WORTHINGTON - If you’ve ever considered volunteering in a school but have hesitated because you lack a background in education, it’s time to rethink your position.

“Teaching is not a pre-requisite for volunteering,” assured Betty McAllister, a regular volunteer with the Southwest Adult Basic Education (ABE) program in Worthington.

“You just need to like people, know how to read yourself and be willing to help people learn English.

“Any necessary materials are provided for you, and the staff recommends what to do if you’re at all unsure.”

Although McAllister is a retired teacher and school administrator, she emphasizes that an open mind and patience are the two most valuable resources a volunteer can bring to the local ABE program. She’s spent about 90 minutes weekly for the past nine years assisting adult English language learners at the West Learning Center.

“The people working on building their English language skills are so appreciative that someone is willing to help them - and it’s a lot of fun, too,” attested McAllister.

Southwest ABE covers eight counties (Nobles, Rock, Jackson, Martin, Pipestone, Murray, Cottonwood and Watonwan), all of which Marty Olsen coordinates.

“We serve 900 students in the Worthington region - Nobles, Rock, Murray and Pipestone counties - and last year the Jackson region was added to our service area, and that involves another 300 students,” said Olsen, a 20-year adult education veteran.

Within the eight counties Olsen oversees are 20 certified ABE teachers. The program operates year-round, with classes beginning on weekdays at 8:45 a.m. and ending at 8 p.m.

“The class periods vary, depending on when rooms are available and scheduling allows, but they’re basically 90 to 120 minutes long, with students attending classes two to three times each week,” noted Olsen.

ABE includes not only English language instruction but also classes for those aiming to earn GEDs, gain U.S. citizenship or complete career pathway programs (for instance, to become Certified Nursing Assistants or achieve Community Interpreter Certification).

Volunteers like McAllister come into play because there aren’t enough teachers to go around for all the students when it comes to making time for one-on-one conversations in English, the real key for aiding beginning language learners in gaining confidence and building vocabulary.

“We have between 20 to 25 volunteers this school year, with about 10 of those being regular weekly volunteers,” said Olsen. “But some are snowbirds so they’re here only certain months of the year.

“Volunteers make it possible for teachers to allow certain students to be one-on-one with someone for 20 minutes to half an hour so they can practice reading out loud, speaking and making conversation.

“Students who get the chance to work with volunteers make more significant gains in their English language learning.”

McAllister, in turn, is impressed with the efforts put forth by ABE students, most of whom, being adults, have both jobs and families to contend with in addition to school.

“We see young men who’ve worked all night come to school in the morning, then go home to sleep and rest a while, then go back to work - and then return to school again,” said McAllister.

“It’s pretty amazing. And many women who attend want to learn English so they can help their children with homework. I think they have a lot of courage.”

Taking steps to learn a brand new language as an adult is admirable, McAllister and Olsen believe.

“It’s so fun working with students like these who really want to be here,” said Olsen. “They are so eager to learn and please their teacher, and they’re willing to work so hard.

“Many of them are also employed, and yet they make coming to class a priority - and when they’re in class, they’re respectful, eager and engaged.”

Added McAllister, I’ve been helping a 73-year-old Chinese woman who’s trying to learn English, and I can’t imagine myself trying to learn Chinese at this age.

“English is such an inconsistent language, with so many exceptions to the rules,” she continued, citing “I before e except after c,” homonyms and words like “to, too and two” or “it’s and its” - variations that hordes of native English speakers often misuse - as other examples of the challenges students face.

Because the adult English language learners have competing obligations, plus few chances to practice their conversational skills outside of school, McAllister said their progress isn’t always speedy.

“It can be slow, but as we build relationships and look back over time, you can see they’re doing better,” she said.

Pointed out Olsen, “One of my current employees was a student when I first came here, just starting to learn English, and she does a fantastic job.

“To see where she was then and where she is now - it’s terrific.”

Olsen also observed, “English language learning is an ongoing process. Some students stay with us for years, but others leave when they get jobs that don’t allow for their attendance.

“Our numbers have declined a little in the past few years as employment rates have risen. It’s great they’re working, but there’s less time for classes then.”

Olsen urges any interested person to consider joining McAllister and others in the ranks of the ABE volunteers.

“We’re always looking for more volunteers, and if you have even one hour a week when you could come in and spend time with one or two students - in conversation or listening to students read - that is helpful,” said Olsen.

“Or, for students working to prepare for their citizenship exams, you can quiz them on questions, or if you enjoy math, we can use people to work with students on GED math skills.”

Olsen and McAllister guarantee a volunteer’s modest investment of time and assistance pays off, both in terms of helping educate other adults in the community and as a gratifying experience for the volunteer.

Said Olsen, “This is a fun atmosphere to work in, really. Volunteers are invaluable to us.”

For more information about volunteering with Southwest ABE, contact literacy volunteer coordinator Carolina Contreras at 376-6105.