I volunteer a great deal of time through the Staten Island Giving Circle, which I founded in 2008. Literacy is an issue for all generations; we address it from many different angles.
Empathy’s almost always been part of my life. When I was in school in upstate New York in the 1950s, some of my classmates lived in the county Children’s Home. I made it my mission to include them in conversation and play. All these years later, my desire to help others hinges on this early school experience.
As the years progressed, I noticed many people didn’t read books. There were many reasons that books weren’t a priority: Many children had no way to travel “downtown” to the library and no one at home urging them to read. And the adults who hid their illiteracy did so because they were too busy or embarrassed. The longer these problems lingered, the less inclined people were to catch up. Today, I focus on literacy because it is truly the base of all life activities.
Reading is normally passed onto children by the adults in their lives. But reading challenges can be passed along from one generation to the next, too.
I knew I wanted to work with people unable to read and write once I retired. The first organization I joined offered a volunteer reading program in local schools. After the two-day training, I was assigned to a grammar school right around the corner from my home. I loved every moment of the five years I spent in this program. A good day was when a child was engaged enough to ask questions or trace the words on the page with a fingertip. I had one little boy who was just “all over the place”; I used my hands like a horse’s blinders and told him the most important word he could remember was concentrate. Well, every time he entered the reading area after that, he’d say, “Mrs. Evelyn, I am concentrating.” From there, we were off and running.
Later, I was dismayed to learn that my husband’s mother, an immigrant from Czechoslovakia, couldn’t read or write. The whole family hid the deficit. I didn’t know until Mrs. K asked me to write a note for her on a wedding card. Her inability to read left her totally dependent on others. But my mother-in-law is far from alone; many people pretend they can read, or hide their inability from others.
Volunteering helps the child and is very gratifying for the volunteer. Anyone who helps someone else read has done something to improve the human condition.
Today, as leader of the Staten Island Giving Circle, I act on my passion for literacy in a number of ways. We host bi-monthly birthday parties for the children in our community shelter; along with other gifts, they all get a birthday book. Backpacks for homeless adults include a comic book, as well as hygiene products. For seniors, we built and maintain a lending library at a big senior residence and pass along magazines and gently-used books to local nursing homes. We send boxes of paperback books to the military. And most recently, we have begun planting small, free “libraries” on street corners, where books can be taken, returned and replaced.