A year ago, I retired from a magazine job I’d held for ten years to see if I could offer more-direct service to people. From January until October I worked at a quasi-public agency that allowed me to connect a bit with lower-income clients. But I wanted to focus more.
What I really wanted to do was to help refugees and other immigrants learn English. So after getting my feet wet in the refugee world as a volunteer blogger for one nonprofit, I retired completely and started to volunteer at three other agencies. So far, it’s tremendously satisfying.
It took a while to set this up, however. It turns out that although most nonprofits need help, few have the infrastructure to move volunteers smoothly into useful roles.
Organizations I reached out to in Massachusetts didn’t respond, and getting a response in Rhode Island required contacting the leadership. Understandably, they then had to take the time to assess whether I had shown any previous interest in helping immigrants with English. (I had life experiences and volunteering that related, but for work that was exactly the same as what I wanted to do, I could claim only a few hours on a United Way Community Care Day.)
The largest organization, an official resettlement agency, wanted to see if I could be empathetic to frustrated adult learners who might have been accomplished in their home countries and were now starting from scratch with a whole new alphabet. And they needed to evaluate whether as an unpaid person I would show up consistently.
Their schedules weren’t necessarily my ideal schedule, but I finally cobbled something together that keeps me busy two and a half days a week.
I definitely had to talk some people into it. At one place where I now volunteer two mornings a week, the teacher hadn’t answered the email I sent after the volunteer coordinator gave it to me. I tried again. She then responded that she had enough volunteers but I could come observe. So I showed up. And stayed. Believe me, she has really needed me with her large class of immigrants, many of whom arrived only months ago from the Congo or Syria.
One aspect of the work that has been particularly interesting has been comparing three different organizations and three different approaches to teaching English. The differences relate in part to students’ different levels of English. In addition to those who have just arrived, there are people who may have been in Providence many years but could function just fine using Spanish. There are others who had no schooling as children and may turn written pages upside down.
I am learning, meeting new people, and having new experiences, which I love. I love seeing someone’s face light up when they suddenly “get it.” I love feeling like this work is important.
Many people I know are asking themselves lately, “What can I do?” There are needs out there in many different fields of interest. I think all the seekers will eventually find the right thing. It may take a while to put it together.
Photo: Genesis Center
Immigrants having fun with learning at Genesis Center in Providence.