Several years ago — emerging from a rather bad patch — I started exploring volunteering possibilities. Friends told me about Literacy Volunteers of Santa Fe, and thus began one of the most rewarding chapters of my life.
Shortly after signing up as a tutor and completing my short training, I was introduced to my first student, Emma. Not long before, she had driven up from Mexico with her family. With very little English, she had bravely enrolled in the community college’s Associate of Arts program and now needed help writing her papers and learning to have confidence to speak in class. I have never met a person with as much drive and ambition … and facing such odds.
She and I were together for three years. I saw her receive that associate degree, as well as move up the ranks at her employment. She is now earning her bachelor’s degree online and has become an excellent public speaker. She has no fears about taking on new challenges and recently embarked on writing a memoir.
Of her tutoring experience, she said recently, “Literacy Volunteers helped me start a new life for myself and my family, and I encourage anyone to get involved — to learn, to teach. …”
Through her stories, I learned of the many indignities that people struggling to learn English endure. Rudeness on the job, being ignored in stores, not being heard by their children’s teachers, being overlooked for promotion.
Although students’ needs are different, all who come looking for help from Literacy Volunteers have one thing in common: They want to improve their lives by learning to speak, read and write better English. Many study to become citizens and some are dealing with basic illiteracy. They do this on their own time — juggling family responsibilities as well as holding two or three — yes, three — part-time jobs.
To be a tutor, all you need is to be literate in English. You do not need to speak a second language. You do not need a college degree. You do not have to pay for any supplies. And you don’t need any teaching experience.
Tutoring can often be done at your convenience. I’ve done it in the children’s room of the Main Library, in a classroom at the college, in a coffeehouse, sitting on a bench in Cathedral Park and in a hotel’s cafe. I’ve tutored on Saturday mornings, in the evenings and in the afternoon.
Workbooks are available, but you can create your own program depending on your student’s needs. One of my students — a young chef whose conversational English was fine — wanted to be able to read a newspaper and “big books.”
We would meet over a cappuccino, read the front page of The New Mexican and then head to the library. Over the next several months, he finished Last of the Mohicans and Call of the Wild.
Another group of students — saleswomen in a fashionable store near the Plaza — met me during their lunch hour, bringing with them examples of conversations with fast-talking customers that had not gone well. After a year or so of our get-togethers, one of them said to me that she was much more comfortable approaching a customer and asking, “How can I help you?” She was confident that she would understand the answer.
I encourage anyone who is interested in spending a couple of hours a week to make a big difference in someone’s life to look into Literacy Volunteers. Tutor training is coming up later this month and early March. Call 428-1353 or go to www.LVSF.org/tutors.
Linda Osborne is a somewhat retired freelance writer and a former insurance executive from San Francisco. She has lived in Santa Fe since 1998.