The Joy of Being an Adult Literacy Volunteer
Larry Conley, Volunteer

Eight years. It sounds like a long time, but it doesn’t feel that way. Instead, my eight years as an adult literacy volunteer seem to have flown by, a joyful, life-enriching experience.

That’s due, of course, primarily to the students. In eight years, I’ve met dozens of students from a variety of backgrounds and nationalities. I’ve been inspired by their determination and courage, and rejoiced at their victories.

One student was so unsure of her reading that it was difficult to get her to speak in class above a whisper. But just a few months later, her confidence had grown so much that she wrote and delivered a speech before an audience.

Another student, who had been in my class and had since begun working with a tutor, stopped me on my way into class one day. “I wanna read my homework,” she said, proceeding to read aloud a four-sentence paragraph. When she looked up at me, smiling broadly, I don’t know which of us was prouder.

I feel privileged to have played my small part in such students’ triumphs. What I have gained, though, is perhaps even greater.

At the beginning of this year, I was tidying up some files from my current work with ESL students. I realized that in just one month, January, I had direct, personal interaction — extensive discussion and exchange — with people from 13 countries: China, Nigeria, Japan, Venezuela, Ecuador, El Salvador, Korea, Brazil, Argentina, Congo, Guinea, Turkey, Morocco. How many jobs, paid or unpaid, provide you with that kind of opportunity?

Another joy has been working and interacting with other volunteers. Their dedication, talent and caring constantly awes and humbles me. They don’t see themselves as heroes or saints or any of that guff. They’re just good people who want to help. I’m honored to be among their number.

Last, but certainly not least, are the staff of Literacy Action. They’re the professionals who devote their working hours to helping students improve not only their reading, but also their lives. Those “working hours” often stretch, evidenced by the weekend and late-night emails I get. I’m grateful for the staff’s invaluable guidance and support during this journey.

A few years ago, when I was helping train new volunteers, I would give them a pep talk. The precise wording varied, but it usually included some version of, “This is the best job you’ll ever have.” I still feel the same.