District 518 column: Volunteers through VISTA
WORTHINGTON -- What does volunteerism have to do with country, mom and apple pie? Nothing officially. Nevertheless, many people might suggest that the spirit of volunteering is an American value worthy of being placed in the same league as the af...
WORTHINGTON -- What does volunteerism have to do with country, mom and apple pie? Nothing officially. Nevertheless, many people might suggest that the spirit of volunteering is an American value worthy of being placed in the same league as the aforementioned items. Examples of volunteerism can be traced all the way back to the American Revolutionary War and before. Today, we have all come to recognize the invaluable contributions made by individuals who donate their time and talents in the service of others -- whether going to a foreign country as part of a church mission group, volunteering to assist a local organization with a community project, or helping a neighbor with a household chore.
The school district's Adult Basic Education (ABE) teaching staff has likewise developed a deep appreciation for the significant role played by volunteer tutors -- people who assist other adults in improving their basic literacy skills. Currently, we have a handful of committed individuals who donate their services on a regular basis. In some ways, these tutors can have a greater impact on students' learning than the program's licensed teachers. Because of our large class sizes, the tutors can provide the adults with more one-on-one instruction to address the students' unique learning needs, especially those functioning at lower skill levels. In the process, the volunteers are also able to connect personally with the students, establishing a rapport which further promotes a favorable learning environment.
Over the years, we have considered expanding the use of volunteer tutors, but our limited resources have precluded this from happening. The staffs' full teaching schedules do not allow them to commit the needed time and energy to organize a comprehensive volunteer literacy tutor program.
To overcome this programming barrier and to better meet the needs of our 800-plus ABE students, we recently applied to have a VISTA worker assigned to our organization. The Minnesota Literacy Council announced this past week that our request had been granted and that we would be eligible to secure the services of a qualified VISTA worker for up to three years to do precisely what we had proposed in our workplan -- to recruit and train volunteer tutors. We expect to roll this initiative out sometime next fall.
Many of the adults in need of tutoring are immigrants who have come to this country in search of a better life for themselves and their families, just as many of our ancestors did a few generations ago. I remember hearing of my Italian grandparents' struggles to learn English by attending "night school" after they settled in northern Minnesota to work in the iron mines.
If the idea of helping local adults improve their basic literacy skills appeals to you, you can become involved in one of two different ways. The most obvious would be to become a volunteer tutor. You would receive tutor training before being assigned to work with students, and you would decide how much time you could commit to this activity.
Now for the less obvious. You could apply to become the VISTA worker who will actually lead the development of the tutoring program. VISTA is the domestic version of its more well-known overseas counterpart, the Peace Corps. VISTA workers sign up for a one-year commitment to help local communities build their capacities in some targeted area. For their work, VISTA members earn a monthly stipend and they receive valuable training and work experience. Upon the successful completion of their yearlong assignment, they also qualify to receive a special cash bonus or an education tuition certificate.
If you truly value your country, mom and apple pie, give volunteerism a try.
Jerry Fiola is District 518's continuing education director.