• Each semester:  30-40 hours of one-on-one tutoring provided to about 50 people in our community
  • Each week:  more than 25 classes offered on topics including Culture & Conversation, English for Doctor Visits, and Computer Skills for Grandparents Raising Grandchildren
  • Fee for services: low or none

When I first started working at the Mid-State Literacy Council in September 2019, I was curious about how this breadth of offerings could be accomplished year after year with a staff of only two full-time and a few part-time employees.  What soon became apparent was that the wellspring which fuels it all is an energetic army of devoted volunteers.

After a few weeks of leaving work each day uplifted by their friendliness and generosity, I decided to sit down with a few of them to ask why they decided to volunteer at Mid-State and what kept them coming back.  I found their stories to be as interesting and diverse as the students they teach.

Allyson Ray, for example, is a Molecular, Cellular, and Integrative Biosciences PhD student originally from Illinois who felt after her first semester at Penn State that she was too isolated in the campus bubble.  She wanted a way to participate meaningfully in the broader community. When she discovered Mid-State, she was excited to be able to use her academic talent to help someone else gain access to opportunities. 

I’ve been given a lot and now I can do a little bit to give back.

Over a two-year period, she has helped a student prepare for a critical ROTC exam, another work towards achieving a high-school equivalency credential, and yet another to practice for the US citizenship test.  She is inspired by their determination and says of one student—

She’s so hard-working and so I see how hard she’s working so it makes me want to work harder for her and then she says the same thing about me and then we’re crying and it’s great!

Similar sentiments were expressed by Lamees Eltohami, a freshman Computer Science major from outside of Philadelphia, who mentioned how hard her students work to improve their computer literacy.  Lamees came to Mid-State for a work-study position and decided to do some tutoring. She described working with an airport employee who felt like she was falling behind due to her slow typing speed.  With Lamees’s support and daily practice, the student’s typing speed improved significantly. Lamees shares in her sense of accomplishment:

I know it’s a small thing but it makes me so excited to think of all the possibilities that could come with that.  It makes me feel like I have a purpose. So, I love it.

Some bilingual volunteers find that volunteering with Mid-State gives them an important way to use their mother tongue in an environment where they wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity.  For example, Marinelle Azar, a Penn State junior preparing to apply for medical school, spent much of her childhood in Egypt. She uses Arabic as an invaluable teaching tool in helping her beginning-level English-language student from Saudi Arabia integrate into American society for the first time.

Another volunteer, Nina Petrillo, who has studied abroad herself, emphasized the close relationship she has developed with her Russian-speaking student over a period of three years and how it has been as valuable to her as it has been to her student–“She’s like a grandmother to me.”

[Volunteering here] has come to be probably the best part of my day.  I look forward to it every week and that’s why I keep coming back and keep asking for Galina because I love that we’ve built that relationship and I think that it’s really  strong and that’s something that’s important when you’re trying to learn a language because it can be scary.

Nina described the thrill she feels when Galina overcomes a learning obstacle, saying:

 It brightens my day!  I can’t help but jump up and give her high 5s!

With Nina’s help, Galina has gained the skills and confidence to interact more effortlessly with her English-speaking grandchildren and recently passed the US citizenship test.

After retiring about seven years ago from her 25-year career as an English teacher and principal in India, Ranjana Mathur sought a place where she could apply her professional skills but maintain the flexibility to travel and spend time with her extended family, including three children and six grandchildren.  After teaching classes here for almost four years, it appears that she has found it at Mid-State and is enjoying the new teaching setting:

I like to hear about other cultures, other countries…I like the atmosphere, I like the people here, and I have fun teaching.  I love to talk to people and here, everybody’s very warm and I can talk to everyone…

Similarly, Ann Echols, who holds a PhD in Strategic Management and taught in Penn State’s Smeal College of Business, finds it rewarding to contribute to an organization’s success without the pressure of a paid position.  As a new member of the Board of Directors, Ann’s main role is to ensure the long-term sustainability of the organization through sound investment of resources. She describes what motivates her in this way:

To know that we have the capacity to help people learn how to read…this is vital to their livelihood.  Think of the power that understanding the English language in America gives them. I mean—unbelievable!

She goes on to say:

We can’t leave our brothers and sisters in the dark!  I mean this is what we’re supposed to do…take care of each other.

And ‘take care of each other’ they do.  So, on behalf of Mid-State Literacy Council, heartfelt thanks to all of the volunteers for helping others in our community achieve their potential.  You are an inspiration.

By Erika Reutzel-Bechtel

Mid-State Literacy Council depends on the support of our community.