Girls Academy in New Castle.
Jaron Johnson: Making a positive impact on city youth
Shooting hoops with friends from 8:30 in the morning until 10 at night at Kirkwood Park on East 11th Street was how 8-year-old Jaron Johnson escaped the daily struggles that awaited him at the front door of his house.
Johnson says he and his six friends were latch-key kids from single parent homes, “raising ourselves.” The 36-year-old, also known as Droop, a nickname his great-grandfather gave him because of the way Johnson’s clothes hang on his tall, slim frame, learned responsibility early. “My mom had two to three jobs raising two sons. She said to me, ‘you’re in charge.’ That’s a role that no kid should be put in.”
In need of direction, Johnson says he sought refuge at the Salvation Army on Fourth Street. There, mentors encouraged self-discipline and community service by introducing him to black community leaders.
Knowing the value of role models and how easy it is for kids to go astray in East Wilmington, where he has lived his whole life, Johnson founded Silk League in 2011. He and 25 volunteer coaches serve as mentors for the non-profit basketball league, which teaches players teamwork and discipline. Since its inception, Silk has grown from six to more than 300 kids ages 5-18 from throughout New Castle County.
The league is named in honor of Terry Alls, who grew up with Johnson. Alls was known as “Silk” for his smooth style on the basketball court. He died in 2003, at the age of 22, in a car accident. “It was a period of darkness,” says Johnson. “Our crew did everything together.”
Last month, the City of Wilmington gave Johnson the Wilmington Award for his community service and leadership.
“His impact is great,” says Councilman Va’Shun Turner. “He has league kids doing community clean-ups and feeding the homeless. Hopefully kids see what Droop has done in the past 10-15 years and say, ‘I want to do that, I want to give back to the community.’”
Silk held its first two fundraisers this year, but much of its support comes from Johnson, who donates two months of his income as a control specialist at Choctaw Kaul Distribution Co., in New Castle, to cover the cost of such things as jerseys and trophies.
“Currently we’re working on getting the league fully funded, but the majority of funding comes from myself and private donors,” he says.
After working a 5:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. shift, Johnson heads to Kirkwood Park, where he sets up, distributes uniforms, referees games, and cleans up the park before heading home around 9 p.m. He repeats this routine from May through August every weekday while keeping everything about the league 100 percent free to everyone.
Aurora Colin: Preserving Mexican culture through dance
Growing up in Mexico, Aurora Colin discovered her love of dancing at age 12. Performing in front of large crowds, she would twirl her colorful, layered red dress while her black shoes stomped to the rhythms of “El Jarabe Tapatio,” or, as it’s known in the U.S., “The Mexican Hat Dance.”
Now 44, Colin is still dancing. In 2014, she and Teresa Ayala founded Ballet Folklórico Mexico Lindo to stay in touch with the songs and culture of Mexico. The group started with six children and eight adults, and now numbers 47 people, ages 4 to 60.
The group gives Hispanic youth and their families a positive, creative outlet. They average about 30 performances a year at local churches, festivals, schools, and private parties, and have also performed in New York, Philadelphia and New Jersey. The group relies on donations from performances to help families purchase costumes, accessories, and dresses directly from Mexico.
Colin is an instructor as well as a dancer in the group. She studied dance at the Escuela Bellas Artes in Mexico City and performed throughout Mexico. She also worked as a school teacher in Mexico before moving to Delaware 15 years ago with her husband and her son. For the past 10 years, she has worked as a nanny in Wilmington, where she lives. Colin also offers free two-hour dance lessons every Wednesday and Friday at St. Paul’s Catholic Church in Wilmington.
Her son, Miguel, was a member of Folklórico Mexico Lindo before he moved to New York City to study political science at Columbia University. Her husband, Marco, is the group’s DJ.
Last year, the Delaware Hispanic Awards recognized Ballet Folklórico as the best folklórico dance group in Delaware.
When she was 17, Margaret Rivera volunteered to help a homebound child who was paralyzed from the neck down. Rivera massaged her hands, her feet, told her about school and read to her. More than five decades later, Rivera is still volunteering.
“It’s in my DNA,” says the Wilmington resident. “When growing up, I saw the challenges people have and I thought about how I can turn it around to help them solve it.”
Rivera, who retired last year from AstraZeneca as manager of Affirmative Action and EEO Compliance, received the 2013 Governor’s Outstanding Volunteer Award for Education, the 2010 AstraZeneca Jefferson Award for Public Services and the 2007 Governor’s Outstanding Volunteer Award for social/justice/advocacy.
The native of New Jersey is a founding member of ASPIRA of Delaware, a non-profit organization that helps Latino students move beyond a high school education to college. She also helped start Las Americas ASPIRA Academy Charter School, the first dual language school in Delaware. The K-8 school in Newark opened in 2011 with more than 300 students. (In Spanish, aspira means to aspire.) The national organization originated in New York in 1961.
Without ASPIRA, many students would not know what educational and financial options are available to them, Rivera says. She joined ASPIRA in 2003 when the Delaware organization was known as Friends of ASPIRA. Many Latino youths in the state were not pursuing college at all at that time, she says.
Due in part to ASPIRA, the dropout rate of Latino students is declining. According to the Delaware Department of Education, it went from 3.2 percent in the 2014-2015 school year to 2.2 percent in 2015-2016.
“I would not be where I am if it were not for Margaret Rivera,” says Maria Velasquez. Before meeting Rivera, the 27-year-old, who now lives in Philadelphia, never imagined attending an Ivy League university. Today she is a first-year MBA student at the University of Pennsylvania. “Margie encouraged me to apply,” she says.
To maximize its efforts, ASPIRA’s collaborators include community volunteers and institutions such as the Latin American Community Center, Girls Inc., Del Tech Community College and United Way.
Rivera remains on the ASPIRA board and volunteers as chair of the Development and Communications Committee. And she is still an advisor to students in the Saturday Academy program.